What is knowledge rich Part 5: the attraction of powerful knowledge

‘… we must shift from seeing education as primarily concerned with knowledge to seeing it as primarily concerned with social practices’.

(Hirst, 1993)

In 2007 Lessa Wheelahan coined the term powerful knowledge and chiefly contrasted it to the kind of knowledge as defined by employers and key to a number of vocational course in Australia. [1] Such courses were seen as limiting and restricting the student’s capacity to develop a critical perspective on their own social situation and not least the education they were experiencing.

For Michael Young powerful knowledge is ‘not like common sense, rooted in specific contexts of our experience. This means that powerful knowledge can be the basis for generalisations and thinking beyond particular contexts or cases … Powerful knowledge is specialised. In other words, it has been developed by clearly distinguishable groups with a well-defined focus and relatively fixed boundaries, separating different forms of expertise.’ [2]

As philosopher John White points out: ‘the term [powerful knowledge] carries a strong, positive, emotive charge. I suspect this is why it has become attractive to many in the educational world.’ [3]

Michael Young takes powerful knowledge to reside in subjects where interrelated concepts cohere to form unique disciplines.

This makes a similar error to that made by Hirst in his 1965 thesis assuming that all subjects work as mathematics and physics do where conceptual structure is what students spend their time inside. Other subjects simply fail in this respect.

Music has no unique conceptual existence but borrows freely from other sources, physics being one. Music is engaged with not so that students can indwell a unique conceptual scheme but because it is, yes, wait for it, a significant social cultural practice and which flourishes where rootedness in specific contexts of our experience play a fundamental source of knowing, knowledge and meaning making.

One of Michael Young’s central claims that there is a gulf between subject disciplinary knowledge and everyday knowledge is mistaken in the case of most subjects and certainly in the case of music.


[1] Wheelehan, L. (2007) How competency-based training locks the working class out of powerful knowledge: a modified Bernsteinian perspective. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28, 4, 637-651.

[2] White, J. (2018) The weakness of ‘powerful knowledge’. London Review of Education, 16, 2: 325-335.

Other emotive terms come to mind, knowledge rich being one of these.

[3] Young, M. (2015) ‘Unleashing the power of knowledge for all’. Spiked, 1 September. Online. http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/unleashing the power-of-knowledge-for-all/17374#.WfyqqrZOfq1 (accessed 4 September 2018)

For a thorough exposition of the powerful knowledge thesis see Young, M. and Muller, J. (2010) Three Educational Scenarios for the Future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge. European Journal of Education, 45, 1. 11-27.


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