Epistemic justice: is this what universities are for?

In an era in which the credibility and confidence in knowledge is under attack, the idea that ‘powerful knowledge’ (Young, 2008) might provide reliable explanations, as well as the basis for suggesting realistic alternatives to the status quo operating in society, raises a number of questions for teachers and curriculum developers. Knowledge that is powerful, it is argued, enables acquirers to see beyond their everyday experience; is open to challenge; and is conceptual as well as derived from experience. This description aligns with the type of knowledge taught and learned in universities in the (inter)disciplines, and its recontextualisation in the school curriculum. Monica McClean (2015) has argued that the availability of powerful knowledge to students is a matter of epistemic justice, because it allows them to think of things not only as they are, but as they might become. Key to this, she argues, is the quality of teaching: a moral-practical activity that requires collective agreements about pedagogic policies and practices that do justice to all students.

Elizabeth Rata (2017) puts this another way: powerful knowledge, she says is the type of knowledge that is the pre-condition for a potential connection to the democratic political system. The features of a democracy that are the pre-condition for this connection include a consensus of what counts as legitimate knowledge for citizenship. Ryan Maxwell, senior director of Schools for EL Education in the US, argues that teachers can foster democracy, and that Citizens are Made not Born. To this end we might ask how universities can contribute to this project. First, in my view, they need to continue to profess that they care for knowledge and to be an important site of knowledge production; second, by supporting the message that everyone has an entitlement to attend university; and third that knowing something about the nature of knowledge is important because it helps us to create it, to use it, to share it, and, if we need to, to doubt it.

What are universities for? Richard Pountney explains to year 7 students in the Pennine Lecture Theatre


To bring this closer to home we can look at how schools work with universities. At XP School in Doncaster, for example, the link with Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) has been the local focal point for establishing the school’s common mission for all their students – to be able to go to university, if they so wish. This highly ambitious expectation has allowed their students to set their aims high, from whatever context they have come from. Indeed, the school admits students through random selection across the whole of Doncaster, so they have a diverse range of backgrounds. And all the students have not just visited SHU, they have carried out ‘purposeful’ work there on a number of ‘expeditions’. The school follows an innovative approach to curriculum design and pedagogy based on the interdisciplinary, problem-based learning, approaches of Expeditionary Learning schools in the USA (Pountney and McPhail, 2017). Expeditions are interdisciplinary projects that last 8-10 weeks. Each has a guiding question, some field work, case studies and key texts, experts external to the school, and a final product that the students share with their families at a Celebration of Learning event (see the examples of expeditions on the school website). This pedagogy aims to combine a knowledge-led curriculum with pupils’ engagement, to effect a Future 3 School (Young et al., 2014). Such a school is one that works to make a direct link between learners’ character growth and the quality of their work.

What happens to food when you freeze it?’ Professor Neil Bricklebank explains

For the ‘Chefistry’ expedition for example*, (guiding question ‘What has Chemistry got to do with cooking?’) year 7 students from XP were led by Neil Bricklebank, Professor of Chemistry at SHU, in experiments on the states of matter. And on the top floor of the Owen Building, Norman Dinsdale, Master Chef of Great Britain, guided them in preparing food using liquid nitrogen (see more about the learning on the website). These are deep, visceral experiences that help to enrich the education and lives of the young students at XP, who are making outstanding academic progress because of it. They are also examples of how learners have been given fair access to expertise and a fair distribution of knowledge that prepares them to be successful in the modern world.


‘How can you cook with liquid nitrogen?’ Master Chef Norman Dinsdale explains










This approach goes beyond simple notions of employability (the right to work) in order to uphold access to powerful knowledge (the right to think) as a form of social justice, in which young people can be given access to new contexts – and to understand not just how the world can be different, but how their place in the world can be different.

[*Note: While the examples in this blog are from STEM subjects, the idea that powerful knowledge applies equally to humanities and arts subjects is important. See the Make a Stand expedition, involving a lecture by SHU historian Dr. Alison Twells on Yorkshire’s role in the slave trade, combined with study of Harper Lees’s To Kill a Mockingbird, performed at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre.]

Richard Pountney is Principal Lecturer in Curriculum Development in the Sheffield Institute of Education, and Chair of the XP Multi-academy Trust.


McLean, M. (2007) Higher Education Close Up 8: Think Pieces. Available at: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/events/hecu8/docs/ThinkPieces/McLean.pdf

Pountney, R and McPhail, G (2017) Researching the interdisciplinary curriculum: the need for ‘translation devices’, British Educational Research Journal, 43: 1068–1082.

Rata, E. (2017) Connecting knowledge to democracy, in: B. Barrett, U. Hoadley & J. Morgan (Eds) Knowledge, curriculum and equity: Social realist perspective. London: Routledge.

Young, M. (2008). Bringing Knowledge Back In: From social constructivism to social realism in the sociology of education. London: Routledge.

Young, M., Lambert, D., Roberts, C., & Roberts, M. (2014). Knowledge and the future school: Curriculum and social justice. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.