Powerful Knowledge and Educational Inequality
Powerful knowledge is an important idea in the modern educational discussion, focusing on the question of how different styles of education and different courses of study serve students in different ways, preparing some for positions of importance and leadership, and miring others in a perpetuating cycle of working-class, and often poverty-level, existence. It is clear, from an observation of how the educational system is currently working in Australia, that there is a significant level of inequality in what students learn between the vocational-oriented competency-based training, or CBT, institutions and the higher-education institutions, which leads to an inequality in future opportunities for the students, and even finally to an inequality in the ability of these students, in their adult lives, to engage in the important conversations of their democratic society and even to participate in the political activities of their country as citizens. In this literature review, I examine the implications of powerful knowledge and vocationally-oriented education in Australia and propose solutions to the problem of educational inequality based on powerful knowledge. In conducting this literature review, I collected sources pertinent to the subject, first from the class readings, and then from my own searches on the topic, to ensure objectivity and to obtain information about current statistics in Australian education. Except where I was looking for historical data, sources were generally from 2000 and later
Powerful knowledge is, simply put, the knowledge that is required to be able to have power (Young & Muller, 2010). Powerful knowledge “is the knowledge needed to progress in the world but also that least likely to be discovered outside of school for those from disadvantaged backgrounds” (Whitty, 2010, p. 32) (p 32). There are different bodies of powerful knowledge in the different disciplines, and then there is a generally accepted overall powerful knowledge, which is used to demonstrate to people from widespread disciplines that an individual has the capability of thinking clearly and logically, communicating effectively, and other important qualities for effective leadership (Beck, 2013). Even before powerful knowledge became a concept as such in education, the idea of norms without with students would not be able to get a job or would not have credibility in their fields permeated education, and provided the conceptual basis by which teachers ruthlessly eradicated grammatical anomalies from their classrooms and enforced normative, middle-class speech patterns under the assumption that speaking with lower-class dialects would make students sound uncouth and uneducated (Ogbu, 1995). Powerful knowledge goes far beyond simple normative grammar usage, however, and includes a host of thought patterns which indicate rigor of intellectual thought, such as knowledge of testing methods. It is knowledge that enables individuals to think critically and systematically, learn new subjects and comprehend them, understand logical rigor and fallacies and experimental methods for proving unsubstantiated claims (Beck, 2013). But how does this lead to educational inequality…
Particular powerful knowledge is determined by each discipline (Green, 2010). Some disciplines have powerful knowledge that is highly specialized and inaccessible to individuals outside that academic discipline. This powerful knowledge is called esoteric knowledge (Beck, 2013). Esoteric knowledge is powerful knowledge that is so discipline-specific as to be inaccessible to anyone outside of that discipline. Scientific fields are this way, with a specific vocabulary and knowledge base that is not used outside the field. There is an initiation required for an esoteric knowledge field (ibid).
Knowledge of the powerful is knowledge of the ruling class; that is, the ideas they think about and consider important (Beck, 2013). It is whatever topics make up the compelling conversations of the day: capitalism versus socialism, universal human rights, pacifism versus imperial militarism, etc.. There is a strong connection between knowledge of the powerful and powerful knowledge, a) because the powerful people are often rigorously schooled in powerful knowledge, and b) because the discussions in the knowledge of the powerful often use powerful knowledge paradigms, without understanding which it is oftentimes impossible to engage in the discussion. However they are related, they are not the same thing (ibid). The connection between knowledge of the powerful and powerful knowledge goes a long way toward explaining the phenomenon that political debates are often divided along class lines, with more educated people tending toward one side of the debate and less educated people tending toward the other (Rose, 2000).
Powerful knowledge and knowledge of the powerful are concepts that exist within the framework of critical realism. Critical realism is a framework of viewing the society as a whole, with knowledge and norms outside of the viewer and even outside of the individual member of society. Essentially, from a critical realist point of view, curriculum development must take into account the “big picture” in order to serve the total needs of society (Priestley, 2011). Critical realism is closely connected to the idea of inequality in education as related to powerful knowledge. As Michael F.D. Young said, the knowledge issue is both an epistemological issue and a social justice issue, because those kids who don’t get to university often don’t get access to what I call powerful knowledge and they are the people who need it most, because they’re going to ﬁnd life really tough without it (quoted in Whitty, 2010, p. 31). Is this an argument in favor of educational inequality…
Within the discussion of how education happens in light of powerful knowledge theory, there are further concepts to be defined. The classification of knowledge refers to how students view the knowledge that is available to them. For instance, school subjects are often separated from information gained at home and from each other, so that math, science, English, and history classes often have nothing to do with each other in a student’s school experience. As Bernstein explains it, “Classification reflects the distribution of power and the principles by which boundaries are established between categories. Strong classification is underpinned by the rule that ‘things must be kept apart.’ Weak classification is underpinned by the rule that ‘things must be brought together’” (Whitty, 2010, p. 36). Thus curricula that focus on integration between subjects and curricula that aim at bringing students’ home experiences into the classroom as a basis of reference are weak classification curricula, while curricula that separate out subjects and focus only on the things that are supposed to be learned in any given lesson (without reference to students’ extracurricular experiences) are strong classification curricula. Subjects that are heaviest in powerful knowledge tend to be the most strongly classified, and subjects that depend on esoteric knowledge are almost exclusively strongly classified. That is, there is usually quite a bit of overlap between elementary social studies and students’ home lives, but there is not likely to be much overlap at all between calculus and a student’s everyday life.
Framing is the way in which the material is presented and the methods of student engagement in the literature: “Framing, on the other hand, reflects the distribution of control over communication. Strong framing is where the transmitter has explicit control over the communication; weak framing gives the inquirer more apparent control over the communication” (Whitty, 2010, p. 36). Thus classes that are strongly framed are likely to be lecture-heavy, and students will learn facts from the instructor, the textbook, and other authorities. In classes that are weakly framed, students are likely to learn in a more discovery-based model. As with classification, subjects with significant amounts of powerful knowledge tend to be more strongly framed than subjects without powerful knowledge, and subjects with esoteric knowledge are the most strongly framed. As was stated above, esoteric knowledge generally requires an initiation, which often takes the form of strongly framed education.
Classification and framing are of utmost importance in this discussion. Classification is how students see the information they are learning – is it only important in the classroom, or is there overlap into real life? Strong classification education is self-referential in the classroom; weak classification education overlaps into everyday life. Similarly with framing, subjects that are framed strongly build up information systematically in a series of lectures; subjects that are framed weakly have little prerequisite knowledge required and allow students to approach problems according to their own curiosity and interest notably in educational inequality…. Whitty (2010) says that weak classification and weak framing have been largely unsuccessful in British systems, but that strong classification and strong framing also perpetuate an educational inequality, with the result that there is a need for a third solution.
Vertical knowledge and horizontal knowledge also play an important part in the discussion of powerful knowledge. Vertical knowledge is the abstract knowledge encountered in the higher-education system; it is what we refer to as powerful knowledge. Horizontal knowledge is day-to-day knowledge, such as vocational training knowledge (Wheelahan, 2010). Some disciplines require very structured instruction and have hierarchical (vertical) knowledge. Even problem-based learning requires a thorough instruction in the basics before students can understand enough to solve the problem. Physics is one such discipline. In academic disciplines, powerful knowledge is the knowledge passed down by the instructor. Other disciplines do not have such a specific set of vocabulary and concepts that need to be imparted by the teacher. These disciplines lend themselves well to problem-based learning and often deal with horizontal knowledge. Vocational skills are often this way (Wheelahan, 2010).
Knowledge-based education and project-based education are also terms that are used to make the distinction between curricula centering on powerful knowledge and curricula centering on practical skills. The fate of project-based education has been mixed since its original introduction as a revolutionary answer to the problem of school failure and drop-out rates. In Britain, as project-based education came en vogue as a progressive movement in education, it became clear through test scores that students were not gaining the abstract conceptual framework they needed for leadership success (powerful knowledge). As this trend became apparent, wealthier parents simply paid to send their students to private schools that taught knowledge-based subjects earlier, so the working-class students were primarily subjected to the lower standards and lower grades that resulted from the project-based reforms (Whitty, 2010).
Powerful knowledge in the modern educational system
Currently, the discussion of powerful knowledge centers on a discussion of career or vocational-oriented training as the model for education versus a more liberal arts, knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake model of education. Education is commonly considered to aim towards the purpose of enabling students to acquire a well-paying job, and this is the case in the powerful knowledge discussion as well. In modern educational theory, “There has been a movement toward … wanting subject-learning to be thought of in terms of what the learner should be ableto do as a result of that teaching” (Yates, 2011, p. 34). This shift has been notable since 1975, and has changed the face of education from one of learning about the world to one of learning how to do a job (Yates & Collins, The absence of knowledge in Australian curriculum reforms, 2010). Digital technology is a force driving skills-based learning (Young & Muller, 2010). Easy access to education, more convenience in taking classes, and other factors lead people, especially working people trying to get better jobs, to take advantage of competency-based programs that will qualify them for a promotion or a more lucrative career path. Thus we recognize competency-based training (CBT) as an important aspect of education in the context that the vast majority of students, after college, will need to be able to support themselves with a career.
The question at hand is not whether education is intended to provide students with the means of entering the workforce, but what role their education forms them to play in that workforce. There is a significant difference between the roles that higher-education, academic programs prepare students for and the roles that vocational training programs prepare them for: “The purpose of an academic curriculum is to induct students into a field of knowledge (the academic disciplines) while the purpose of a vocational curriculum is to induct students into a field ofpractice. The process of selection (the classification of knowledge) and the way knowledge is selected, sequenced, paced and evaluated (the framing of knowledge) will be different in each” (Wheelahan, 2010, p. 55).
Vocational training provides students with the knowledge they need to do a specific job. As it is performed in Australian schools, CBT does not provide broader knowledge about the subject matter, or vertically-integrated knowledge that would allow students to move upwards in their career area, or to apply their knowledge to another, related field:
CBT excludes students from access to disciplinary knowledge because it collapses the distinction between vertical and horizontal discourses, and because knowledge in curriculum is weakly classified and framed. Students are not provided with the ‘recognition’ rules they need to access different kinds of knowledge. CBT does not provide students with the capacity to recognize and navigate the distinction between theoretical and everyday knowledge and between different kinds of theoretical knowledge. The boundaries are rendered opaque. (Wheelahan, 2010, p. 56)
That is, if CBT combined its job-based training with a vertical integration of knowledge, it would be providing students with powerful knowledge and preparing them to become leaders in their field. As it is, however, vertical knowledge and abstract reasoning are not included in CBT curricula. In other words, CBT teaches students how to do things, but it does not teach them how to think. In fact, currently, abstract knowledge in VET programs is limited to knowledge that has practical application. According to the Training Package Development Handbook, while knowledge must be expressed units of competency, their elements or performance criteria should not be entirely knowledge based unless a clear and assessable workplace outcome is described. Knowledge in units of competency:
- Should be in context;
- Should only be included if it refers to knowledge actually applied at work. (quoted in Wheelahan, 2010, p. 57)
Limiting generalized information also limits students’ abilities to synthesize information and come up with solutions to new problems, because it teaches a series of actions to take in a given number of scenarios and no more. Thus current standards of CBT in fact disadvantage students even in the workforce for which CBT supposedly prepares them. In one striking example, a competency-based program at a university and a parallel higher-education program at the same university set assignments aimed at the same general objectives. The competency-based program has the objective, “Develop and update the legal knowledge required for business compliance” in the tourism and hospitality industries, while the higher-education program has the objective, “provide students with an understanding and awareness of the basic principles of Contract Law, a familiarity with relevant case law and an introduction to the statutory provisions pertinent to the course” (Wheelahan, 2010, p. 58). The students in the CBT program learned specifics of current legal requirements for running a hotel. The students in the higher-education program learned the principles behind those specific requirements, thus enabling them to think about a multitude of different industries, and the reasons behind the requirements, and even be able to create a proposal for future policies given changing circumstances. The specific knowledge of the CBT students prepares them for a very specific job, with very little competence for upward mobility. The generalized, powerful knowledge of the higher-education students prepares them for a wide range of jobs, up to and including making new policies on a lobbying or legislative level. Powerful knowledge prepares students for power; failing to give students powerful knowledge sets them up for not being able to have power.
This is not only a problem of CBT versus higher education; it is also a problem of class. As one study on class in Australian education showed, “middle class children destined for professional and managerial occupations are taught a curriculum that emphasizes choice, flexibility and independent learning, whereas those destined for semi- or unskilled occupations are taught rote learning, punctuality and obedience” (Gerwitz & Cribb, 2009, p. 113). In other words, lower-class children are taught the skills of serfdom while middle-class and higher children are taught the skills of rule and leadership.
Educational inequality stems from class inequality, and begins long before students arrive for their first day of school. According to Bernstein’s theory, children learn by means of codes, and these codes are present from early childhood in the home (Hoadley & Muller, 2009). In Bernstein’s theory, these codes are the different things that students learn, which make the difference between education and socialization for leadership and education for labor work. These codes create a class divide at an educational level. The four original contexts of language that socialize children and determine their leadership place in later life are the “regulative, instructional, imaginative and interpersonal” (Hoadley & Muller, 2009, p. 70). That is, children learn social codes about the rules they must follow, the instructions that are given to them, the imaginative activities in which they engage, and the interactions they have with others, including parents, teachers, and friends. The home environment determines in a large part what the student’s success will be in learning the explicit, abstract knowledge presented in school. Therefore, students from middle- and upper-class families are at an advantage, while students from lower-class families are at a disadvantage, because lower-class children often communicate more literally and have less working language for abstract thought or creative instruction (Sadovnik, 1991). `Power and control are the two ends of the instructional spectrum, and the language in which children learn to understand and convey ideas sets them up to either have power over others or to be controlled by others (Hoadley & Muller, 2009, p. 71). These codes are the “how” of pedagogy – whatever students are learning, are they learning it through authoritarian/teacher-controlled discourse or through open-ended/student-controlled discourse? (ibid). Problem-based and inquiry-based pedagogy help to address these inequality issues, as they train students to take an active role in their education, and this has been the basis of progressive movements toward such modes of education.
However, there is another element in education which stands at odds to the importance of student-initiated learning: powerful knowledge. Curiosity-based and open-ended learning work well for “mundane or everyday knowledge,” but they do not provide an effective tool for students to gain “esoteric or universal, principled knowledge” (Hoadley & Muller, 2009, p. 75). Concept-rich subjects are often best taught in a specialist-centric or expert-centric learning environment (ibid). In addition, framing is extremely important in hierarchical subjects, and this affects the extent to which students can be in control of their own discovery (p. 76).
There is a strong link between higher income/higher academic achievement and lower income/lower academic achievement (Wheelahan, 2010, p. 52). Lower academic achievement often leads to CBT programs in tertiary education, while higher academic achievement often leads to “the elite professions and the academic disciplines” (ibid). This is an issue of income inequality. Students from higher-class backgrounds are more likely to already be in a position in which they can assimilate the presence of an authoritative teacher and still remain engaged as active participants in their own learning, but students from lower-class backgrounds are more likely to resort to the codes that they learned from childhood, responding to authority with passivity and rote obedience, which limits the effective engagement they take in the subject and thus their success at learning the powerful knowledge (Wheelahan, 2010). Meanwhile the school path destined for lower-achieving students, CBT, “acts as a mechanism for social stratification because it denies students access to the abstract theoretical knowledge they need to participate in ‘society’s conversation’” (Wheelahan, 2010, p. 47).
Competency-based training “ties knowledge and skill directly to workplace performance and roles, and not to systematic structured disciplinary systems of meaning” (Wheelahan, 2010, p. 48). Esoteric knowledge allows for abstract discussion of ideas; CBT does not deal in these abstracts (p. 49). This limits students’ abilities to move within their field to other jobs which are related but not exactly what they were trained to do, or to move upwards within their field to higher levels of management, if they were not trained for such positions, as they failed to gain the abstract knowledge that would let them apply their practical knowledge to other situations. Young and Muller (2010) say that learning powerful knowledge requires the background of a middle-class household; otherwise, the student will not have the theoretical and discursive framework to be able to learn the information as powerful knowledge – that is, as abstract knowledge – or be able to make use of it.
Not only is CBT a problem for job mobility, and therefore social mobility, but it is even a problem for a democratic government. As Wheelahan (2010) compellingly argues, “democratic access to theoretical knowledge is a precondition for an effective democracy because such knowledge is the means that society uses to conduct its conversation about what it should be like and how it should change” (p. 48). This idea builds on the definition above of knowledge of the powerful: it is necessary to have training in powerful knowledge in order to engage in the knowledge of the powerful, and therefore to effectively participate in a democracy.
Rather than lifting students out of poverty and enabling them to have a better life than their parents, CBT in Australia is currently perpetuating the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement. The numbers confirm the analysis that this is a problem as low-income students only comprised 14.6% of the higher-education student body in 2002 (Thomas & Quinn, 2007, pp. 38-39).
Students from low socio-economic backgrounds are not only underrepresented in higher education (that is, academic environments aimed at providing powerful knowledge and preparing students for leadership) and overrepresented in CBT programs, but they are becoming more so. As the numbers of lower-income students in higher-education programs continues to lower, the wealth and class divide becomes more entrenched, with the children of the leaders becoming leaders and the children of the workers immediately becoming workers (Wheelahan, 2010, p. 53).
CBT programs must begin to offer theoretical, abstract, powerful knowledge as part of the program. By adding powerful knowledge questions and abstract reasoning sections to current testing standards for CBT programs, institutions would be required to teach this knowledge. This would enable students learning a particular profession to have the knowledge and skills they need to be able to become leaders and policymakers in that field, rather than having limited upward job mobility.
Of course, there are also differences in abilities that must be taken into account. One way to address this would be to include multiple hierarchies in the CBT programs. “Multiple hierarchies of knowledge” refers to hierarchies about how we value knowledge, and especially how we assess it (Nairn, 2012, p. 26). The failure of the current system demonstrates that single and dual forms of valuation are insufficient to ensure that each student has a fair chance. However, with more systems of standards, it would be possible to customize the taught skill sets (including the “skill” of engaging abstract knowledge) to reflect a wider variety of ability levels, rather than a simple dichotomy between the future powerful and the future not powerful.
When determining higher-level skills that will be tested on in the CBT programs, standards creators should use potential vertical career movement as a standard for the information and thinking skills that need to be taught. An example was given above of standards in a CBT program for the hospitality industry and a parallel standard in a higher education program, in which the CBT standard was quite specific as to laws in the single case and sector, while the higher education standard was broad and abstract, referring to underlying principles by which students would be able to understand and even create other policies. By considering that a CBT student in the hospitality industry may move up to the position of regulator or lobbyist in the industry, classes should be offered that hone the cognitive skills required for those positions. In my own teaching practice, even without the benefit of redefined standards, I can use the paradigm of future career movement to determine what powerful knowledge my students will need to be successful in their fields of study, and introduce them to abstract concepts in class discussions regardless of their future educational path.
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