Our Head of Secondary Chris Lowe gives his insight into Knowledge is Power-Our Head of Secondary Chris Lowe gives his insight into Knowledge is Power-Nord Anglia Education
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Nord Anglia
01 December, 2023

Our Head of Secondary Chris Lowe gives his insight into Knowledge is Power

Our Head of Secondary Chris Lowe gives his insight into Knowledge is Power-Our Head of Secondary Chris Lowe gives his insight into Knowledge is Power-chrisloweinsights232
Our Head of Secondary Chris Lowe gives his insight into Knowledge is Power

Sometime in the late 1990’s I walked into a café in Birmingham and said hello to a student of mine who happened to be there enjoying lunch with her family.  Mum and Dad smiled at me, said hello and I overheard the girl whisper ‘that’s my History teacher’ to them.  I’ve always quite enjoyed the minor celebrity status of being a teacher out of the school building.  Students are often very confused by the notion that teachers exist outside of the classroom.  A while later, as the family left the café, the father gave me a nod, smiled and said

‘‘History teacher eh?  What year was the Battle of Waterloo then?’’

Now, being expected to know the exact year in which every major event in History happened is the scourge of a History teacher’s life. I suppose other subject teachers suffer this too. I’d be disappointed if a Chemistry teacher didn’t know the periodic symbol for gold (it’s Au) or if I met an English teacher who didn’t know the story of Macbeth. As it happens though, in this particular case, the father of my student had picked the wrong History teacher to test.

I wrote my dissertation on the Napoleonic Wars and had read just about all there was to read about Napoleon, Wellington, Blucher and the farmhouses of Hougoumont and Le Haye Sainte. I could have written a dissertation on the causes of Napoleon’s defeat that day or on the fundamental problems of his dictatorship which would have led to his downfall regardless of the result. So it was with some smugness that I was able to reply to this enquiry…

‘’1815.  18th June. The battle started at about half past eleven in the morning – it would have been earlier, but it had rained the night before…’’

It was a silly thing to show off about, but I rather hope that the mother and father of this student were somewhat reassured to know that the gentlemen teaching their daughter History at least knew some. Knowing some things matters in a school as it does everywhere. The idea posited by some that learning ‘facts’ is irrelevant in the digital age in which students can google a fact quickly is simply wrong. A student could find out that the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815 pretty quickly, but unless they work with that knowledge and somehow use it to improve their understanding, that fact isn’t going to embed itself into their long-term memory.  

Does that matter?  Well, it mattered to me in that café, but it matters elsewhere too. As Julie Henry pointed out in her article, having to count two plus two on your fingers every time you need to – or checking it on google – because you can’t commit that knowledge to your long-term memory would hardly give anyone confidence that you could function particularly effectively in any environment. And imagine if, just as the anaesthetist started knocking you out before heart surgery, you heard the surgeon ask ‘’where’s my iPad, I need to remind myself where the heart is again….’’How would we feel if the pilot’s announcement included the line we’ll be taking off shortly after I’ve googled which button starts the plane….’’?  There are some things that we simply expect people that we trust to know and understand and when they do, it improves our confidence in their ability to serve us and our community.

All teachers are expected to have a good understanding and knowledge of the subject they are teaching. The British Teacher Standards demand that teachers have

‘’a secure knowledge of the relevant subject(s) and curriculum areas to help foster and maintain pupils’ interest in the subject, and address misunderstandings…’’

One of the great advantages of strong subject knowledge in the classroom is the ability a teacher has to pause and tell a simple story or produce a wildly weird fact about the topic to grab the group’s attention.  Such a moment often leads to memorable dramatic pauses, or lightbulb moments for students that provide the inspiration which drives a motivation to learn. A moment of thorough subject knowledge in a subject like Music for instance, can provide an experiential flash that excites, thrills or focuses a young mind. Attaching the correct terminology to the experience - labelling it – can help to cement the knowledge making it easier to repeat at another time. I am sure that everyone reading this can recall a moment in school when they saw a flash of excitement in their teacher, which in turn, tuned them in to that subject content in a way that perhaps affected them for a very long time – perhaps it still does?

In the Insights article Andrew Lancaster of the Nord Anglia School in Puxi refers to the way in which subject knowledge can lead to ‘connections between banks of knowledge…’ and of course nowhere are these connections seen more clearly than in the Theory of Knowledge lessons, which form such an important part of the International Baccalaureate programme. TOK is specifically designed to allow students to make links between the subject disciplines so that whilst they understand the methods and rigour of each individual subject, they also understand and appreciate the interplay between them.  Most Historians are experts in at least one foreign language. Chemists don’t stop the research if their work strays into Biology.  Mathematicians often make pretty good coders, top artists understand ratio and perspective. Knowledge of subject disciplines is crucial to understanding how knowledge is built, and then built upon by generations of researchers, creative thinkers, poets and artists.  

Alexander Pope wrote that ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’Well it certainly is.  It is only through learning, through knowledge, that we can challenge existing views of the world. The Earth was the centre of the known universe until Copernicus ‘learned’ some Aristotle and started looking a bit more closely at the sky.  He knew how dangerous what he found was, so he kept quiet about it, and his work was only shouted about over 100 years later by a certain Galileo Galilei who – by learning – got himself into all sorts of trouble.  Despite the trouble, it still moves.

Knowledge is a dangerous thing and sometimes the world needs a pinch of danger to move forward. We want the young people in our school to think critically about the world they live in, to challenge existing ideas and ask why things can’t be different – better. To do this, they have to know a little about the way the world is now and why it is like it is.  

There are those who argue that having young people learn lists of French words, South American capital cities, the names of cloud formations, the names of kings and queens or the correct name for an increase in tempo in a song is pointless. Those people are simply wrong.  For how are we to know what will inspire a young person to know more?  How are we to know what will trigger a lifetime obsession that might just lead to discovery and new ideas?  Every great name of academia and the arts – Einstein, von Humboldt, Curie, Picasso, Goeppert Mayer, AJP Taylor, Hawking – they all sat in classrooms as young people and were inspired by something a teacher said or showed them. We provide a broad and balanced education in our schools , because we want to give every single student in our school the opportunity to latch onto a piece of knowledge that might just inspire them for the rest of their lives.  

So knowledge matters, googling the answer just doesn’t cut it. It’s good to know things and know them in some depth.  I know that one of Napoleon’s hats sold for over $2million this week.  Probably not the one he wore at Waterloo. 18th June, 1815. It rained that day. A hat would have come in useful…

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