The biggest challenge of using cognitive science to develop a knowledge-rich curriculum

The biggest challenge of using cognitive science to develop a knowledge-rich curriculum

Since the introduction of the new GCSEs in 2014, ministers have focused on shifting towards a more knowledge-rich curriculum. Broadly, this concept focuses on placing knowledge at the heart of the curriculum and aims to give students similar learning opportunities. 

Likewise, at around the same time, the interest in and popularity of cognitive science within education has grown, as the profession strived to become more evidenced-based and research informed.

However, in a weird turn of fate, the very foundations of cognitive science also presents one of the biggest challenges in implementing a knowledge-rich curriculum. Before we look at that, let’s have a quick reminder of what exactly is a knowledge-rich curriculum.

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What is a knowledge-rich curriculum?

A knowledge-rich curriculum not only emphasises the importance of knowledge but also organise learning coherently to ensure that students form foundations that are built upon each year.

In general, this type of curriculum has four main aspects:

  1. Knowledge provides an underpinning philosophy – This is the belief that people are empowered by knowledge.
  2. The content is specified in detail – Each topic taught should include a lot of detail.
  3. Knowledge is taught to be remembered, not encountered – The information taught should be remembered for a long time after it was learnt.
  4. It is sequenced and mapped deliberately – This type of curriculum ensures that students can make connections between topics rather than jumping from one topic to the next.


Why do schools adopt it?

1. Creates connections between topics

The structure of the knowledge-rich curriculum allows students to make links between topics. This is especially useful as building upon previously-learnt information can help with remembering new information.

2. Ready for the wider world

Many schools have adopted a knowledge-rich curriculum to ensure that students are ready for the wider world. This idea was also taken up by Ofsted in 2019, who also said that schools should equip pupils with "knowledge and the cultural capital they need to succeed in life."

3. A more cohesive society

During a speech by the Minister for School Standards, it was highlighted that having a knowledge-rich curriculum can help influence a more equal and cohesive society.

How does this work? Well, when students start school, they don’t all come with the same amount of prior knowledge. Research has shown that those with more prior knowledge tend to do better academically. Therefore, having a knowledge-rich curriculum can help close this gap by ensuring that all students are taught the same knowledge and therefore get the same opportunities in life.

4. A foundation to build other skills

There is a train of thought that it is easier to build much desired skills, such as creativity, from a foundation of knowledge. When people have a large amount of domain-specific knowledge, it is easier to manipulate that knowledge in innovative and creative ways.


The Cognitive Science Challenge of a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum

Having a large amount of knowledge to cover in the curriculum can make time a real challenge. The need to cover all of it in order to progress to the next lesson can be at the forefront of many teachers’ minds. This then makes the thought of going "backwards" to revisit previously taught material feel like they are not making good progress - even though this is the strategy that cognitive science suggests.

What compounds this is that many of the most ineffective strategies (such as blocking and cramming) often given the illusion of learning, as research suggests that students typically do very well when tested straight away. This gives the impression they have really learnt something, and yet, when assessed a week a two later (which is a decent proxy for long-term memory), they will have forgotten large amounts of the information.


This means we have to avoid the trap of just trying to cycle through large amounts of information as a way of "doing a knowledge-rich curriculum", which only gives a superficial appearance of knowledge. Students may enjoy this as they feel like they have mastered a topic, and the data may look good when taken in isolation. But taken as a whole, this learning is often shallow. And anything that has been mastered quickly is often forgotten quickly too.

shallow vs deep learning


Cognitive science highlights how re-visiting material actually isn’t "going backwards". It is fundamental to the learning process. For your curriculum to truly be knowledge-rich, this means ensuring that the knowledge sticks for large periods of time. We need to help shift students beyond just being "aware" of something, and towards really knowing it.

Knowledge matrix


How long to wait before revisiting the content?

To remember information, it is essential to revisit a topic. But what is the optimal time to wait before revisiting the content?

Previous research that looked into this provided some rough guidelines on what these optimal time gaps should be. The main focus was that the further away the test was, the bigger the gaps between the revision sessions should be. However, although these rough guidelines are useful, more details on this are needed.

Can feel slower in the short term

Teaching students topics that are packed with information can feel like a slow process at the start, as it might take longer to get through the content and can be frustrating. However, going slowly at the start may be more beneficial in the long term. As students learn more information, they get better at linking topics together, allowing them to learn new information quicker.


Final Thoughts

A knowledge-rich curriculum can be very beneficial for students and very influential for their future. However, the temptation may be to try to squeeze in all this knowledge in order to progress to the next unit of work.

Cognitive science suggests that re-visiting material shouldn’t be seen as the other end of the spectrum for this. Rather, it is fundamental to the learning process (arguably even more so with a knowledge-rich curriculum). By understanding that the short-term appearance of learning may not link closely to long-term learning, we are better able to manage this challenge and use an evidence-informed approach for our students' learning. This will help those who do adopt a knowledge-rich curriculum to do so even more effectively.


Do you want to work together with 10 like-minded schools on how to use the best cognitive science research to improve teaching & learning in your school? Join the Cognitive Science Network...

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