On powerful knowledge and what it may look like in geography

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Some in education may be under the impression that our only role is to get students to pass examinations. Personally, I think that view is incorrect. Certainly in geography, and I believe in the wider curriculum, our job is to help young people change their world. Indeed, it was one of the original aims of Priory Geography that we established in 2008: ‘To inspire and show you how you can change your world.’ Crazy perhaps, bit I think vital.

Professor David Lambert first introduced me to the idea of powerful knowledge. This is knowledge not to simply pass an examination but to enable young people to engage in and be able to participate in the world around them. Writing this ten years later from the departure lounge of Gatwick airport, it rings true. Are we merely aiming to get young people through examinations, or are we enabling them to change the world? In my opening address at Southern Rocks last weekend, I repeated my belief that great teachers change the world.

Indeed. Teachers should be masters of pedagogy and cognitive science, but we must also be masters of our subject, and the powerful knowledge that it contains.

So, what is powerful knowledge and what does it look like in the geography currculum?

Powerful knowledge is defined by Michael Young as:

Powerful knowledge refers to what the knowledge can do or what intellectual power it gives to those who have access to it. Powerful knowledge provides more reliable explanations and new ways of thinking about the world and …can provide learners with a language for engaging in political, moral, and other kinds of debates (Young, 2008, p. 14).

As a geography I believe that I have a moral duty to ensure that the young people I teach can engage in the political debate around them. After all, from the redrawing of school catchment areas to housing planning to climate change, young people need to be able to decode and engage within the debate.

These are my musings, developed over the years and the calls to action are suggestions.

An article by Alaric Maude defines five types of powerful knowledge:

Type 1. Knowledge That Provides Students With ‘New Ways of Thinking About the World.’

This type of knowledge spans the major concepts in geography (and perhaps many other disciplines). It’s important because an understanding of these concepts not only unlocks access to the wider curriculum: they are often the golden thread that connects interconnects topics, places and issues but they may challenge a student to change their perception of the world and lead to them asking further questions about it.

Two good examples would be globalisation and sustainability. Both of these concepts I have introduced from Year 7, and in the case of urban morphology as early as Year 4. These issues run throughout geography and unlock understanding. Therefore, if introduced early and revisited constantly, not only do young people develop a firm understanding of the ideas but they are able to access issues such as coastal flood developments and the location of a new Amazon distribution centre more easily. Yes, they are tricky concepts, but we shouldn’t hide away from teaching them. These are the meta concepts: fundamental and so important to teach explicit: to break down and revisit and apply to many different domains.

This type of knowledge leads to better examination results as we teach the ‘geography gems’ that underpin the curriculum. For example, I have always taught development first at GCSE as it underpins much of what follows.

Action: Sit down as a curriculum team and identify the powerful concepts in your subject. Another example in geography would be the concept of place. This is a concept that a lay person would think of as simple, but developing a sense and understanding of place runs deeper than Alice’s rabbit hole.

Type 2. Knowledge That Provides Students with Powerful Ways of Analysing, Explaining and Understanding.

Within geography, the ability to quickly and accurately analyse and synthesise a wide range of data (and some huge data sets, like the census) is important. Therefore children should be exposed to and practice this skill weekly. The skills need to be explicitly taught as maths skills and understanding aren’t automatically transfered to geography lessons. In addition, they should always be taught within a rich geographical context and never in isolation.

Once familiar with this, young people should be taught to test assumptions and misconceptions, develop an hypothesis and start to make generalisations. Indeed, they should understand that scientific knowledge (including educational and cognitive research), develop a simplified view of the world in order to understand it. So, when teaching Burgess, expose young people to the process behind the grand theory so that may understand the limitations. A grand model is developed within geography to try to predict what will happen next and to have a planning application. Some knowledge is just there for the sake of it.  Doing so early in the curriculum will enable them to be more successful at A’Level and GCSE where generalisations and links to theory are important.

Action: Identify the grand theories in your subject. Understand them yourself and then see if you can share this knowledge with young people.

Type 3. Knowledge That Gives Students Some Power Over Their Own Knowledge.

We shouldn’t expect students to generate new knowledge but we should introduce them to ways in which they can expand their own knowledge independently. Not to pass examinations, but just in case they fancy changing their world. Without this knowledge, how will young people break free from the dominant sources of information in our society? I have to admit that a side effect of doing this is often challenge in the classroom of my assertions but, handled in the right way, these are to be welcomed and developed.

At the core of this type of knowledge is the ability to evaluate sources of information. This is crucial and not only includes internet research but also textbook and teacher musings (I say that as a textbook author and editor). Even Planet Earth an Attenbourgh presents a certain view of the Earth: it is not reality but a carefully selected and curated view of the world. It also keeps the ‘greenwashing’ teachers in check. Knowledge at the moment is our best view of the world and will change when it’s found to be incorrect. This goes for any subject discipline.

This type of knowledge, I believe, also extends to a young person’s view of themselves.

Action: Ask students ‘how do you know?’ and ‘could you prove that?’ often. Is their knowledge from personal bias or influenced by others? Remember, people’s perceptions of places and issues often conflict with the facts (just look at that famous bus brexit NHS claim or the fact that migration has a net benefit to the UK economy)

Type 4. Knowledge That Enables Young People to Follow and Participate in Debates on Significant Local, National and Global Issues.

This isn’t greenwashing but raising awareness of the world around them. Furthermore, get young people engaged in the political debate. For example, Jeff Stanfield taught me how to get primary aged children to participate un their local planning decisions. In the past we have engaged young people with speakers (tackling Lord Coe in the Copper Box arena and tweeting the FA around allegations).

This isn’t to say that we should force young people to engage, but give them the tools to. Take them to a local planning meeting around a massive housing development in their area, for example.

This can start by changing the school. For example, I’ll never forget the inspiring project where students found that 36 languages were spoken by the school community and yet the place only acknowledged English, students write a manifesto and met with the headteacher, Another example is where students co-created school policy around the use of technology or when they evaluated our schemes of work in partnership with teachers: understanding how knowledge is constructed is important.

Action:Have an image of the week and pose a question linked to local, regional, national and international issues and debates. Ensure that students have the knowledge of the mechanisms and organisations that lead to change.

Type 5. Knowledge of the World.

This powerful knowledge is all about opening up young people’s minds to knowledge beyond their normal experience. In geography, I refer to this as their ‘geographical backpack’: their experiences to date that shapes their view of the world. Developing this area of powerful knowledge requires a thorough understanding of each young persons and their existing knowledge. Then push it.

As a geographer, I’m used to doing this myself as I always teach about places and concepts that I have no experiences of. In terms of planning, teachers need to be aware of this and plan accordingly

Action: Identify the concepts and ideas that link to places and knowledge outside of a young person’s experience. Any idea linked to the diversity and difference around the world and where we are interconnected with the world counts. Discus how and when these can be taught.

In conclusion, I believe that we have a duty that lies not merely in getting young people to pass examinations but, in doing so, expose them to powerful knowledge that can help them change the world.


Alaric Maude. What is Powerful Knowledge and Can It Be Found in the Australian Geography Curriculum? https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1085994.pdf

Micheal Young, The curriculum and the entitlement to knowledge http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/166279-the-curriculum-and-the-entitlement-to-knowledge-prof-michael-young.pdf

Geography and Powerful Knowledge: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1485742/3/IRGEE%20EDITORIAL%20Vol%2025%20Issue%203%20Graves%2C%20Slater%20and%20Lambert.pdf

Image credit: Photo by Alex Block on Unsplash

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