Custodians of Knowledge, and other Idiocies.

I’m writing this post in response to a teacher’s blog I’ve stumbled across that claims teachers are “custodians of knowledge”. Where to begin with this?

One of the most distressing and depressing aspects of conversations about education in countries like Britain and the USA is that it isn’t just the majority of parents and politicians who lack any depth and breadth of understanding about fundamental issues – a great many teachers, including many of those who consider themselves high achievers, also have an impoverished view of what constitutes a good education for all children.

As far as 3D Eye is concerned it’s a fundamental right of children and young people (and for that matter older people too) to learn in ways that are appropriate for them, and in particular to learn how to learn. They also have a right to enjoy learning throughout the years they are required to be in school, and a right to receive an appropriate education for each of their multiple intelligences.

Gradgrindism and Govism take a very different view. Traditionalists, who remain stuck in a 19th Century concept of education and learning, see teachers as “custodians of knowledge”, and sincerely believe that someone like our Secretary of State for education – an ex-journalist who has no teaching expertise whatsoever – has the right to prescribe in very fine detail what children should know and what they should be examined on.

When these people talk about maximising learning – in accordance with Hirschian ‘principles’ etc – they don’t think about maximising students’ ability to learn, and their ability to be independent learners – only their ability to cram prescribed facts and information that can be tested and examined. (And of course there’s never any consideration for the majority of the learning iceberg which lies submerged beneath the surface of every one of us.)

We can all give examples of this from our own experience. I know for a fact that the teachers who taught me at primary and secondary school had no notion of what really interested me and what I studied in my own time – that is, the little time I had to myself after I’d completed hours of stultifying ‘homework’. It was the same during my years of higher education – tutors who cared only whether I was acquiring the information I’d need to pass the examinations, and in fact they had precious little interest in that, or me, either. A sink or swim philosophy prevailed. As things turned out, I became bored with my ‘academic’ studies but managed to read extensively in the various fields that truly interested me – literature, art, politics, philosophy, psychology, sociology and education. Obviously I was given no credit or recognition for any of my ‘informal’ research or learning, even though that learning was considerable.

A more telling test of a young person’s capability is not whether they can dutifully jump through various academic hoops and perform feats of memory and regurgitation, but how quickly they can find information and assimilate new ideas through their own efforts. We should also give credit for being able to read critically and to think creatively; to problem-solve and to create new ideas. Thanks to the Internet and Google even very young children are becoming brilliant at finding information they are interested in, but how many teachers even care how skilled they are at independent learning, whilst they plough through the National Curriculum?

It’s distressing to deal with the opinions of politicians who are playing silly political games with education, but it’s even more frustrating to come across educators cum right-wing bloggers and tweeters who simply go along with the status quo and play the game of “maximising learning” in their roles as “custodians of knowledge” – meaning discovering newer and better ways to flog children through prescribed curricula in order to achieve the highest possible test results – and thereby give themselves credit for being “outstanding educators”.

We have nothing to say to such people, any more than we could have a productive conversation with Mr Gove, since we have such opposite views of what constitutes a first class education. These people have nothing to say about the broader purposes of education, and how to achieve them. They would no doubt consider our blogging about the aims of education in Bhuttan, Finland and Singapore a complete waste of time.

In the end all that matters is who has the power to determine what happens in schools and classrooms. Mr Gove believes that he has that power, and that he has a mandate for his actions. We beg to differ, and so do those professional associations that have just passed votes of no confidence in Mr Gove.

It’s time for all teachers to stand up and state their beliefs. They should do so bearing in mind that many of the most esteemed schools in the country, such as Eton College and Wellington College, certainly don’t see themselves as mere results factories, since they believe very passionately in the right of young people to have a rounded education that puts great emphasis on their personal, social, spiritual and creative development. To that end they can thank their lucky stars that they are exempt from Mr Gove’s National Curriculum – whatever it turns out to be.


About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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