The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Ashmi Morjaria

What you don’t know, you don’t know!

Ashmi Morjaria explores the concept of hinterland knowledge, why it matters and what it means for curriculum design. 

As a member of the British Indian community and a school leader, I have found the last year more emotionally taxing than any year before. Knowing that I was 2 and half times more likely to die from Covid than my white counterparts was overwhelming to say the least!

Add to that the challenging conversations around race that came post-George Floyd and more recently the Sewell report – being brown for much of this year has felt like a burden. So what kept my fire burning and my positivity alive? Curriculum, curriculum and curriculum!

The power of curriculum

When talking about diversity and inclusion in school, many people link it to the pastoral strategy. While this is important, it is equally important that we clearly understand the deep and everlasting change that we can achieve through our curriculum offer.

The content we put in front of our children is the most powerful tool to leverage change. This will be the thing that will create structural change. (Bennie Kara at the Undivided GDST webinar series: Models of Curriculum Thinking, May 2021) 

The work of curriculum expert Christine Counsell explores the notion of core knowledge and hinterland knowledge. Core knowledge is the fact-based knowledge we have to teach and hinterland knowledge is knowledge which can broaden the schema.

For example, in maths we have to teach pupils that zero is the foundation of our number system – this is core knowledge. In this instance, hinterland knowledge could be that Brahmagupta, an Indian astronomer and mathematician, defined zero in 628. Later, in the ninth century, Arab mathematician Al Khwarizmi showed how the zero could function in algebraic equations.

By sharing this knowledge with our pupils, we provide them with breadth and depth. 

Our children need to see themselves as global citizens

A simple Google search for famous mathematicians will reveal names like Newton, Einstein and Archimedes. Brahmagupta and Al Khwarizmi provide a different perspective, as do figures like Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. The film Hidden Figures has moved Johnson and Jackson from hinterland to core knowledge and the impact of this has been powerful.

‘I see me, I am inspired’, announced a Year 5 pupil, when studying space landing and exploring the work of Katherine Johnson. Perhaps we should be questioning what should be hinterland knowledge and what should be core?

Exploring Brahmagupta and Al Khwarizmi would allow pupils to link India to the Middle East and then the Western world. It allows them to see themselves as part of the world, as opposed to an island. This in itself is so powerful in creating structural change.

Structural change

Structural change can only come when the notion of ‘other’ is diminished. For if I am the other, I am not ‘normal’ and you are more important. 

Sue Sanders coined the term usualising and I believe it is really important that we ‘usualise’ the perceived ‘other.’ Ensuring there is diverse curriculum content is pivotal to this. We must give time and space to encounter and explore the perceived ‘other.’ 

How can we teach hinterland knowledge if we don’t even know it exists?

For example, when studying Victorians, core knowledge might include looking at the Industrial Revolution, but what if we spent some time discussing the African Princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies? What if we learned that she was a ward of Queen Victoria, who later became godmother to Sarah’s daughter?

‘Usualising’ the presence of black people in places of power during the Victorian era would surely play a part in diminishing the perception of ‘other’, and thus pave the way to structural change.

Why is structural change needed?

I am not going to spend much time on this question; I think we can see from the events going on globally and nationally that parts of our society are broken. The recent anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric has been a stark reminder that we have a way to go before we diminish the notion of the ‘other.’

Our children need to see themselves as global citizens and for this to happen they need to understand the world and how each part of it is connected. They need to be able to celebrate difference, call out injustice and pave the way for structural change.

But... if you don’t know you don’t know!

How can we teach hinterland knowledge if we don’t even know it exists? As teachers, we are often time deprived, so we go to what has been done before. It is usual to pick up a scheme, adapt it and then teach it.

What if we ‘usualise’ questioning the scheme and questioning what should be core knowledge? What if we use the pool of expertise around us more and ask questions? An online forum where we simply say ‘Hey, I’m teaching the Victorians, what do you know?’ or an opportunity to mind map ideas with colleagues across different departments before we start a unit of work.

I am sure this will lead us to a wealth of hinterland knowledge that we didn’t know existed. In this discovery, we may decide that hinterland knowledge is actually core. Imagine the possibilities or better still… let’s create them.

This post was originally written for the Northwood College for Girls GDST Pioneers publication. 

References and further reading

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