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Learning powerful knowledge successfully: Perspectives from sixth form geography students

Written by: Daniel Whittall
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Michael Young’s concept of powerful knowledge is central in considering the function of a school curriculum. Young argues that ‘powerful knowledge is inescapably specialized knowledge’ (Young, 2014a, p. 3). If a successful learning culture is one in which powerful knowledge is acquired, then it is important for teachers to understand the key components of powerful knowledge, and to learn more about students’ perspectives on what they consider to be the most powerful knowledge.

Successful learning cultures and powerful knowledge

Young states that powerful knowledge ‘provides reliable explanations or new ways of thinking about the world’ (Young, 2008, p. 150), and that knowledge is powerful when it ‘helps us go beyond our original experiences’ (Young, 2013, p. 196) and ‘enables you to envisage alternatives’ (Young, 2014b, p. 74). Young’s definitions arguably provide the foundations for a successful learning culture – one in which:

  • Students are taught reliable explanations of natural and social phenomena from both the past and the present
  • Students learn about places, events, processes and beliefs that take them beyond their everyday experiences
  • Students are empowered to envisage alternative futures, both for themselves and for the world.

Young argues that these issues are important to consider in all educational settings, but that they take on particular significance in schools with socially and economically disadvantaged students. As he puts it (Young, 2011, p. 152):

For children from disadvantaged homes, active participation in school may be the only opportunity that they have to acquire powerful knowledge and be able to move, intellectually at least, beyond their local and particular circumstances.

Any successful learning environment ought to follow Young’s call for the ‘active participation’ of students in the acquisition of powerful knowledge. As Roger Firth has argued, such a learning culture requires an understanding of students’ ‘dispositions towards knowledge’ (Firth, 2011, p. 301). I sought to build on these ideas with my group of A-level geography students by conducting research to address the following questions:

  1. What do students think powerful knowledge in geography looks like?
  2. What do students find most helpful in developing their understanding of geography’s core concepts?

The answers to these questions ought to develop our understanding of what a successful learning environment for the acquisition of powerful geographical knowledge looks like from the perspective of students.

Geography, powerful knowledge and student perspectives

Young’s ideas form part of a wider debate around ‘the epistemological basis for an appropriate geography curriculum for the 21st century’ (Firth, 2014, p. 71). Some, such as David Lambert, have argued that geography teachers must develop their own sense of powerful knowledge in order to effectively carry out their role as ‘curriculum-makers’ (Lambert, 2014, 2015). Others, such as Simon Catling and Fran Martin (2011), argue that Young over-prioritises academic knowledge at the expense of the everyday knowledge that students bring with them from their home environments. Regardless of where one stands within this debate, it can’t be doubted that Young’s work has ‘provided the intellectual stimulus for geography educationists to (re-)consider the importance of knowledge in the geography curriculum’ (Butt, 2017, p. 13).

Alaric Maude recognises the following five types of powerful knowledge in high-quality geography education (based on Maude, 2015, 2017):

  1. knowledge that provides students with ‘new ways of thinking about the world’
  2. knowledge that provides students with powerful ways of analysing, explaining and understanding
  3. knowledge that gives students some power over their own geographical knowledge
  4. knowledge that enables young people to follow and participate in debates on local, national and global issues
  5. knowledge of the world.

Maude’s typology enables teachers to begin conversations with students about their experiences of education in geography classrooms.

I initially developed a questionnaire that was distributed to my Year 12 and Year 13 geographers. A total of 18 students responded – all students at a secondary school that serves a predominantly socially and economically deprived catchment area in West Yorkshire. Once responses had been collected, focus group discussions were carried out in two after-school sessions with each sixth form class, and individual interviews with four students who put themselves forward.

Research findings

11 Year 12, and seven Year 13 students were asked their opinions on what makes the knowledge that they are taught in geography powerful. Key words from their responses were extracted through a coding process that identified statements relevant to Michael Young’s definition of powerful knowledge as that which takes students beyond their everyday surroundings. Figure 1 shows a word cloud generated from the results of the coding process.

Whitall_figure 1Initially, students’ responses focused on terminology relating to environmental issues. Having studied climate change and sustainability throughout their GCSE and A-level studies, these findings were hardly unexpected.

Perhaps more surprising was the finding that students are conscious of geography as a worldly discipline; one that helps them to think beyond the confines of their immediate environment. These findings were confirmed when students were asked to comment on the geographical concepts that they considered to be most powerful. Figure 2 illustrates the results.

Whitall_figure 2

It is significant that the most notable concept to follow climate change and sustainability is that of globalisation. It emerged from discussion that students are using geographical ideas to interpret issues beyond their everyday experience. One student remarked that ‘ideas that we are taught in our geography classes are very useful as they have a lot of real-world application and help us to understand the world around us better’. Another student noted that acquiring geographical knowledge means ‘students then feel empowered that they can make a difference, motivating them to make world-changing decisions in the future’.

When asked to rank classroom elements that contributed to a successful learning environment in geography, students produced the results in Figure 3.

Whitall_figure 3

Students were keen to emphasise the importance of explanations provided by their teacher, and the usefulness of high-quality lesson resources such as images, maps and video clips, in learning about specific places. They spoke of the significance of the teacher’s role in selecting relevant resources, noting that although technology is useful for research purposes, ‘it is sometimes hard to find the most relevant information’ when undirected.

One aspect of successful geography learning is the use of fieldwork. Students remarked on how the experience of learning about a place is enhanced by visiting it, and that they found it easier to interpret geographical terminology when engaging with it in the field. This tallies with Kinder’s recent findings (2018) that fieldwork has an important role to play in the development of geographical knowledge.


When viewed within the context of Maude’s five-part typology, these findings suggest that students interpret the power of geographical knowledge mostly in terms of parts 1 and 4; thinking about new ways of understanding the world and being provided with the tools to join in with topical discussions and debates.

The findings further suggest that students regard teacher explanation, alongside the disciplinary-specific tool of fieldwork, as the main driver in the acquisition of powerful knowledge. Students value well-qualified teachers with strong subject knowledge and the ability to select and utilise relevant resources.


Butt G (2017) Debating the place of knowledge within Geography education: Reinstatement, reclamation or recovery? In: Brooks C, Butt G and Fargher M (eds) The Power of Geographical Thinking. London: Springer International Publishing, pp. 13–26.

Catling S and Martin F (2011) Contesting powerful knowledge: The primary geography curriculum as an articulation between academic and children’s (ethno-)geographies. The Curriculum Journal 22(3): 317–335.

Firth R (2011) Making geography visible as an object of study in the secondary school curriculum. The Curriculum Journal 22(3): 289–316.

Firth R (2014) What constitutes knowledge in Geography? In: Lambert D and Jones M (eds) Debates in Geography Education. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 59–74.

Kinder A (2018) Acquiring geographical knowledge and understanding through fieldwork. Teaching Geography 43(3): 109­-112

Lambert D (2014) Subject teachers in knowledge-led schools. In: Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C et al. (eds) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 159–187.

Lambert D (2015) Powerful knowledge in geography: IRGEE editors interview Professor David Lambert, London Institute of Education, October 2014. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education 24(1): 1–5.

Maude A (2015) What is powerful knowledge and can it be found in the Australian geography curriculum? Geographical Education 28: 18–26.

Maude A (2017) Applying the concept of powerful knowledge to school Geography. In: Brooks C, Butt G and Fargher M (eds) The Power of Geographical Thinking. London: Springer International Publishing, pp. 27–40.

Young, M (2008) From constructivism to realism in the sociology of the curriculum. Review of Research in Education32: 1–32.

Young M (2011) What are schools for? Educação Sociedade & Culturas 32: 145–155.

Young M (2013) Powerful knowledge: An analytically useful concept or just a ‘sexy sounding term’? A response to John Beck’s ‘Powerful knowledge, esoteric knowledge, curriculum knowledge’. Cambridge Journal of Education 43: 195–198.

Young M (2014a) The Curriculum and the entitlement to knowledge. Available at: (accessed 9 January 2019).

Young M (2014b) Powerful knowledge as a curriculum principle. In: Young M, Lambert D, Roberts C et al. (eds) Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 65–88.

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