Functional Knowledge – points of reference

I had a great meeting this afternoon with Alison Wishart about A Curriculum for Excellence. In the course of a wide ranging discussion we explored Extreme Learning (we both agree that the term is not conducive to promoting teacher or parental confidence and should probably be replaced – probably on the 25th October).

I mentioned to Alison that I’d been speaking to colleague on Friday (Gavin Clark) about the need to balance the approach we are promoting within Extreme Learning with a need recognise the importance of knowledge.

We need to recognise that there will always be a need for knowledge which provides “points of reference” for our conversations, learning and understanding of the world. It’s not acceptable to say that “in the future we will be able to find everything out on the web”. Alison captured it perfectly when she sugested that just as there is a need for “Functional Literacy” and Functional numeracy” there is a need for “Functional knowledge”.

I’m currently reading a book lent to me by Ronnie Summers (HT Musselburgh Grammar) which traces the voyages of the Chinaese fleet in 1421 and the proposition that they were the first to circumnavigate the globe. The author – who was a naval sea captain and expert navigator – spends a great deal of time reinforcing the importance of the stars for navigation. In the Northern hemisphere they were able to navigate very well due the position of the Pole Star, However, in the Southern hemisphere they did not have similar fixed point so made many errors in their map making. My point is – how can people understand their own world unless they have fixed points upon which they can build upon?

There is a movement in the USA to promote core knowledge – which probably captures the idea of functional knowledge very well (although I think it presents its case as one sided argument for what the school curriculum should be).

This is something I played about with at Dunbar Grammar School but never got it off the ground. The idea was to ask each department to identify “core knowledge” from their subject area which they would see as being necessary for every child to know – regardless of whether or not the child was going to take their subject. The point would be to ensure that chidren reached a level of knowledge necessary to understand their world – it would not be about assessment for grading or selection purposes. Does this have any potential in helping us to declutter the curriculum?

I don’t see this notion of core knowledge as being opposed to the Extreme Learning approach, but rather that we seeing both at being ends of continuum of learning which children need to experience.