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Today we talk about powerful knowledge, a concept that has sparked a major debate about what should be taught in schools. My guest is Michael Young, a professor of Sociology of Curriculum at UCL’s Institute of Education.

Michael’s work in the sociology of education has been criticized by both the Right and the Left. That’s why I wanted to sit down with him to unpack what he even means by powerful knowledge and how it applies to schools. Where did the idea come from? How has his own thinking evolved over his career?

Michael Young has worked at the Institute of Education for over 50 years. A student of Basil Bernstein, he has had a major impact on the field of sociology of education since the publication of his first book, Knowledge and Control, in 1971. Much of our conversation today focuses on his 2008 book, Bringing Knowledge Back in.

Citation: Young, Michael, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 188, podcast audio, February 24, 2020. https://www.freshedpodcast.com/michaelyoung/

Will Brehm 2:14
Michael Young, welcome to FreshEd.

Michael Young 2:16
Thank you. I am very delighted to be involved.

Will Brehm 2:19
So, you have this idea of powerful knowledge and it, sort of, has taken on a life of its own, in many ways. Could you just define the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’? How would you tell a student, for instance, what this idea is?

Michael Young 2:34
I think that there would be many definitions, and what I can do is say something about the starting ideas that, in fact, led to it. And then, I suppose what I wanted to do when I came up with the idea, and I do not know if it is uniquely me … but there was … I was focusing more on educational research in sociology, and I thought that it was important that, in fact, we refocused how we approach questions about the curriculum in sociology. And so … I came up … I gave a talk at the Institute in about 2007, 2008, about the future direction of research. And … it … and I made this distinction, which I think is a very important one, between knowledge of the powerful, and powerful knowledge. And, on the whole, the sociological tradition has been to focus on knowledge … the curriculum, as knowledge of the powerful, and that comes from, basically, a left Marxist tradition, which basically sees the knowledge that people get access to as ideology, masking the nature of the societies that, in fact, they’re in.

Will Brehm 3:48
So, for instance, it would be the people in power who are writing the curriculum, writing the syllabi, writing the textbooks, their knowledge, their interests are being reproduced inside the curriculum. And that is the knowledge of the powerful.

Michael Young 4:02
And, in a sense, what the sociologists did was to expose this. And I felt that there was time … we had to stop. Because, actually, it was an oversimplification this… was… Although that knowledge of powerful ideas got some truth in it, it is also true that, in fact, people can get quite other kinds of things from being educated in a school system … university system … in a Western capitalist society. And, what they can get is access to if I call ‘powerful knowledge’. So, in a sense, there is a tension within education systems in capitalist society, on the one hand, wanting to perpetuate a particular social order, but also having an alternative … but … to give access to criticism of that social order. And this is an argument that, in fact, Basil Bernstein makes quite powerfully in his work.

Will Brehm 4:57
Right. So, what would be an example, in today’s world, of powerful knowledge, as you see it?

Michael Young 5:03
Johan Muller, who’s a colleague I work with from Cape Town, he and I decided … we had to try and write a paper, actually trying to answer that question. And, I think the important thing to say is that, in fact, and this is where Bernstein comes in, is that, in fact, the meaning of powerful knowledge depends on the … area … the field of knowledge you’re talking about. And, in a sense, there is a tendency for the model from the natural sciences, to be seen as a definitive one, across the whole of the field of knowledge. Because, unequivocally, if we think back to industrialization, the knowledge that is transformed the society is the scientific knowledge, and the increasing emphasis of the sciences, in industry, manufacturing, and so forth. But I am not wanting to negate that, but what is extremely important is to recognize that, in a sense, the knowledge fields are differentiated. And that, in fact, you have the social sciences, you have the humanities, you have the unity. And, I think the key thing … this is the point that Bernstein makes, which I think is quite useful, that, in fact, depending on which which field you’re in, knowledge progresses in different ways, new knowledge is developed in different ways … according to where …now in the natural sciences it’s developed through the process of greater generalization and abstraction. So that, in fact, Einstein incorporates Newton and all the nineteenth century, in his field … it does not mean that they were wrong, but they were partial. And Einstein provided a broader theory, quantum theory and so forth, is an attempt to combine those, and there is the endless attempt in physics, which is to bring, in a sense, relativity and quantum theory together.

Will Brehm 6:59
Right. So … so basically powerful knowledge, in a way, you’re saying, is that once you differentiate between fields or disciplines, there are different sort of traditions with in those disciplines that, sort of, legitimate …

Michael Young 7:12
Yes.

Will Brehm 7:12
… powerful knowledge. And, I think one of the words you use is ‘specialized …

Michael Young 7:16
Yes.

Will Brehm 7:17
… knowledge’. So, what is the difference between ‘specialized knowledge’ and say ‘non-specialized knowledge’?

Michael Young 7:22
Well, non-specialized knowledge is the knowledge that is developed without reflection in communities, and is valuable to make sense of the world that people grow up in. So there’s, in a sense, non-specialized knowledge, it’s about the streets you live in, whether there’s a shop here or there, what bus is going where they go, that’s everyday knowledge, as discussed, for instance, particularly by the psychologist Vygotsky, and indeed … it’s … Durkheim uses the term ‘profane knowledge’ for that … that … it’s … it’s knowledge of experience. I think the big difference between specialized … starting something … between specialized and non-specialized, is that it is knowledge from experience, or it is knowledge that goes beyond experience. And that, in fact, I quite often give the example that, in fact … a city … a young person in the city … knows quite a lot … has a lot of knowledge of the city that he or she has grown up in. And, at the age … depending … seven or eight or nine, he certainly meets a geography teacher. And, the geography teacher has specialized knowledge of cities, what happens to them, how they have changed, different parts of the city affect, in different kinds of ways. And, in a sense, you get what … the … some of the researchers say is a disruption, disruption between the specialized knowledge of a field like geography, which relies upon research, inquiry, debates, within its community, and the everyday knowledge, which is also about the city, urban geography or urban sociology, is about the city. So is the young boy growing up in the city …

Will Brehm 9:09
Or the black taxi driver’s knowledge …

Michael Young 9:11
That is right … taxi drivers … is knowledge indeed, yeah…yup, yup.

Will Brehm 9:15
But that would be everyday knowledge.

Michael Young 9:16
That would be everyday knowledge, yes indeed.

Will Brehm 9:17
That would be the profane to use Durkheim’s word.

Michael Young 9:20
Yeah, yeah …that … But, in a sense, the interesting thing is that there is also a difference between codified and uncodified knowledge…

Will Brehm 9:30
Meaning?

Michael Young 9:31
… and, in a sense, specialized knowledge means that, in fact, it is more than just organizing knowledge … I mean … the taxi driver’s knowledge is codified, so you can test them, do they know it? – and so forth. But it is not specialized. In the sense that it never progresses, you just have to keep up with what’s going on when the new roads are built, and so forth. And, in a sense, it is different from … the … the person who lives in an area who has uncodified knowledge about the names of the streets, and the pubs, and the shops, and things like that …

Will Brehm 10:07
Right, exactly, exactly. Okay. Now … I mean … you know, the specialized/non-specialized knowledge, it seems like it is a dichotomy that might be too absolute, in a way. Would you … you know … is there some gray area where there could be types of powerful knowledge that is both specialized and non-specialized?

Michael Young 10:25
I think that in a modern industrial society, these categories … I mean … to use the term that the great German sociologist Max Weber uses, ‘ideal types’, they are not descriptions, and therefore, somebody’s knowledge will always have bits of specialized and bits of unspecialized, but when you move, say, from everyday knowledge of a city to a geography teacher, then you get a focus and a specialization that is focused. It does not mean that you throw out the unspecialized knowledge, but it is a different way of thinking. And, in that sense …it is a … students find it difficult to make that step.

Will Brehm 11:07
So … so … okay. So, we have knowledge that is specialized, we have knowledge that is unspecialized as ideal types, and then we still have this knowledge of the powerful. And would that … be … that sort of fits into specialized and non-specialized as well.

Michael Young 11:22
The knowledge of the powerful is a way of thinking about specialized knowledge. Whereas powerful knowledge is another way of thinking about specialized knowledge. Because, in a sense, if you’re approaching it from the point of view of knowledge of the powerful, you focus on ideological assumptions, you focus on who has the knowledge, what interests does it protect? – and so for those kind of things, so it’s not so much … so it’s a question of how you think about it, rather than that.

Will Brehm 11:53
Right, right. Okay. And so, I mean, we have spent a lot of time talking about knowledge. What about the word ‘powerful’, like, how are you conceptualizing the very idea of power?

Michael Young 12:02
I think it is … quite … it is an important point. Johan Muller and I, we wrote a paper in ‘The Curriculum Journal’ last year, which, in fact, revisits the question of power. Because we realized that, in a sense, and particularly important for education, that, in fact, for instance, you come across new literature or new sciences then, in a sense, on the one hand, that is powerful knowledge, but it also has powers through knowing it, and therefore, what we realized was that, in a sense, power can either mean … can mean power over, it also means power to do certain things, to think certain things. So, in a sense, power has always got those dimensions. And the problem was, to some extent … is what sociology’s emphasized, it is always the power of domination. Because it is a very powerful, it’s a very significant factor, in societies, the domination of knowledge. But it tends to neglect the fact that, in fact, students, from whatever social class, can actually acquire knowledge that empowers them. So that, in a sense, somebody like Paulo Freire is talking about the emancipatory potential of knowledge. Whereas, in fact, somebody like Althusser and Bourdieu is talking about dominating power of knowledge.

Will Brehm 13:29
Right. Okay.

Michael Young 13:29
So, there are two very, very different notions of knowledge.

Will Brehm 13:32
Yeah, very different notions …

Michael Young 13:34
That makes it a complex issue for students actually studying and thinking about it. They want to see it as simple, that either it is power over or it is power to …

Will Brehm 13:44
Right…

Michael Young 13:45
…never.

Will Brehm 13:46
And it is both …

Michael Young 13:47
And it is both…

Will Brehm 13:47
… at the same time.

Michael Young 13:48
Yeah, at the same time, yes …

Will Brehm 13:49
…and that is difficult to then unpack …

Michael Young 13:51
… and this is somethings that is always true …

Will Brehm 13:53
Right …

Michael Young 13:53
… about social …

Will Brehm 13:54
Right …

Michael Young 13:54
… organization.

Will Brehm 13:56
And so, would all specialized knowledge be powerful?

Michael Young 14:00
Would all specialized knowledge be powerful? Again, it depends. The reason why people specialize is to further knowledge and, in a sense, to make it, generate new ideas, extend their imagination about the world, or make predictions more powerful. So that the purpose of specialization is always to increase the power. I think that … but on the other hand, for instance, if you take the Gnostic knowledge of physicists, about the nature of the atom, then that, actually, can lead to Hiroshima. As much as it can lead to a way of producing energy.

Will Brehm 14:44
Right, right … so …

Michael Young 14:45
And so, it is not so much whether it is always powerful, but it’s powerful with different consequences.

Will Brehm 14:52
And in different times. So …

Michael Young 14:53
Yah, yah …

Will Brehm 14:53
… so, at one time, it …

Michael Young 14:54
Yah, yah …

Will Brehm 14:54
…it can be a domination over …

Michael Young 14:56
…that’s right …

Will Brehm 14:56
… certain people, and other times it can be …

Michael Young 14:58
… and you cannot really, you cannot really escape that …  we have the dramatic case of it now about artificial intelligence, it’s actually incredibly productive, the things it can enable us to do, but also it has very, very negative consequences as well, as we know from, you know, the Cambridge Analytica project, and all those kind of things.

Will Brehm 15:19
Exactly. And I guess this is where some issues of politics come in, because then there has to be choices that are made … by how these, sort of, new knowledge in different fields gets applied to society or applied in society, right? So …

Michael Young 15:33
But it is a most tricky issue for politics …

Will Brehm 15:36
Oh, of course …

Michael Young 15:36
… because, in a sense, it is not unambiguous right …ly … right … or left.

Will Brehm 15:42
Exactly. Right. And there is, yeah, exactly …

Michael Young 15:44
People want to find things …of, you know, that the Labour Party can go in for or the Conservative Party, but it is not like that …

Will Brehm 15:50
Right…

Michael Young 15:51
…knowledge is not like that.

Will Brehm 15:52
Right. So, I mean, this, sort of, brings up this idea of, you know, what is truth? And we, sort of, live in this moment of ‘fake news’. And where journalism is, sort of, you know, they feel the need to present both side ism. So, in every article there is, you know, here is what one person says, but we also have the opposite take by this other group with that has other interests. Do you think that powerful knowledge, this idea that we’ve been talking about, can actually help, you know, societies today, sort of, get over or get through this idea of ‘fake news’ and where truth is relative and anyone can have as many different truths as we can count?

Michael Young 16:32
I think the notion of … there are two things need to be clarified there, I think. One is that, in fact, there is a difference between, if you are like, I cannot think of quite the right term, the difference between absolute truth, and with something more like procedural truth. I mean, there is … and, in a sense, I would use the term for procedural truth, better knowledge rather than, in fact, another version of truth. There’s always better knowledge knowledge. And that takes you back to the fact that there’s better knowledge in different disciplines, there is better plays, better films. And then the reason … what ‘better’ means is that you can get the background, the argument, the evidence, and, so forth, for why you claim to be better. And it is very, very important that, in fact, school education, in particular, actually focuses on better knowledge.

Will Brehm 17:25
So, isn’t one person’s idea of ‘better’ different from another’s?

Michael Young 17:29
Well, it’s potentially better, but, in a sense …one of the things that schools try to do is to give students access to the specialized communities who spend their life on trying to clarify the better knowledge, and that gives the historians … they don’t have an answer, you know, anybody can have a view about the origins of the American War of Independence or whatever, but what historians do can document you, what happened and why, and the arguments that they can make. And, in a sense … and therefore we turn to them, but we do not turn to them for an absolute truth, we turned to them because, in fact, what … the way that the …the issue … I would say the way … it is important for everybody to be thinking about knowledge, not necessarily about powerful knowledge, that is not always that helpful.

Will Brehm 18:25
Right.

Michael Young 18:26
But, in a sense, if they think about powerful knowledge, they will realize that they are involved in some judgment, but there are limits to their judgment, because of specialization. I cannot make a judgement about some technical thing involved in artificial intelligence. But I can make some broader judgments about what assumptions about intelligence the AI people are making, because I am, you know, that is what philosophers and sociologists do. So, there is a question of where your own specialization applies.

Will Brehm 19:00
So, you know, it is interesting this idea of trying to, you know, view specialized knowledge, or view powerful knowledge within specialized fields, within specialized disciplines. Because, at the same time, in higher education, we hear a lot about trying to be cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary, trying to not simply work within single disciplines, but work across disciplines, to get at certain issues that don’t fall neatly in one area, right? So, for instance, one example that I can think of is climate change, right? Because that obviously has issues that not only impact, you know, environmental studies and physics and, you know, but also sociology, also technology. So how, you know, how do you understand or how can cross-disciplinary thinking fit within ideas of powerful knowledge?

Michael Young 19:50
Climate change, I mean, I’m not a geographer, but climate change is a very interesting example, because there was a debate about whether, in fact, climate change should be introduced or not … and it’s … in the primary school. And some people thought it should because it is relevant, and practical, and happening every day. I would make the argument that, in fact, that is fine but, if you do not really know what climate is, then to think about the consequences of climate change is absurd. So, I would take the view that, in a sense, the starting assumption of schooling is to focus on, if you like, disciplines, which provide you with the intellectual basis for being transdisciplinary. And, I would not introduce, I mean, certainly I used to teach chemistry, as a schoolteacher, and I used to feel much happier … I often had to teach physics and biology, but I did not know much, but I did not feel that I was such a good teacher then. Whereas, I knew my subject, and that’s why people could basically get excited about it, if I taught them, and also, they could learn. So, I think that, in fact, it is very important to see the interrelationships between the discipline, or the subject, and the interdisciplinary inquiry. Because, of course, you look at the, for instance, UCL’s range of research, a lot of it is interdisciplinary. But the people who work in interdisciplinary fields have a strong background in some discipline or other.

Will Brehm 21:28
Right, so they are, you know, you need to specialize in a particular knowledge tradition. But then you also have to have the skills to be able to talk to people and work with people in other disciplines.

Michael Young 21:38
But I think that what’s really important there is, particularly at the school level, it’s slightly different, but has similarities to the university level, is that, in fact, what a subject… cause we … in England anyhow we tend to talk about subjects in schools, disciplines in universities, very crude distinction, but nevertheless. And that … what’s … what’s very important, I think, is that, in fact, if you come to school, from your everyday knowledge, a subject gives you a sense of your identity as a learner, of whether you’re progressing, what’s better knowledge and what less good, and in a sense, it provides an important resource for you. Because, and also, at some point or rather, you may come across the boundaries of the subjects, and then you know … what … what you can speak about, and what, in fact, you need to inquire or talk to colleagues in other subjects, and so forth. So … I think … I think the boundaries between subjects have a very important role for the progress of learners.

Will Brehm 22:39
Right.

Michael Young 22:40
And we have gone against that. I mean, I now find… I don’t teach Masters courses, as I used to, but what I used to find was that, in fact, the disciplines had got broken up, and there were these interdisciplinary modules, and I would have 20 or 30 students, and some of them have never done any sociology before, some of them had done lots. And that is not the best context …

Will Brehm 23:05
Right …

Michael Young 23:05
…for taking them on …

Will Brehm 23:06
… because how do you teach …

Michael Young 23:08
Yah…

Will Brehm 23:08
… such a diverse group of students?

Michael Young 23:09
And I am not sure you do. You see, I think that … they … they would be better to have done some courses in sociology or economics and psychology …

Will Brehm 23:17
… before moving up to

Michael Young 23:19
… then move up …

Will Brehm 23:19
Right, right. I mean … so … and going back to this issue of climate change, so before you can learn about … the … what’s happening in climate change in a cross-disciplinary way, you need to have the … real … good foundation of what climate is.

Michael Young 23:32
And it is quite an abstract concept ‘climate’…

Will Brehm 23:33
It sure is, yeah, yeah…

Michael Young 23:34
Yeah, I mean, like weather, and all these things, yeah…and… yeah …

Will Brehm 23:39
… and climate is not weather, it is … not …

Michael Young 23:40
… no, no, it is not … exactly. And, that is important, you know…

Will Brehm 23:43
So, what then do you think of someone like Greta Thunberg? You know … this … she’s the 16-17 year old that is making all of these speeches and, sort of, leading a massive social movement across the world to get politicians to address the issue of climate change or what … what … she calls the climate crisis. Like, is she working in powerful knowledge? Or, is this more of the everyday knowledge? Like … how would you … How would you understand the phenomenon of Greta Thunberg?

Michael Young 24:12
Well, it is good question, actually. I mean, she is obviously a very bright and thoughtful girl, no question about it. And, she is thought a lot about the issues, and so forth. But … I think … I do not think she is so much a leader; I think she is being used. And, I do not use that negatively. But then people think if we can show that there’s somebody of her age, we’ve got these things, she represents something, they may convince some people that, in fact, another academic, who really knows about it, who has the specialized knowledge, which she doesn’t have, she’s got a concern, and, I think, we can respect that. But I think she is being used as a …sort of … rather like that extraordinary Pakistani girl, Malala.

Will Brehm 24:59
Yeah, yeah …

Michael Young 25:00
I mean, she got used, you know, got the Nobel Prize, not because, in one sense, she deserved it, but to symbolize something that she stood for, was the, kind of, courage and bravery … and it … kind of … concerned about … and I think they’re very much the same. And I am sure that Greta will get some kind of Nobel prize, at some point, just because, in fact, for a 16-year-old to do that everybody thinks it’s wonderful. They cannot really criticize because she’s only 16…

Will Brehm 25:26
Right…

Michael Young 25:27
But I do not think … it is not the knowledge …that’s the important thing, it’s a symbol of the young girl.

Will Brehm 25:33
I think one of the things that’s so powerful about Greta is her ability to take specialized knowledge in the research literature, in diverse fields that focus on climate and climate change, and say them in ways that are so easily understood by people, from politicians to, you know, other schoolchildren, but also to adults, right? Who aren’t in that specialized knowledge? So, she is almost … I see her almost as translating this specialized knowledge into, sort of, everyday knowledge, and it’s become popularized, in a way, where now there’s, sort of, this common language, you know, even the idea of calling it the climate crisis, rather than climate change, you know, in many ways that discursive change … is … or linguistic change … is to her credit.

Michael Young 26:18
Yeah, no … but it might have been an adult, it could have been somebody else…

Will Brehm 26:22
Right…

Michael Young 26:22
But, in fact, it is symbolic that it is not an adult …

Will Brehm 26:25
…Right …

Michael Young 26:25
…and therefore, people, in a way, have to listen to it … I do not think she is done a massive amount of reading …

Will Brehm 26:32
… I, see, I actually think she has …

Michael Young 26:33
…well, she is obviously done… more than most 16-year olds, but I, in a sense, I think it is less… I mean, I agree with you that her ability to articulate, and to express, in accessible lang … is admirable. It is almost as if she is a specialist in communication, rather than in climate knowledge …

Will Brehm 26:53
…Yeah …Yeah, right … I mean, that’s … yeah … that is a good point, because she really is capable of talking about some of these complex issues …

Michael Young 27:00
But I think it is her as the symbol, rather than just what she says.

Will Brehm 27:06
Yeah, it is complex, you are, sort of, becoming multiple things, right? As she is gaining more and more famous … and … you know, her face is known all over the world. So, you know … in … I read a little bit about your history before coming into this interview. And it is quite striking that … I learned that … in … when you were a young lecturer, I think about probably the same age I am now, in the same Institute, you wrote a book called ‘Knowledge and Control’ …

Michael Young 27:33
That is right …

Will Brehm 27:34
… which was very much about how knowledge or school knowledge is socially constructed to … basic … to privilege the ruling classes, those with power, and disadvantage the workers. Fast forward 50 years, we are beginning to, sort of … a … you know … in this conversation today, we’re not really talking about the social construction of knowledge anymore. You are talking about powerful knowledge. These disciplinary knowledges …

Michael Young 27:59
I mean … I realized that, in a sense, the development of … First of all, I think that, in a sense, unless you … … unless you’re a very religious person, social construction is a rather banal notion that is true. That all knowledge is humanly constructed by groups of people in particular contexts. And what is important to say about that is that, I think, is that one of the things that is continued to … is that therefore, it is also always potentially accessible to anyone. Because it’s a human thing, it’s not, you know, it’s not God, you know, it’s not the universe or something like that, and, or some divine being or creator, or anything like that. And I think that was … but if you follow through the social construction, you end up by saying … focusing only on the social  … and … and therefore, on the whole, on par, and true knowledge is a knowledge that the powerful have, you get to knowledge of the powerful. And, you do not actually get to any understanding of knowledge, the knowledge itself disappears. Because it is all social. It is kind of a … it is a, kind of, sociological imperialism…

Will Brehm 29:10
Yeah. Right.

Michael Young 29:11
… because … and it’s interesting that, in fact, you know, Marx, who was the first social constructivist, if you like, I mean, he had this notion of post the revolution, something more like primitive communism, where everybody was able to do everything. Now, I think that is a mistake … he was an anti-specialization person. And so, I think, I realized, and I suppose I got a lot of flak, for the first time, not the only time in my life, a lot of flak from the academics, and people, about social constructivism … and rightly, but I want to hold on to the fact that it’s still got an element of truth, just, we tend to convert it into the whole truth. And, that was … I think … that … that was what was misleading. So, and I think I particularly … what was important for me was … in … in the early 90s, I went … I spent a lot of time in South Africa, as a kind of consultant with the Democratic Movement on developing a new education system, because obviously, they were just about to abolish apartheid, which was, in a sense, determined their education … so now what were they were going to do? And, the only theory I had at the time was a socially constructed theory, which basically said, basically, you should let everyone be free to construct their own knowledge. And, in fact, because that is what people used to …flag … wave a flag saying, knowledge is a social construct. But, of course, the poor teachers have not a clue. They were there in the schools and what on earth did they do? And, in a sense, there was chaos in the schools. And, in a sense … and what I have been doing ever since is trying to recover from that idea, to realize that there is actually something real about the world. This is why social realism comes, there’s something real about the world. We do not just social construct, as we will, we social construct an external world, whether it is social or material, or whatever … and we try and improve our understanding of that … material … of that world. And I … then … and then I went back, and I came across Durkheim, and I reread Durkheim, who I read and misunderstood when I was an undergraduate. And, and he was the starting point for me, and the influence of Bernstein as well. And indeed, Vygotsky. So, I looked for an alternative. And, in a sense, ‘Bringing Knowledge Back In’ … the book is a, kind of, conclusion. But it is not a conclusion, it does not solve the problem, it just says ‘here is a way of thinking that is much better than the way we’ve had before’. And then … that social realism, but, in fact, that requires you to accept the importance of specialization, to accept the importance of an external world, to accept the importance … you never have the absolute truth. You are always trying to improve it. I mean, the people in quantum physics are trying to improve quantum physics…. to make it a more adequate account of, you know, of the atom …

Will Brehm 32:06
So, from social constructivism to social realism, and now you are bringing knowledge back in in your working … where to next?

Michael Young 32:16
Well, I mean, I think that the … when we came to powerful knowledge, and the idea that there is better knowledge, and that that should be the basis for the curriculum, for all pupils, because in England, as you probably know, and probably is the same in the States, we had a kind of diversified model of knowledge that, in fact, for the kids who appeared to be in quotes, not ‘academic’, you would give them something more like everyday knowledge. And, of course, that actually kept perpetuating the inequalities for them. So, in a sense, so the … the … thing that I am focusing on now, primarily, is that, in fact, the curriculum is about stipulating the best knowledge, right? And that is fine. I think you can do that, but if you are thinking about education … that, in fact, the educational problem is the stipulation and the de-transmission problem. And that, in a sense, because you cannot transmit the knowledge that is produced by researchers, there has to be … Bernstein called ‘recontextualization’ of that, and which involves the relationship between the teacher and the pupil. And that, in fact, if you don’t do that, and you think it’s only the curriculum and stipulation, then … you … you get a curriculum, which involves expecting people to mug up to memorize, to reproduce, you don’t actually give them an access to knowledge, which is about changing their thinking. You do not.

Will Brehm 33:47
Well, Michael Young, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, really a pleasure to talk today. Thank you very much.

Michael Young 33:53
Not at all. I have enjoyed the discussion.

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How do teachers learn to teach? My guests today, Maria Teresa Tatto and Ian Menter, discuss the many paths to become a teacher in England and the USA and the policy environment that is shaping current practice.

Learning to be a teacher, they argue, requires much more than simply having a lot of content knowledge. Just because you may know math really well does not mean that you would be a good math teach. Teaching is a skill that must be systematically learned and practiced.

Together with Katharine Burn, Trevor Mutton, and Ian Thompson, Teresa and Ian have a new co-written book entitled Learning to Teach in England and the United States: The Evolution of Policy and Practice, which was published by Routledge earlier this year.

Maria Teresa Tatto is Professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Arizona State University, and the Southwest Borderlands Professor of Comparative Education at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Ian Menter is Emeritus Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences.

Citation: Tatto, Maria Teresa & Menter, Ian, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 109, podcast audio, March 26, 2018. https://freshedpodcast.com/tatto-menter/

Will Brehm 2:00
Maria Teresa Tatto and Ian Menter, welcome to FreshEd.

Maria Teresa Tatto 2:03
Thank you, Will. I’m very happy to be here talking with you about our book.

Ian Menter 2:09
And so am I. I happen to be in Arizona with Maria Teresa at the moment. So, we’re close together but talking to you quite a long way away.

Will Brehm 2:19
I want to jump into your new book -congratulations, by the way. You know, thinking about the different pathways that one can become a teacher in England and the USA. So, you know, what are the different ways that people become teachers in England?

Ian Menter 2:35
Well, in England, traditionally, during the second half of the 20th century, they would apply to a university or college and seek to enter either a one-year graduate program, or a three or four-year degree program, and qualify as a teacher if they got through that program successfully. But over the last 20 or 30 years, we’ve seen many new pathways opening up, some of which don’t involve universities in the way that the traditional programs did. And some of which are actually employment-based, so that beginning teachers are employed by a school rather than being registered with a university. And so, in fact, a colleague of ours calculated that there are now 38 different ways in which you can become a teacher in England. So, it’s quite a myriad of routes compared with what it was in the last part of the 20th century.

Will Brehm 3:41
And how does that compare to the USA?

Maria Teresa Tatto 3:44
In the US, in contrast with England, close to 80% of those who want to become teachers enroll in traditional routes in colleges of education in higher education institutions. In the mid-1990s, the so-called alternative routes began to emerge. And we now have about 20% of the teachers who become teachers enroll in those routes. For example, the most notable are Teach for America, or the ABCTE program of the program of the American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence and also the TNTP Teaching Fellows, for instance, they operate in several states in the US. There are other more local programs, but you know, in general, to answer your question, most still enroll and become teachers through traditional routes.

Will Brehm 4:46
And so, these alternative routes like Teach for America, this is where one would receive a teaching certification outside of teacher colleges?

Maria Teresa Tatto 4:58
Well, some Teach for America students cooperate with colleges so that there is joint collaboration there. However, there are other possibilities in which there is a short period of preparation in comparison to traditional routes. And people can become certified to become a teacher.

Ian Menter 5:23
In England, the situation is quite similar in that, in most routes, although there are a great number of them. Most routes have some involvement of a university or a higher education institution. There are very few teachers still who actually qualify without any engagement with higher education. But the kind of proportional contribution of higher education has been reduced on a number of these new routes.

Will Brehm 5:54
And is there something like Teach for America in England?

Ian Menter 5:59
Yes, indeed. We have our very own Teach First program, which started in 2002 and has expanded steadily since then. It was originally modeled on Teach for America but is quite different in many particular respects. It is taking now, somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 entrants every year. It is moved into the primary school sector as well as the secondary school sector. But it retains its original aim of placing bright, young trainee teachers in schools, which are facing major challenges and seeking not only to produce great teachers, but to have an impact on those schools and improve the quality of education there. So, it’s always been an ambitious program. And there have been some very successful teachers who have emerged from it. But it has quite seriously challenged the role of the university in preparing people for teaching.

Will Brehm 7:08
Overall, are people who are joining the teaching force, is that number increasing or decreasing in the USA and in England?

Maria Teresa Tatto 7:17
In the US, it’s decreasing. I will quote something from a national survey of college freshmen. In 2016, the number of students who say they would major in education has reached its lowest point in 45 years. Just 4.2% intend to major in education, which is a typical first step to becoming a teacher, compared to 11% in the year 2000, 10% in 1990, and 11% in 1971. So, this is a decrease in part due to conditions in schools after number of reforms that have made testing mandatory and have introduced accountability models in schools. Teachers seem to be very stressed about the situation and change actually the working conditions that they have in schools.

Ian Menter 8:24
And in England, we are currently facing a decline in the number of people applying for teaching. Indeed, the government is continuing to spend quite a lot of money on promoting teaching as a profession with national advertising campaigns. I mean, the common view held by many teachers and by the teacher unions is that potential applicants have increasingly been put off the idea of teaching, because of the policy changes that have impacted on the profession, including some of the same things that Teresa was just talking about. I mean, the amount of bureaucracy now in teaching, the amount of testing, the amount of inspection, all these things are creating a workload, which is not only very large, but it’s also fairly stressful. And so, unfortunately, we are seeing a number of people not applying who might otherwise. But then, of course, I expect you’re going to ask us, Will, about the retention as well because that’s become a big issue as well. Gatekeeping people in the profession once they have joined it.

Will Brehm 9:38
So, what are the retention numbers in the profession?

Ian Menter 9:41
Well, in England, we have had some fairly horrendous figures recently about the number of people who are no longer in the profession five years after qualifying. It’s approaching 50% of those who enter a teacher education course will have left, will not be in teaching five years after completing their teacher education program. Which, of course, is a hugely expensive undertaking. It means a lot of money is really being wasted. But it’s a sad reflection of how people are not finding teaching to be the kind of fulfilling occupation that they had hoped for.

Maria Teresa Tatto 10:28
Yeah, this question is similar in the US. About 50% of the people who graduate from programs stay in the teaching profession after 3-5 years of teaching. And this is worse in the areas that we call STEM, where people have opportunities to go and get better and higher-paid positions with the kind of knowledge that they have. If they are good in math and science, they are likely to be able to get into better careers, and they are better remunerated.

Will Brehm 11:07
Is this simply a function of the policy reforms that have happened? You know, focusing on accountability and teaching to the test?

Ian Menter 11:15
Well, in the case of England, I don’t think it’s the only factor. I mean, there’s pay as well. And teachers pay has not kept pace with inflation, for example. And so, there’s been some disenchantment around pay levels. But more generally, I think we have to look at the wider economic situation. And Teresa just mentioned, people who have degrees, for example, in science or mathematics, being able to find more lucrative and probably less stressful occupations outside of teaching. This is similar in England. People are able to make choices. And if there are opportunities that will reduce the stress or pay better, then I am afraid people may go for it. This all sounds very negative; I realize that. But we must balance it partially by saying, in spite of these factors, there are people in the profession who are actually enjoying their work and are doing a very good job. People who have found ways of living with the demands, contemporary demands of the profession, and still find it fulfilling, partly through promoting their subject, I guess, in particularly in secondary or high schools. But also, through the fulfillment of actually feeling they’re making some kind of difference for the young people that they’re teaching. So, let’s not all be doom and gloom. We just have to find ways of making it more possible for more of the people who are entering the profession to get that kind of fulfillment out of their work.

Maria Teresa Tatto 12:59
I think, in the US, while policy had the effect of introducing increased assessment, you know, testing of pupils and heavy demands in teachers work, it also had the unfortunate effect of changing public opinion about the worth and value of teachers to the point in which that public opinion does also have an influence on how teachers themselves perceive their work to be. However, I agree with Ian in terms of the large number of teachers who are in schools doing a good job and enjoying teaching. But when you talk to teachers, and the teachers in our book, there are several trends that you can see. And some of those trends are the workload, and the compliance with the standards, and having to prepare pupils for the test, which seems to waste some of the enjoyment of teaching. You know, the discovery, creativity, and so on, that teachers enjoy doing with their students.

Ian Menter 14:19
Our book is based on work in England and in the USA. But if you do look at some other countries, it is clear that it doesn’t have to be like this. And the example that most people refer to is Finland, where there can be up to 10 people applying for one place on a teacher education program. And that seems to relate very much to the point that Teresa has just made about the public standing of the teaching profession. Teaching is a very highly regarded profession in Finland. It is a profession that can only be entered through a master’s level entry program, which will involve sustained study in university as well as sustained experience in a school setting. So, you know, there are some significant international differences and comparisons to be made. And England and USA probably have more similarities in this respect than they have differences, and we have to look elsewhere to see some other examples of how things could be different.

Maria Teresa Tatto 15:32
Yeah, as an example, and just to say a little bit more, this policy of No Child Left Behind did change the idea about what a qualified teacher means. And basically, by changing that idea, which, you know, the policy defined a qualified teacher as somebody who knows the subject very well, and the assumption is that they can go into schools and teach. People who entered the profession under that model do not need to have long years of experience in the school. For example, the internship that teachers get in universities. Or they don’t need to have large introduction to psychology, to the pedagogical techniques, and to what is called the pedagogical content knowledge. So, by saying that, you know, knowledgeable people can become teachers goes against the value, you know, the teachers who have become teachers through the traditional routes. And also, the teachers who are already in the profession then whose knowledge is not seen as important or as valuable as it could be. It’s kind of deprofessionalizing the notion of a teacher, which is what Ian was saying. The notion that in order to become a teacher, you need years of study and years of practice to learn how to really address the learning needs of diverse students.

Will Brehm 17:04
Right. I mean it’s interesting to think that so long as you say, are good at math, and you are assumed that you will be a good teacher. As if teaching isn’t this skill that takes years of practice, and experience and learning and -it’s quite amazing to think about what is a qualified teacher, and how it’s been so sort of skewed and narrowed to just this content knowledge.

Ian Menter 17:29
I mean, if we could perhaps refer to the research in our book at this point. What that particularly, I think, demonstrates the research we did there is actually just building on the point you just made -how complex the process of learning to be a teacher is. It’s not a simple question of learning a bit of theory, a bit of subject knowledge and developing a bit of skill. It’s about all of those things, but in interaction with each other. And what we found in looking at beginning teachers learning to teach both in England and in the USA is that the relationships that the young or early career teacher, the beginning teacher experiences in the school setting and in the university setting are just as important as the factual knowledge or the skill development that they may experience. So, I think a key message of our book is that teacher education needs to be very, very carefully planned, cooperatively between all of those who have responsibility. So, that is, the staff in the university, the faculty there, but it’s also the teachers in the schools. And it’s also about helping the beginning teacher to understand the challenges that they are going to be facing while they’re going through the process. So, if all of that’s achieved, and we did have examples of very successful practice in our research. If all of that’s achieved, we can actually enable beginning teachers to learn effectively, and in fact, to get fulfillment out of their future teaching.

Maria Teresa Tatto 19:19
In the US, for example, the population here is changing dramatically. We have a population of children who come from different backgrounds, who need special attention sometimes. And, you know, having teachers prepare in a very brief manner doesn’t really equip those teachers with the kinds of knowledge and skills that they need to address the needs of the kids who are underserved, who need teachers the most. So, this is a very specialized type of work which is recognized in other countries such as Finland and receives not much recognition under current trends in US and in England.

Will Brehm 20:03
I mean, it seems like the idea of Teach for America or Teach First in England would be counter to a lot of what you’re saying about this in-depth knowledge that needs to be gained through years of learning and years of practice teaching. So, it almost seems like Teach for America and Teach First are sort of the polar opposite of what you’re talking about.

Maria Teresa Tatto 20:30
I should say that you know, observing the Teach First in England and Teach for America in the US; actually, these two approaches are different in the way that they are implemented. So, in the case that I observed in England, which is the one that we report in our book, the support for teachers in Teach First is very carefully planned. Mentors are very attentive, they have gone through the program themselves, and they know the population of children that are in the schools and the needs that the kids have. In Teach for America, it seems to be a less carefully planned model. Especially what happens in the schools. They have been trying to change things a little by thinking of teachers as leaders. But as Ian was saying, if you don’t plan carefully the experiences that teachers are going to have in the schools, and you don’t have a mentor and a structure model that will support these beginning teachers, they have a really, really hard time to the point that they really just stay for two years, and then they drop out. I did see in England also teachers having a really hard time with Teach First, but the difference that I saw there is the support that that particular school – I cannot talk for Teach First. I think Ian could talk in general in England- but at least in the school that I observed, the whole school model, the whole support was structured and carefully planned to support these beginning teachers. And still, they did have challenges and problems. It was still quite stressful.

Ian Menter 22:22
Yeah. So, I agree with Teresa. I wouldn’t see Teach First as a polar opposite to good practice in teacher education, particularly in England, because it is carefully structured. And it does have involvement of study of education, as well as practice of education. There are two additional points, though, that I would make. One is, Teach First has the advantage, if you like, of actually recruiting very, very talented and enthusiastic people. There is a very rigorous selection process for Teach First, and that’s something -if we had more people applying for teaching on to other programs in England, we would dearly love to be able to pursue. So, you get very strong people coming into the Teach First program, and as I said earlier, there are some very, very successful teachers who’ve come in through Teach First. But as Teresa just mentioned, I mean, there is no obligation on people coming in through Teach First to do more than two years. A training year and then one year of teaching. So, actually, again, 50% of those Teach First entrants leave after their second year of the program when they have finished the formal part of the program. So, again, it makes it a rather expensive and almost indulgent way of entering the teaching profession. Many of them go off to other careers at that point, having done two years of what might be seen as public service in the state school teaching sector. Go off into careers, for example, in banking or other aspects of finance. So, you know, there is very positive features of Teach First, but it still has many problems. And it is interesting to me, who worked in Scotland as well as England, that until this point, at least, Scotland has resisted approaches by Teach First to start up there. They don’t see it as a fully legitimate way of entering the teaching profession because of the kind of fast-track nature of the program.

Will Brehm 24:47
What about in Finland? Is there anything similar to Teach First or Teach for America in Finland?

Maria Teresa Tatto 24:53
I believe there is not.

Ian Menter 24:55
There are similar programs in something like 30 countries now. Teach for India, Teach for Australia, etc. But as far as I am aware, Teresa, you are confirming that Finland has not adopted that approach.

Maria Teresa Tatto 25:13
It does go against the whole idea of what teachers should be. In Finland, there is something that they call the science of education. And within the university, education is recognized as one of the disciplines in the university, which is a status that is different than it has in England, or even here in the US. So, you know education is at par with other disciplines. And so, preparing teachers is seen as an equally important endeavor as preparing doctors or preparing engineers.

Will Brehm 25:52
How do these sort of alternative pathways compare to the university internship model that you’ve explored at, I think it was Michigan State University and Oxford University?

Ian Menter 26:05
The idea of the Oxford internship scheme, which has some similarities with Michigan State, as you will hear from Teresa in a moment. The idea was first implemented way back in the early 1980s when for the first time in England, we had a very sustained, collaborative development of a teacher education program involving not just the university, and not just local schools, but also the local education authority, the local council that at that time had management responsibility for schools. So, the program was developed collaboratively. And for the first time, really, we had a fully sustained partnership between those different partners, which involved systematic and prolonged training and debate and discussion between the partners, so that the whole program was developed as a cooperative activity. And it had a principle of learning through inquiry built into it right from the outset. And it’s very much a kind of research-based and research-informed approach. It became recognized and still is recognized as one of the most successful teacher education programs in England. It’s been rated very highly whenever it has been inspected. And it is recognized throughout the professional community, teachers, and teacher educators, as a very effective program. It has to be said, it’s a relatively small program, taking fewer than 200 new people each year, and only working at the moment with intending secondary school teachers. But it has been very successful. And it was one of the two main programs we looked at in this book. We looked at two programs which we believe did have a track record of success in the sense of trying to explore what happens in a situation where practice is generally recognized to be very successful.

Maria Teresa Tatto 28:23
Yeah, the program at Michigan State University is also a program that is very much research-based. And in the late 80s, there was a big effort to create a partnership. In fact, there was some influence from the Oxford model in the Michigan State University. It said that MSU actually went a little bit further to develop what is called professional development schools. The Horn Group reports this series of three reports that imagine or re-imagine what it would be to have a different model to prepare teachers and a different idea of what a teacher should be. It really inspired a movement to create a teacher education program that was based in strong partnerships in the schools. Where also similar as to what Ian was saying, to have a collaborative role between the people in the school, the faculty in universities where everybody will, you know, benefit in order to support the learning of future teachers. Where faculty and teachers together research their own practice so that they will document how they were attempting to prepare teachers and what was working, what was not working. There was a whole scholarship that came out of the 1980s-1990s documenting, you know, what it was like to prepare future teachers. Where teachers were, like in the mid-90s, conceived as learners. And once that switch happened, thinking of teachers as learners, there was just this explosion of ideas and trying to understand teacher thinking, and what it was like to take on the role of a teacher, you know, or the identity and so on. So, the programs at Michigan State University have maintained for 22 years in a row or more the reputation of being the best program in the nation in preparing elementary and secondary teachers. And the US News and World Report just came out stating, again, that we are at the top of the list as well, this year. So, it is a very strong model in terms of partnership. The internship in the Michigan State University model, to answer your question about the difference between Teach First internship and the Michigan State internship model, is that it’s very carefully designed in terms of the collaboration that exists between the university. The last year, for example, Michigan State is a five-year program. So, in the fifth year, the interns spend a full year in the school except for one day that they go to university. And that day, there is a day of planning, reflection, and thinking about what they are going to do on the subsequent weeks. So, they actually plan what they are going to teach, how they are going to teach it, how they are going to reflect on their teaching, how they are going to evaluate their pupils to see whether they learn what is intended. And many of them actually videotape themselves doing these, and they’re quite critical about their own performance, and they write papers about what they could improve. The mentors in the Michigan State models are carefully selected in most of the cases to be mentors who are aligned with the Michigan State model or who have been teachers themselves prepared by the Michigan State University model. In cases where the mentorship doesn’t work well, sometimes it’s because, you know, pressures in the school or because the mentors themselves have not been prepared through the Michigan State University model.

Will Brehm 32:43
Do you think it is possible to scale the Michigan State University model and the Oxford model to more pre-service teacher training, teacher education in England and in the US? I mean, is that a feasible goal?

Ian Menter 33:02
I think it could. I mean, in a sense, these two programs have had a significant influence in both countries. Certainly, in England, the Oxford Internship Scheme was one of those that inspired if you like the move towards systematic partnership between schools and universities that did sweep across teacher education in the 1990s in England. You know, there were very positive moves about recognizing the contribution of schools to teacher education, which had been seriously undervalued in the conventional models that I talked about right early on in this discussion. So, I do think there’s been a lot of learning. And, of course, we have looked from Oxford to learn from other colleagues, both in England and internationally over the years as well. Things have not stood still. On the question of scaling up. I don’t see any reason why the principles of a scheme like the Oxford one shouldn’t be more widely adopted. They’re not particularly expensive. They’re not, I mean, we run on the same resource as programs elsewhere in the country. What I would say, however, is it does take time to really develop the knowledge and expertise within the professional community in the university and the schools to see the benefits of such an integrated scheme. So, one shouldn’t expect sort of immediate overnight success. On the other hand, if you see something that seems to work very consistently and very well, why not learn from it? And rather than throwing out babies with bath waters, rather than English colloquialism that but rather than to sort of overturn practice that is good in a number of places, why not learn from what is best and build on that. And just one final comment. I mean, we have suffered recently in England from this very short-sighted notion of teaching as simply being about enthusiasm for a subject and being able to convey it. And the idea of learning as simply as an apprenticeship. Well, you know, there is an element of apprenticeship in becoming a teacher. There is no doubt that one learns from experienced teachers. But it is very clear to us, and the research in the book shows this very clearly, that is not enough. There is a very complex and challenging program of learning that has to be carefully structured and planned to be fully effective. And that takes time, care, and consideration. And I think we could learn a great deal from these kinds of schemes. The same, no doubt, Teresa, with your scheme in Michigan.

Maria Teresa Tatto 36:11
Yes, well, the Michigan State University model, actually, I have written about this with my colleague, Janet Stuart, about the model for the teacher education for the 21st century. You know, it was something that, you know, expanding teacher education from four years to five years, to having a more selective criteria for entrance into the program, and then to carefully develop a curriculum that will allow teachers to progress. Seeing becoming a teacher as a developmental process, which actually aligns very closely now with what we call the task standards, as we documented in the book. So, the model has been an inspiration to many programs in the nation. And it has already, you know, … it is something that several programs have tried to develop in their own institutions, including the development of professional schools that exist still in several parts of the country. The idea of having faculty researcher on practice, you’ll see these in several presentations in several places, different faculty reflecting on what it takes to prepare teachers. But I will say that the model of partnership, and the kind of partnership that both Oxford University and Michigan State University aspire to, is very challenging in the current era of standards and accountability because, as Ian said, it takes time, it takes a lot of effort from teacher educators to concentrate on what the important task of preparing teachers is. But now, accountability demands require teacher educators to do other things in addition to teach future teachers. You know, it becomes a more bureaucratic procedure. Collect data about how your program is doing. And it is not that programs have ever avoided accountability. Programs have been very good at keeping track of their successes and their failures, but increasing layers of requirements, increasing accountability, procedures, those take away from the work of teacher educators. In addition, sometimes in universities, the work, the teacher education faculty, those is not as valued. And especially if that is, you know, connected with the schools. So, spending a lot of time in schools is something that takes time away from doing research, from publishing, and for those traditionally valued standards that the university has. So, things have to change in universities in order for these models to flourish in the way in which they were planned. At the moment in which faculty care more about publications and about doing research than spending time in schools with teachers and with mentors and, you know, use observing and nurturing these beginning teachers, at that moment, this idea of the partnership, you know, begins to fail. So, there are a number of things that need to be in place for this type of models to be scalable.

Will Brehm 39:59
Well, Maria Teresa Tatto and Ian Menter, thank you so much for joining FreshEd, it’s a pleasure to talk.

Ian Menter 40:05
Thank you, Will, it’s been good talking to you and very interesting to have this discussion. Many thanks.

Maria Teresa Tatto 40:12
Thank you, Will. I was so much looking forward to this interview, and I’m just very happy that we had this exchange. It’s wonderful work that you do.

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