‘Powerful knowledge’, Media Studies and technology

What are the problems with theories of ‘powerful knowledge’, and how might they apply to teaching about (and with) media and technology?

Knowledge is one of the key buzzwords in contemporary educational debate. In the UK, writers as seemingly diverse as Frank Furedi, Michael Young, Daisy Christodoulou, Katharine Birbalsingh and Toby Young have all energetically promoted the idea of a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum, and argued for the teaching of ‘powerful knowledge’. It’s not hard to see why these ideas have appealed to Conservative education ministers like Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, with their predilection for teaching lists of the kings and queens of England.

Like other neoconservative arguments about education, this one appears to be based on two sets of questionable assumptions. First, there is a tendency towards binary thinking: knowledge is opposed to skills; curriculum is opposed to pedagogy; ‘powerful’ knowledge (deriving from established disciplines) is opposed to the knowledge that students bring from their out-of-school experience, which is deemed to be effectively ‘powerless’. Either we have truth and facts, or we have complete relativism. This frequently leads to a confrontational debate, in which empty slogans are used as blunt instruments.

Secondly, the argument is based on a particular version of history. In this account, generations of teachers have been misled, if not positively brainwashed, by educational ‘experts’, who are variously labelled as ‘Marxists’ and as ‘relativists’ (although it’s worth noting that Marx himself was far from relativist…). Somewhere along the way, knowledge apparently disappeared; and now it has to be recovered or restored. The evidence for such claims is exceptionally thin: the idea that teachers have simply swallowed ‘relativist’ views of knowledge, along with a kind of hippy, child-centred progressivism, is little more than a caricature.

Some of the inspiration for this argument comes from the work of the American scholar E.D. Hirsch, most recently the author of Why Knowledge Matters: Saving Our Children from Failed Educational Theories (2016). In this post, however, I want to consider some British arguments in this vein, and explore how they might apply to teaching about (and with) media and technology.

I have no space here to engage with the epistemological niceties of these arguments: much of the academic writing on the topic shoots off into an academic hyperspace that is well beyond the reach and patience of most practitioners. Michael Young’s Knowledge and the Future School and Frank Furedi’s Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating are probably the most accessible academic accounts; although more influential in terms of practice are books like Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education. Even more succinct versions can be found online in Young’s article for the Institute of Ideas publication Spiked; and in Toby Young’s symptomatically-titled pamphlet Prisoners of the Blob: Why most education experts are wrong about nearly everything, published by the right-wing think tank Civitas.

Despite the differences between them, all these writers make a fundamental distinction between academic knowledge and experience, or what we might call school knowledge and ‘out-of-school’ knowledge. The fundamental purpose of schooling, they argue, is to give children knowledge of things that lie beyond their direct experience, and which they might not otherwise encounter. While middle-class children are likely to engage with this ‘powerful’ knowledge at home, working-class children apparently do not; and educational ‘progressivists’ have effectively perpetuated inequalities by denying them access to it at school.

There are a great many problems with these arguments, but perhaps the most fundamental one is that this ‘powerful knowledge’ is so poorly defined. At some points, ‘powerful knowledge’ seems to refer to the knowledge that ‘powerful’ people possess; yet at others, the ‘power’ resides in the conceptual and intellectual value somehow inherent in particular ideas. (There might also conceivably be a kind of knowledge about power – that is, an understanding of how power operates within society – but I’ll come to that later.)

However, knowledge does not simply confer power in such a straightforward way. Different kinds of knowledge have different kinds and degrees of power in different social contexts, depending on how and why they are mobilized, and by whom. In order to account for this, we need to have a better analysis of power, not so much as a possession (as something you either have or don’t have) but as a matter of social relationships. To say as much is not to surrender to relativism, but rather to propose that the relation between knowledge and power is something that teachers and their students should comprehend.

The further problem here is the failure to specify which knowledge is particularly ‘powerful’. Authors like Frank Furedi and Michael Young are extremely reticent when it comes to giving concrete examples of the kinds of knowledge they believe have gone missing in education, and what should be restored. Young occasionally cites the natural sciences in this context; and one can imagine how this theory of knowledge might work when it comes to physics or mathematics (although I know that some would dispute this). But when we look beyond this, as John White suggests, things become much more difficult.

For example, both Young and Furedi are Professors of Sociology, so one might assume that they believe sociology to be a form of powerful knowledge – although curiously there’s little indication that they do. Are there perhaps particular aspects of sociology, or particular sociological concepts, that are more powerful than others? Which areas of study, and which theories, would be included in a ‘knowledge-rich’ sociology curriculum?

Once we begin to address the concrete task of selecting and designing a curriculum, it quickly becomes apparent that in most areas outside the natural sciences, what counts as ‘knowledge’ is highly contested. In the humanities and social sciences, knowledge is also particularly subject to change: new objects, methods and topics of study, and new concepts and theories, are inevitably arising all the time. ‘Disciplines’ are by no means fixed or even necessarily coherent. This is not to imply that any given selection of knowledge is merely arbitrary, or that it doesn’t matter what we choose. But it is surely a more complex matter than being either ‘pro-knowledge’ or ‘anti-knowledge’, or in favour of ‘disciplines’ or ‘subjects’, or against them, as these authors imply.

This failure to define leaves the road clear for others who are much less reluctant to do so – for E.D. Hirsch with his lists of facts, and for Conservative Ministers with their kings and queens, obscure grammatical terminology and antiquated collections of nineteenth-century literature. Michael Young has tried to distance himself from such approaches, but it’s far from clear what he is proposing in their place. For several of the academic writers, ‘social realism’ seems to provide a theoretical get-out-of-jail-free card; but in practice, ‘powerful knowledge’ typically comes back down to antiquated versions of established academic disciplines, and (when it comes to culture) to fixed ideas about ‘the best that has been thought and said’.

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In order to push this a little further, let’s consider a provocation. Is Media Studies powerful knowledge? I have no doubt that the writers I have mentioned would consider Media Studies to be the exact opposite of the kind of knowledge they are keen to promote – although equally I doubt that any of them would have much idea of what it actually involves. The idea that children should be encouraged to share their knowledge of trivia such as media and popular culture would surely be anathema to the likes of Toby Young or E.D. Hirsch. It is explicitly rejected by Katharine Birbalsingh and her colleagues, who see popular music and social media as harmful influences that need to be strictly policed.

It’s not my intention here to mount yet another defence of Media Studies. On the contrary, I want to use Media Studies as an example, in order to explore some of the broader limitations of these ideas about ‘powerful knowledge’ and the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum.

It would certainly be possible to take Michael Young’s very generalised descriptions of the characteristics of powerful knowledge, and make a case for Media Studies in precisely those terms (although I’m quite sure he wouldn’t like me to). As it’s taught in UK schools, Media Studies has a very explicit conceptual framework, which becomes increasingly intellectually challenging as students proceed. It includes facts and knowledge about some of the most powerful institutions in our society. It provides students with systematic instruction in rigorous methods of academic analysis, and it enables them to use means of communication that are employed extensively by powerful groups and institutions. Students in the top two years of high school explicitly engage with academic theory, some of which is exceptionally complex (although there’s another discussion to be had about how the government wants them to do this…). While Media Studies might seem dangerously new-fangled to some (after all, research about the media has only been going on for about ninety years…), it draws upon theories and methods developed in other disciplines, including economics, sociology, linguistics and literary studies. On this basis, one could make the argument that Media Studies is not just powerful, but positively superpowered.

However, there are some problems here. Media Studies is not just a social science subject, but also an arts subject: like English, Art and Music, it’s partly concerned with aesthetic experience. As I’ve suggested, Young and others make a very strong categorical distinction between knowledge and experience: knowledge is hard, rigorous stuff, while experience is limited and prone to error. Only the former is ‘powerful’. Yet as John White points out, it’s hard to see how any arts subjects would be included in this narrow view of ‘powerful knowledge’. To be sure, Media Studies is partly about analysing and conceptualising aesthetic experience; but it’s impossible to do this without the experience itself. And to some extent, Media Studies is also about extending the range of aesthetic experiences students have – exposing them to media texts that they would be less likely to encounter outside school.

There’s a further problem here, because media education also brings another kind of knowledge into play – that is, students’ existing knowledge, which they develop through their experiences of media outside the classroom. Yet rather than seeing this everyday knowledge as somehow automatically distinct from, and opposed to, academic knowledge, media education works with both. Everyday knowledge is recognised as a legitimate form of knowledge in its own right, but also as a resource to be used in the classroom. Everyday knowledge is not simply celebrated, but critically interrogated and extended through the encounter with academic knowledge.

This approach provides a clearly defined role for teaching – and indeed, for instruction. Teachers provide new knowledge, which children don’t necessarily encounter in their everyday use of media (for example, by teaching about the economic and political dimensions of the media industries). They also enable students to critically analyse their own and others’ interpretations and uses of media, using a range of methodologies. The aim here is to ‘make the familiar strange’ – to analyse and to question everyday experience, and thereby to show how it could be otherwise. From this perspective, media education is definitely not about ‘leaving kids where they already are’, as its critics sometimes allege. It is about knowledge and experience, and the dynamic relationship between them.

Many years ago, I began to make use of the work of the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky in order to understand this interaction between academic and everyday knowledge: I won’t go into this here, but there’s a brief account (with some specific classroom examples) in Chapter 9 of my book Media Education. This approach takes us well beyond the simplistic dichotomy between ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ pedagogy that is routinely rehearsed by neoconservatives. Vygotsky is equally critical of ‘discovery learning’ and of the idea of teaching as a simple matter of ‘transmitting facts’; and he offers a much more nuanced account both of learning and of knowledge. Unlike the enthusiasts for ‘powerful knowledge’, I don’t believe that we should separate questions about pedagogy and learning from those about knowledge. We cannot talk about teaching without also talking about learning; we cannot talk about knowledge without talking about how we come to know, and what knowing means.

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There is a further challenge here as well. How are educators to address the changing ways in which information is now being produced and circulated – particularly through digital media? Katharine Birbalsingh and her colleagues seem to regard digital media as the hounds baying at the gate: they are an aspect of young people’s everyday culture that has to be rigorously excluded from the school. One of Daisy Christodoulou’s seven ‘myths’ is the claim that knowledge is no longer relevant because students can simply look things up online – although her assertion that this is a widely shared belief is certainly very questionable.

As ever, these neoconservative arguments polarise the issues in a profoundly unhelpful way. Readers of this blog, and of my other work, will know that I am very far from being an uncritical celebrant in the cult of educational technology. ‘Googling’ information is not learning; access to information does not necessarily result in knowledge. While some early enthusiasts claimed that the internet would eventually make school itself redundant, it quickly became apparent that the issue was much more complex. As well as teaching students how to find information, we also needed to teach them how to evaluate and understand it.

Lest this be confused with some kind of generic ‘critical thinking’ – a term that attracts considerable contempt among neoconservatives – it’s important to explain what it means. For example, when looking for information online about the current pandemic, students would be very likely to come across various forms of misinformation. The internet – and indeed, the traditional news media – are full of bizarre conspiracy theories, as well as some very partial accounts of the origins and treatment of the virus. And this isn’t just about media: politicians and experts of various kinds are also promoting some very contradictory and misleading accounts.

Advocates of media or digital literacy have identified several ways of assessing the credibility and reliability of such material. For example, we need to look at who is producing and circulating it, and their broader political and economic motivations; we need to track back, in order to explore their sources of evidence, and compare with other sources; we need to analyse the kinds of visual and verbal ‘language’ that are being used to persuade us; and so on. These are analytical skills that apply across the range of media; but they also require forms of knowledge, not least about how the internet works, both technically and economically. This kind of interrogation of information – and of how ‘knowledge claims’ are made – is familiar ground for media education, of course. It could be argued that that media education is a special case in this respect (as Steve Connolly has recently suggested); although I would see this kind of questioning as something that is increasingly necessary in other curriculum areas as well.

Of course, assessing the credibility of knowledge claims obviously requires us to know things about the topic at hand: it has to be about the content, not only about the form. We need to assess the plausibility of such material, by comparison with what we already know and what else we can find out. And in order to do so in this case, we need some scientific knowledge, for example about viruses and vaccines; and we need to know about the bigger social and political forces that might be driving people to circulate misinformation in the first place. The point here is that this requires both generic skills and knowledge: it’s not a matter of either/or.

As this implies, notions like information, knowledge and truth are becoming increasingly problematic. As I’ve argued before, the claim that we live in a ‘post-truth’ age is overstated; but it does point to a problem that educators ignore at their peril – and the ‘infodemic’ we are currently enduring is a very dramatic manifestation of this. This is not in any way to imply that knowledge is somehow superfluous, or alternatively that we can simply ‘Google it’; but it is to recognise that we live in a time where the sources of knowledge and information are proliferating and becoming ever more diverse. Established forms of authority and legitimacy – and the knowledge claims they make possible – are under threat as never before.

We can lock the school gates and try to pretend that this isn’t happening; and we can look to ‘powerful knowledge’ and traditional disciplines as a kind of antidote. But unless we actively enable young people to analyse and understand the changing information environment that they encounter outside school, we will be on a hiding to nothing.