Exploring Powerful Knowledge within Social Studies

Returning back to university to commence third year brings about new areas for personal and professional reflection in regards to my ongoing development as a teacher. This year, I have chosen to do Social Studies as my elective and, just like the Discovering Mathematics module, I have to maintain a blog that relates to my learning within the subject, particularly with how it impacts my criticality and how my views upon teaching as a whole changes and what new learning I can bring to the Social Studies subject as a whole.

I decided to pick this module because, although I studied the subject of History in high school, I believe I need a greater insight on how to better my subject knowledge in Social Studies to go on and be a successful teacher that is confident to teach the areas of geography, history and humanities. Furthermore, during my time in Germany for learning from life, I soon realised that I am lacking a lot of general knowledge surrounding my home country. I may understand particular time periods and history of my local area (relating to the topics that I did during my time in education), but I lack a deeper understanding beyond that. An example of this being that I was asked if it was at all possible to see the Northern Lights from Scotland… Something I still am yet to inquire into.

A particular concept that has sparked my interest within the first inputs is the questioning and re-evaluation of the importance of knowledge that we teach our kids within the context of social studies, which is known as Powerful Knowledge.

Powerful Knowledge has been extensively explored by sociologist and educationalist Michael Young (2013) as he believes that educational institutions have almost turned away from knowledge in favour for a more skills-based curriculum in the modern era. This has then questioned the technicalities and the real importance of knowledge further with the pressures that teachers and their students face with testing and standardised assessments. Young (2013) believes that we shouldn’t write off knowledge as being purely superficial.

There is a continuing debate surrounding the purpose and the importance of knowledge for children during their time in education. Particularly with what knowledge is useful and if there is a clear distinction between useful knowledge and knowledge that is deemed less than useful. If I was to choose a particular historical or geographical topic to teach to my class, I would probably first question, what is it that I want them to know?

To examine this question, I decided to explore the Experiences and Outcomes document for Social Studies:

Learning in the social studies will enable me to:
• develop my understanding of the history, heritage and culture of Scotland, and an appreciation of my local and national heritage within the world
• broaden my understanding of the world by learning about human activities and achievements in the past and present
• develop my understanding of my own values, beliefs and cultures and those of others
• develop my understanding of the principles of democracy and citizenship through experience of critical and independent thinking
• explore and evaluate different types of sources and evidence
• learn how to locate, explore and link periods, people and events in time and place
• learn how to locate, explore and link features and places locally and further afield
• engage in activities which encourage enterprising attitudes
• develop an understanding of concepts that stimulate enterprise and influence business
• establish firm foundations for lifelong learning and for further specialised study and careers. 

(Scottish Government, 2018, p.1) 

I have put some of the key words that stood out to me in bold because I feel that they really made me question what Social Studies really is as a subject. Social Studies is not just a combination of Geography and History, it goes far beyond that. We can see real links to the ‘real world’ and wider issues that impact us as humans within society, rather than the traditional ‘lets learn about these people that lived during this period of time’ with history.

If we are to pick apart Social Studies as a subject within the framework of Curriculum for Excellence alongside the arguments surrounding Powerful Knowledge within the classroom, we can see that knowledge is not entirely at the forefront of the purpose of the subject (the word knowledge itself does not appear within the purposes list at all).

Martin and Owens (2004) supplement this concept with their findings that students work best and thrive within their understanding when the learning, particularly within geography, begins when their own first-hand knowledge is fully appreciated first by a practitioner and then they can branch out and extend. Roberts (2014) highlights this further by reiterating that the knowledge and understanding that the children bring to the table themselves should be appreciated as it is their own ‘personal geographies’ (p.193) which can make a massive difference between the battle of presenting social studies within an abstract or a concrete nature, something that is tricky to master. I think this then should make a practitioner truly question the type of knowledge they want their kids to get out of their learning as Simon (2001) argues that intellectual inquiry (or knowledge-based exploration) can sometimes be dismissive of the importance that moral exploration can bring in knowledge of the wider world (p.36), which obviously links well with the guidelines in the Experiences and Outcomes documents. This, then interlinks the various subsets of social studies and shows that ‘Powerful Knowledge’ is not always just the factual information of our past, but actually a deeper exploration of what makes us human, what made our ancestors human and how we relate to the world around us.

Children cannot and will not see the importance of Geography or History (or any subject for that matter) that is purely presented in a cold, black and white manner.

Overall what this has shown me is that as a learner I might not have the particular knowledge at a specific time that it is needed, however I am capable of inquiring the matter independently which is far more important than the knowledge itself. This means that knowledge may be useful for learning to progress and for a strong context, particularly for Social Studies, to be established, however, as a teacher I need to be able to construct my lessons so that skills are being enhanced and so that criticality is embedded within my student’s outlook towards learning and understanding and to do this effectively I need to ensure I am tapping into the knowledge that the kids in my class bring to me.

I hope to gain a whole lot more from Social Studies this semester!


Martin, F. & Owens, P. (2004) ‘Young children making sense of their place in the world’ in Scoffham, S. ed. Primary Geography Handbook Sheffield: Geographical Association. pp. 63 – 73.

Roberts, M. (2014), ‘Powerful Knowledge and geographical education’ , The Curriculum Journal, Vol.25, N0. 2, pp. 187-209.

Simon, K.G. (2001)  Moral Question in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork London: Yale University Press.

Scottish Government (2018) Curriculum for excellence: social studies experiences and outcomes [Pdf] Available at: https://education.gov.scot/Documents/social-studies-eo.pdf (Accessed: 21 September 2018).

Young, M. (2013) ‘Overcoming the crisis in curriculum theory: a knowledge-based approach’ in Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45:2, pp. 101-118

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