When I started working as a teacher, I was keen to develop my pupils’ knowledge. But I often asked myself: what is ‘knowledge’ in a school context? I realized quickly that this wasn’t an easy question to answer. Even so, thinking about knowledge was important. It made me assess what needed to be prioritized in terms of my teaching and the aims of the school. It also gave me a space to think creatively.
In my doctoral research, I am thinking about knowledge again. This time from a policy perspective. But the concept is still not any easier to define. I have come across many different terms to explain what knowledge students should learn in school. In the Swedish school context, ‘knowledge’ is given a particular meaning. It is grounded in School for Cultivation (SOU 1994), a Swedish government inquiry report, which suggests that there are four different elements of knowledge: facts, understanding, skills and familiarity.
International perspectives of knowledge do not necessarily include all these four elements. For example, the term ‘competence’, can be defined as knowledge, skills and attitude (see the 2006 Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning (OJ L394/10)). In the EU definition, knowledge is separated from skills, which is not the case in the Swedish school context. In fact, the Swedish definition of knowledge in school includes what might be referred to as ‘know-what’ and ‘know-how’ in English. This means therefore that you don’t separate knowledge from an understanding of its application.
In practice, however, knowledge is sometimes divided up when it comes to the assessment of pupil progression in Swedish schools. For example, teachers can begin by teaching facts as a lower element of knowledge and then move on to skills and familiarity, which they value more highly. This means that a student could be given a lower grade for only knowing facts. But it’s not the right way to evaluate pupils’ overall knowledge according to the official Swedish curricula, in which there is no hierarchy between the four knowledge elements.
In the Swedish policy document Curriculum for the compulsory school system, the preschool class and the recreation centre 2011 (Skolverket, 2011), the concept of ‘knowledge’ is expressed through subject specific abilities. Hence, the term ‘ability’ acquires its own meaning. Subject specific abilites are created separately to the rest of the curriculum. This is done in a working group composed of many varied policy voices, for example, academics, politicians and school practitioners. The main intention is that subject specific abilities should be regarded as aims for pupils’ knowledge.
What the above illustrates is that definitions of knowledge in school are highly contextualised. So, ‘good knowledge of a subject’ can mean different things in different contexts. In Swedish schools, for instance, it would mean that students need to have both theoretical and practical knowledge.
So, teachers’ understanding of the concept of knowledge is a very important part of the professional task. Not only for pupils’ learning, but also for teachers’ capacity to determine curriculum content, use their professional discretion and work autonomously in the classroom.
European Parliament and the Council of the Euroepan Union (2006) Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council on Key Competences for Lifelong Learning in Official Journal of the European Union. Available online at: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A32006H0962
SOU 1992:94. Skola för bildning: Huvudbetänkande av Läroplanskommittén [School for Cultivation: Main report by the Curriculum Committee] Stockholm: Utbildningsdepartementet.
Skolverket (2011) Läroplan för grundskolan, förskoleklassen och fritidshemmet 2011 [Curriculum for the compulsory school system, the preschool class and the recreation centre 2011]. Mölnlycke: Elanders Sverige AB.