Spotlight On: Powerful Knowledge

24 February 2023


This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News on Friday 24 February2023.

I clearly remember the moment, several years ago, when the fundamental importance of background knowledge was made apparent to me. My university degree had taught me some postmodern theory and the idea of cultural capital put forward by the grumpy white Frenchman, Pierre Bordieu. To my undergraduate self, this made patent sense. Wealthy people knew things, and perhaps knowing those things gave them status – a kind of circle of advantage. But this was not the ‘moment,’ merely a rite of passage for teachers of the humanities.

The moment came when I invited a speech and language pathologist to share her work with my teaching team several years ago. Rather than describe it, you can experience it yourself by reading what comes next.

Despite the multi-receiver sets, the spread option is a run-first scheme that requires a quarterback that is comfortable carrying the ball, a mobile offensive line that can effectively pull and trap, and receivers that can hold their blocks. Its essence is misdirection.

I’m willing to bet that you understand the meaning of every individual word. Not to be too gendered here, but I have only encountered one woman who could make sense of this passage. The importance of knowledge here is self-evident. We can take George Orwell’s Animal Farm as a quaint fable about fairness, or we can frontload the knowledge needed to understand the text as allegorical of the most violent ideological battle of the 20th Century, one that still shapes politics today. If we want our children to understand as much as possible about the world, we can't leave their acquisition of fundamental knowledge to chance.

According to Gough and Tunmer (1986), reading is the product of decoding and comprehension, and we know that anything multiplied by zero is necessarily zero. Most students, with good phonics instruction, can decode by the end of Stage 1. But from there, disadvantage makes itself known; students with strong background knowledge tend to fly ahead, leaving those with less behind. In education, there is a phenomenon, ‘the Matthew Effect’, that draws its name from Matthew 13:12 in the Bible: For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. In other words, when it comes to knowledge, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

So, what can we collectively do? In recent years, the phrase ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ has gained traction in education. While the Australian Curriculum and NSW syllabus set the direction for schools, there are opportunities within their bounds for teachers to make strategic choices, especially in the junior years and in English. Each unit of work represents an opportunity to lay knowledge foundations in the sciences and the humanities, and to provide opportunities for teaching our students more about the world. A case in point is in Year 10, where instead of reaching for Young Adult fiction that serves to simply engage students, we choose to study Jane Austen and interrogate what it meant to be a woman, and how much – or how little – progress has been made. 

The 1960s was a ‘progressive’ era of education, where teachers were encouraged to provide students with a ‘mirror’ so that they could frame the world through what they already knew. But more recently, sentiment has shifted towards the importance of education providing a ‘window,’ that will not only enable comprehension of texts across the curriculum but will expand students’ world view in an increasingly globalised society. Knowledge acquisition and application is a 21st century skill – and a 16th century skill, and even a 31st century BC skill!

We hear a lot in the media about schools leaving students unprepared for work, but less of the real nature of the knowledge economy that our girls will enter. The knowledge of those in the upper echelons can be described as T-shaped – their knowledge is both fluid and crystallised, with a wide base but also deep specialist understanding in a narrow area. This allows workers to collaborate and solve complex problems within and adjacent to their fields.

E.D. Hirsch writes about ‘cultural literacy,’ famously listing 5,000 facts that every American should know in order to be literate, by which he meant not just reading skill but capacity to participate fully in society. He has been accused of elitism and Eurocentrism, but the research into reading bears his views out. More than this, knowledge enables participation in the public sphere and the chance to engage fully in democracy. Women are still a minority group in many of these forums. This is why we leave no stone of knowledge unturned at Queenwood, providing an ambitious curriculum that will ensure our students have a seat at the table.