Michael Young, University of London: Educational policies for a knowledge society: reflections from a sociology of knowledge perspective

The keynote lecture held at the GOETE kick-off meeting, Tübingen, 29 January 2010, gives Michael Young's reflections on developments that influence education policy-making.


Michael Young, University of London (left) and Herbert Müther, vice-rector of the University of Tuebingen

Michael Young, University of London (left) and Herbert Müther, vice-rector of the University of Tuebingen

In this lecture I want to outline and comment on the implications of what I see as a tension in current educational policy at both the national and international levels. My argument will be that current policies neglect and even undermine the most basic education issue facing policy makers, teachers and researchers, regardless of the specific focus of their work.

The tension can be expressed as follows: On the one hand, most current policies take as a priority the extension of access to and the widening of participation in education. However, at the same time they neglect or in some cases actually deny that at the most fundamental level, education involves the transmission, from one generation to another, of what I refer to as ‘powerful knowledge’ – that knowledge that enables learners to generalise from their experience and move beyond it. My argument is that the transmission of powerful knowledge is always at the forefront of the goals of elite institutions. It follows that in so far as this is not the priority of current policies, they are likely to perpetuate and even extend existing educational inequalities. In the last part of this lecture, I will suggest an alternative approach to the problem of developing educational policies for a knowledge society which is based on a realist sociology of knowledge.

The tension I am concerned with arises from the problem of ‘massifying’ an elite system and from unresolved questions as to whether this involves (a) extending elite knowledge to the mass, (b) replacing the concept of knowledge associated with elite forms of education, or (c) developing a diversified system of education suited to the needs and interests of different groups in society.

Let me elaborate on these aspects: First, it is widely agreed that we in Europe should be moving towards a knowledge society – one that is dominated by high skill jobs and innovation that links research to new forms of production and new services. On the other hand, there appears to be very little discussion concerning (a) what knowledge is being referred to, (b) what is distinctive about a knowledge society, or (c) what it is that distinguishes high from low skills, and finally (d) why even modern societies seem to perpetuate a class of low achievers who when they become adults perpetuate a culture of low achievement for their children. Current discussions on education policy are often carried out as if a knowledge society were a kind of taken for granted goal to aim at and, on the other hand, the differences between high and low skills could be read off the level descriptors of a qualifications framework that is defined in terms of learning outcomes.

One consequence of these assumptions is that, in the absence of any more explicit specification, the goals of education for a knowledge society are expressed in a range of ‘measurable’ outcomes defined increasingly by qualifications. In other words, by default, these policies appear to be leading us towards a credentialist version of a Knowledge Society, with all the problems of credential inflation and people gaining worthless qualifications with neither use value nor exchange value. These problems are not new and were of course addressed by the American sociologist, Randall Collins, as long ago as 1979, in his book The Credential Society.[1] However, the new emphasis on qualifications in the context of the idea of creating a knowledge society, gives Collins’s analysis a new urgency.

Educational policies which draw on the idea of a knowledge society typically identify three related problems with current education systems. The first, I have referred to, is a persistent and increasingly vulnerable under-class of low achieving, early leaving adolescents; they are often but not always from ethnic minorities and all too easily become unemployed and in many cases unemployable adults, an issue that is at the heart of the GOETE Project.

The second is the rigidity and inflexibility of current systems of education and training. It is argued that a much higher level of occupational flexibility and mobility will be needed – in relation to sectors, regions and nations – in knowledge societies. The ‘flexible workers’ of the future, it is assumed, will need to be prepared to move seamlessly from one sector, one region and even one country to another, several times during their career – the rationale behind the Education Qualifications Framework (EQF). The third problem frequently identified is that as the pace of new knowledge created increases, knowledge, and work become less differentiated into types, domains, and sectors. Each of these assumptions has influenced the type of educational policies that are proposed. The next section discusses each briefly in turn.

I find no fault with the description of an under-class of low achievement. However, where debate and research is lacking is on two issues that follow: (i) how to explain its persistence and (ii) what strategies do we have to counter this phenomenon? To put it another way, is low achievement and early leaving, as governments prefer to see it, an educational problem that must be dealt with by schools and colleges, or is it primarily a social and economic problem?

My understanding is that the research literature emphasises two points about persistent under achievement in education. One is that it cannot be separated from the family and community circumstances of the learners concerned. Successful learning – and in particular – acquiring what Vygotsky called the ‘theoretical concepts’ which are the basis of all higher forms of thought, relies on the support of families and their close collaboration with teachers – a condition that is invariably absent for low achievers.[2] The second point that I draw from the research is that lack of skills and knowledge is a demand rather than a supply problem – in other words, a significant section of private companies are able to be profitable by employing those with few skills or qualifications on low wages – as in the retail trade and the casual farming work. A low achieving under-class is the product of the failure of at least some European economies to create employment that demands new skills and knowledge that are realistically attainable by low achievers. A solution, therefore would involve changes in production priorities and human resource policies of employers or a more radical transformation of western capitalism. It is only in the context of such economic changes that new educational strategies are likely to be effective.

A further issue is the implications of the flexibility/mobility diagnosis and especially the conclusions that have been drawn from it for educational programmes. First, a number of questions need to be asked which hopefully the GOETE Project will shed light on. Who exactly are the ‘mobile workers’ in a knowledge economy and in what sectors are they most likely to be found? I suspect that they are both a diverse and stratified group with polar extremes of different types.

One type are the currently mobile high achievers in fast developing sectors like IT and cultural industries – they have mostly benefited from existing education systems. However, we need to be aware that even within this relatively privileged group, new forms of stratification are emerging that are expressed in the recruitment policies of international companies. Newfield (2009) coined the evocative term ‘cognotariat’ to describe how even those with doctorates – the cognitive workers – are being ‘proletarianised’ – in other words have less and less control over their work.

The second type is an under-class of low wage employees and job seekers who move from low skill job to low skill job, some casual, some seasonal and sometimes from country to country. The question I want to raise is what kind of educational support does this more stratified but mobile workforce need? Is it, as government and international agencies often assume, a more flexible education system based on modularisation and higher levels of choice to enable students to ‘pick‘ and ‘mix’ according to the opportunities available? I have reservations about this solution. If the knowledge economy theorists are right in predicting the trend to increased flexibility/mobility, this is a complex situation for young people entering employment and a flexible educational response is not necessarily the answer.

I remember being impressed by the concept ‘flexicurity’ proposed some years ago by Günter Kutschka of the University of Duisburg. This expresses the idea that educational programmes of the future need to combine ‘structure’ to give learners the confidence and security to cope with an uncertain future and ‘flexibility’ so that they can use this confidence to respond to new opportunities; a simple idea but with complex educational implications. Perhaps the GOETE Project will be able to identify examples of its use as a basis for developing programmes.

The third feature of the knowledge society thesis is that although it emphasises knowledge and knowledge workers, it invariably lacks specificity about what the knowledge is being referred to. Two general assumptions are common: First, knowledge is changing faster than ever before and so existing knowledge – especially that acquired in school or college – quickly becomes out of date, and, second, knowledge is becoming less differentiated, less bounded to specific domains, sectors and occupations.

A number of educational priorities follows – let me take four – genericism, choice and the importance of recognising – and accrediting experience and an emphasis on outcomes.

  1. Genericism is the idea that learning specific contents – whether knowledge or skills are becoming less important and so the emphasis must be on what is ‘generic’. There are many examples of the form that this ‘genericism’ is expected to take – one of the most well known is Robert Reich’s four C’s – to criticise, conceptualise, connect and compare. These capacities, sometimes described as thinking skills, Reich argues, cut across many different occupations and will enable people to make sense of an increasingly complex world. My problem with such a generic approach is that it separates process from content – thinking from what thinking is about; learning from what you are learning, problem solving from the domain or occupation in which the problem arises. It is as if you could learn to criticise texts, in literature independently of what you might be criticising. As a consequence, Reich’s capacities provide you with a set of categories for mapping the world in an apparently coherent way without knowing much about the specific case you are mapping. This is a valuable resource for management consultants but no basis for teaching or learning.
  2. My second example of current educational trends is their emphasis on individual choice. The assumptions are (i) that giving learners more choice will motivate them even if they lack the cultural resources to make the choices, and (ii) that as more people need to create new knowledge, so a greater emphasis must be given to individuals choosing what they study. The typical application of the idea of greater choice is to modularise the curriculum into what an English educationist referred to as ‘bit sized chunks’ – the consumption metaphor for learning is all too clear. In this model the teacher becomes the facilitator for helping learners to move from module to module acquiring outcome-based qualifications. He or she is no longer the transmitter of knowledge to those who want or need to know.
  3. Experience: The increased emphasis, in educational research and policy on tacit, informal, experiential, non-codified skills and its accreditation as if this was an enormous hidden cultural resource that needs to be tapped and given recognition, especially among those with few or only low level mainstream qualifications. A good example is the fashionable idea of tacit skills – that we know more than we can say. This goes back to the philosopher of science – Michael Polanyi. However, for Polanyi tacit skills could not be treated in isolation from codified skills but as part of how codified skills – in his case science – are acquired and produced.
  4. The shift to outcomes – the title of a recent CEDEFOP report.[3] The emphasis on outcomes – that idea that educational programmes can be best expressed in terms of a set of ‘written learning outcomes’ and that teachers can use such outcomes rather than subject or occupationally specific syllabuses to develop curricula. It is also claimed that outcomes can be used as the basis for accrediting informal skills – what is known as APEL – that are acquired ‘in practice’ not through attending any programme of study.

What do these trends have in common?

They assume that the activities involved in learning and teaching can be treated independently of what is being taught or learned.

  1. They imply that the teacher is a facilitator rather than a transmitter of knowledge and that students will acquire new knowledge on their own if teachers do not intrude into what is seen as an almost natural process of learning – a harking back to Rousseau and the French early 20th century educationist Clarapède.
  2. They are linked to an emphasis on ‘learning to learn’ and ‘knowledge about knowledge’ – in Manuel Castells terms. In other words, modern workers must be taught to distrust what they know and always be searching for new learning opportunities Even those with little confidence in their own capabilities must question the worth of what they know, as all knowledge is fluid, changeable and changing. The question that this raises is what then is the basis for the identity of learners – what gives them the confidence for accepting or rejecting new knowledge – if it is not a confidence in what they already know?
  3. The fourth thing that these trends have in common is symbolised in the slogan of the 2008 conference of BECTA – the UK IT in Education organisation – learning everywhere.[4] The emphasis is that IT can support the learning that is not associated with educational institutions – In other words, it is learning that is work based, community based, family based rather than school or college based.

What kind of educational future do these trends promise? What kind of questions do they raise? Firstly, if the informal, the tacit, the experiential, the un-codified and the generic are so important:

  • What is formal education – attending school, college, or university – for?
  • Why do we want to increase participation, improve staying on rates, or raise the school leaving age?
  • Is there nothing about learning in formal education that distinguishes it from other forms of learning that people always have and will engage in?
  • Should teachers only be facilitators or should they also be – to use an unfashionable term – ‘transmitters of knowledge’?

Secondly, I want to suggest that these trends represent an overall social change which can be expressed by the idea of the de-differentiation of modern society. This refers to a process whereby, under the impact of new technologies, occupations, institutions, sectors, forms of knowledge, and types of learning are becoming more and more like each other. It is almost a reversal of the process of differentiation that has been a feature of social change in industrial societies for the last 150-200 years. The political economist Ben Fine refers to this process as economics imperialism [5] – as everything takes on the form of a commodity and learning becomes another form of consumption.

I want to make a counter argument to the trends I have referred to which I think raises both educational and social justice issues. It is not to deny these developments but that formal education (school, college or university) has a distinctive role in modern society. It is not – as some sociologists have claimed – largely a site for the social and cultural reproduction, or for disciplining young minds and bodies to fit into an unjust social order. It is not just an enormous sorting process that leads to some of us becoming professors and others road sweepers; which is not to deny those forms of differentiation and the need to struggle against them.

Mass schooling, as a core institution of modernity and one of the inventions of the Enlightenment, is a unique opportunity for students at any age – to acquire what I will call ‘powerful knowledge’ – knowledge that they would not have access to at home or at work and knowledge that takes them beyond their experience. Potentially, in the words of English sociologist, Basil Bernstein, it enables them to “participate in society’s conversation about itself and its future” – powerful definition of democracy. This applies as much to vocational programmes as to general education courses as the Australian Leesa Weelahan points out in her new book. If this is not recognised in designing vocational programmes – they become at best vocational training (VT) – and limit learning opportunities to the acquisition of specific skills. This has its place – learning about some new software, for example – but it must not be confused with vocational education (VE). It is arguable that VT defined in this way should be left to employers to demand as only they are in a position to know what skills they need.

‘Powerful knowledge’. An Alternative Approach to Education Policy

What then is this ‘powerful knowledge’ and how does the idea apply whether to schooling or professional or vocational education? I find it useful to make a distinction between ‘powerful knowledge’ and the related idea ‘knowledge of the powerful’. The latter refers to the knowledge authorised by those in power – and leads to questions about who have the power? Is it legitimate and on what basis? This is what the field I have worked in – the sociology of the curriculum – has focused on; it provides the basis for a powerful critique of existing curricula and how they perpetuate inequalities. However, it focuses on the knower – it does not tell us much about the knowledge. On its own it provides no basis for an alternative curriculum – if all curricula are expressions of ‘knowledge of the powerful’ it is difficult to conceive what curricula would be like if the distribution of power was radically changed.

The concept of ‘powerful knowledge’ has a very different focus – on the knowledge itself – its structure, what it can do and how it is organised for both the production of new knowledge and the acquisition of existing knowledge which is new to the student. A working definition of powerful knowledge focuses on its purposes and the conditions for its production and access:

  • it provides reliable and in a broad sense provides ‘testable’ explanations or ways of thinking;
  • it is the basis for suggesting realistic alternatives;
  • it enables those who acquire it to see beyond their everyday experience;
  • it is conceptual as well as based on evidence and experience;
  • it is always open to challenge;
  • it is acquired in specialist educational institutions, staffed by specialists;
  • it is organised into domains with boundaries that are not arbitrary and these domains are associated with specialist communities such as subject and professional associations;
  • it is often but not always discipline-based.


The idea of access to ‘powerful knowledge’ or epistemic access gives us a number of possibilities. It provides a basis for critiquing existing policies – especially those based on outcomes, competence, learner choice and the accreditation of experience. At the same time, it offers a basis for an alternative approach to educational policy that gives priority to accessing powerful knowledge. It allows a clear distinction in policy terms between pedagogy which must begin with learners’ experience and curriculum which must stipulate what we want students to learn. Powerful knowledge, in addition, serves as a platform for challenging the de-differentiation thesis by emphasising differentiation of knowledge from experience, school knowledge from everyday knowledge, informal from formal learning. Not least, it emphasizes the non arbitrary nature of knowledge boundaries.

Without this differentiation and the institutions that are a condition for it, current policies can only perpetuate inequalities.

[1] Collins, Randall (1979).The Credential Society. New York: Academic Press.

[2] Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] CEDEFOP. (2008). The Shift to Learning Outcomes. Conceptual, Political and Practical Developments in Europe. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Online at: http://www.cedefop.europa.eu/EN/Files/4079_en.pdf [last May 20, 2010].

[4] BECTA is the acronym for a non-departmental public body of the Department for Children, Schools and Families in the UK - formerly known as the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency.

[5] Fine, Ben (2001). 'Economics Imperialism as Kuhnian Revolution.' In: International Paper in Political Economy, Vol. 8 (2). pp. 1-58.