Pub Trivia and Powerful Knowledge: School – what is it good for? (Part 2)

Is it worth asking pupils to memorise this data? Is this knowledge “powerful”?

In Part One of School: What is it good for? I argued that schools shouldn’t try to concern themselves with every function of education as other social agents could handle those better. Instead, I suggested that schools do what everyone can’t do; the passing on of powerful knowledge from previous generations to the next. Those things that stand outside their everyday experiences. David Wadley (2008) suggests that we create Gardens of Peace that stand in contrast to the global neoliberal Vibrant City which has “dulled our ability to think for and beyond ourselves”. This allows us to reject the idea that schools simply serve the purposes of society’s wider concerns and instead allow a space for more rarefied thinking, a sacred space, where human potential can be developed for its own sake.

Why do we need to learn this?

I was thinking about all this recently when I wrote a little retrieval quiz for my Year 12 class with the first question “What is the average NPP of tropical rainforests?” Was expecting them to know that the average NPP is 2200 creating this garden of peace where they were being introduced to powerful knowledge that would shift their understanding of our world, or was it just creating the answer to the a very unlikely pub trivia question?

Is it the place of a school to teach that the average NPP of tropical rainforests is 2200?

We could argue that the ability to recall the NPP of tropical rainforests is pretty trivial – after all, you could google in a second. But… what of the rest of the question.

I would certainly want them to know what NPP refers to – Net Primary Productivity and that is is the difference in the amount of carbon taken in due to photosynthesis and that put out through respiration. I would also expect them to know why this is significant in terms of the world’s carbon cycle. I would also want to teach them that this is an average and that the actual amount can vary a great deal depending on the age of the trees and the local climate. I would want them to understand why it is also important to look at the range of NPP for an ecosystem before making sweeping claims about its efficacy as a carbon store.

Then on to the figure itself – is it worth remembering the 2200? I would argue that it does matter and that this is something schools are there to teach. By having that figure to hand we can start to challenge claims that deforestation of the Amazon could be tackled through reforestation in temperate latitudes where NPP is closer to 1300 and so would need almost twice the area for the same effect. It allows pupils to move beyond thinking about the rainforest as having a “high” NPP to being more specific in their thinking and better able to consider implications of change. If someone suggests that soy plantations would also act as a useful carbon sink they know to ask the question “well, what is its NPP?” and then do something with the answer. They can also better understand the implications of desertification of land that was previously forested as they know the scale of the difference. It isn’t simply a case that one is “low” and the other is “high”. The actual numbers make a difference to their comprehension.

Using powerful knowledge to create capabilities

I would argue that whilst knowing the NPP of tropical rainforests might seem quite trivial it actually help to creates what Lambert, Solem & Tani (2015) term “geocapabilities”. It links to Martha Nussbaum’s list of universal human capabilities including:

  • imagination and thought – they can now think about the implications of this figure and imagine a future without rainforests
  • respect for nature and other species – it allows them to consider the complexity of distinct ecosystems and engender respect for their role in earth life support systems.
  • nature and control over one’s material and political environment – it allows them to challenge political statements about the value of ecosystems and plans to manage them.

It also creates an educational encounter that goes beyond the day to day knowledge they will encounter and asks them to think the “not yet thought” (Bernstein 2000) with this one simple piece of information. They can start to make-meaning of it and use it to better understand their world.

Pupils are not going to go and discover the Net Primary Productivity of different ecosystems for themselves – they are not knowledge creators. They are not going to stumble on the information for themselves in a way that allows them to interrogate and make sense of it (the meaning-making that schools do enable). If we want pupils to think deeply about the world they will inherit they need the information to think with. Something as trivial as remembering that the average NPP of tropical rainforests is 2200 can be one step towards more capable geographers and more capable humans.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching is available now – see how we can build curriculum around powerful knowledge.

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