How knowledge is being detached from skills in English

//How knowledge is being detached from skills in English

I don’t normally do this. In fact, I haven’t put up a post by anyone else since last August. But in this case  has expressed my own thoughts so articulately that there seemed little point trying to repeat the same thing myself. Not only that, Joe is somewhat of a phenomenon. His grasp of the nuances of education theory belies the fact that he is only just completing his NQT year. When I compare his expertise to my ignorance at the same stage of my career I am staggered, and not a little ashamed. As such I would very much like for you to read his blog. A voice such as Joe’s deserves the widest possible audience. And it’s no understatement to say that he will officially be a big deal in education at some point in the not so distant future.

A cornerstone of teacher training is Bloom’s taxonomy, where knowledge is placed firmly at the bottom. The advice for teachers is, move beyond low-level facts, up to higher-order skills like synthesis. But what if this advice misses the point?

My experience as an English teacher in London has helped me realise a few simple ideas:

  1. In English education, skills are being detached from knowledge.
  2. Teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work.
  3. Instead, they must be integrated, like twin strands of a double helix.

So this is the first in a series of three blog posts in three days to explain what I mean.

1. Skills are being detached from knowledge in English.

The education system has reduced the amount of knowledge taught in schools, especially, from what I’ve seen, in English departments. Take, for example, the English national secondary curriculum in the six years since 2007. There’s not one text that is named. Nor is there one grammatical concept that is specified. There’s not a single fact sequenced. There’s just one paragraph of suggested authors for tens of pages of skills specifications. At only a few pages, the new draft English curriculum in 2013 is slimmer, and it specifies even fewer authors: only Shakespeare is named, and not a single novel, play or poem is mentioned. This is what the national curriculum has been reduced to in England, even one that is supposedly knowledge-based: a curriculum devoid of any specific literary texts.

 ImageOur last specified author

It’s not only in the curriculum that knowledge is restricted, for assessment has also played its part. National levels, the numerical system of APP (Assessing Pupil Progress) still used in many schools, are generic skills descriptors that inadequately account for knowledge of the text. Kids could achieve a level 7 for analysing the film Jaws but fall down to a level 4 when analysing Macbeth, because of the complexity of the content. Assessment questions require prior knowledge of precious little content or context, but rather the application of analytical skills to various generic non-fiction texts on topics like football, celebrity chefs, and the food enjoyed by rappers. One study showed it was possible to achieve an A grade in GCSE English without reading a single book in its entirety (Civitas 2007). GCSE topics range from TV to Twitter, requiring little or no content to be learned.

Teacher training as I experienced it also limited the amount of knowledge English teachers taught. Both ITT and CPD constantly set trainees targets around moving tasks up the supposed hierarchy from basic factual recall to superior creative synthesis. ‘Don’t ask so many closed factual questions; ask open higher-order questions’ was a piece of advice I was often given. The idea of training teachers what content to teach, and how to sequence concepts, seemed not to have occurred to the trainers. Securing an enduring understanding of texts and their contexts was off the agenda.

As soon as I started teaching English, I was told categorically that ‘English is a skills-based subject’. It was stated in no uncertain terms that students ‘don’t need to know the text, they need to be able to apply their skills to any text’. Knowledge of the rules of grammar didn’t matter as much as transferable skills like writing for purpose and audience. What they read and the content they wrote about wasn’t, apparently, very important. So in many English departments, Cirque du Freak was much more likely to be taught than Oliver Twist.

When I started being observed, I was offered feedback that tried to get me to move away from teaching too much content. ‘Your role is not to impart content, but to train their skills,’ I was told. It was important not to ‘spoon-feed them knowledge’ and instead, ‘get them evaluating higher up Bloom’s taxonomy.’ It seemed almost universally acknowledged that learning facts was passive, dull and unhelpful.

As English teachers, we don’t seem to specify coherently the content, concepts and context that pupils should know by the end of the units we teach. Neither do we systematically test whether pupils have learned what core concepts like metaphors mean, what happened in the context of the author’s life and times, or sometimes even the basic events and order of the plot in texts. In any secondary English teacher’s experience, there are plenty of examples of this content-light curriculum and skills-only assessment in practice.

Image  Image

English GCSE is amongst the most striking illustration of this. For instance, a standard English Language GCSE controlled assessment title I taught was to ‘write a newspaper article for young people about a TV program you love or loathe’. Very little knowledge is required or assessed. The criteria are instead on style and structure. Another English Language GSCE unit is on spoken language, and the controlled assessment task bank includes for instance the title: ‘explore the similarities and differences between speaking and web-based messaging sites such as Twitter’. TV and Twitter together took up 20% of these pupils’ English Language GCSE. Even units on literature require little knowledge of the text and context. The English Language GCSE assessment on the novel, usually Of Mice and Men, is not marked on context at all, and focuses instead on spotting language techniques rather than requiring deep understanding of the text and its era.

English at Key Stage 3 suffers from a similar lack of teaching and assessing knowledge. This comes down frequently to the texts selected. The themes, plot, characters, language and context are much shallower in Cirque du Freak, published in 2010, than in Oliver Twist, published in 1837. One is transiently popular, the other has enthralled for over a century, yet it is the former that is much more likely to be taught to 11 year olds in English departments. I have had to teach it to Year 7 two years in a row, but I could have told you the first time that there is very little valuable knowledge that comes with reading transient vampire novels.

Image  Image

In my classroom practice, all this restricted the amount of knowledge I taught. When teaching a text, I didn’t set out a coherent sequence of concepts for pupils to learn and be tested on. When teaching writing, I didn’t specify the underpinning concepts of grammar in a logical way. When teaching speaking and listening, I thought harder about how to improve their debating skills than how to increase their understanding of the topic’s content. When teaching non-fiction, I was thinking less about persuasive and powerful examples of language that have endured over time, such as Churchill’s and John Bright’s war and anti-war speeches, and more about was directly relevant to my pupils’ immediate concerns, letting them choose their own Great British heroes, and ending up hearing about Ed Sheeran and Wayne Rooney.


National amnesia?

I was then shocked when, for instance, I asked pupils about World War II poetry, and was in return asked: ‘Sir, does that mean that there was a first world war?’ It wasn’t that they didn’t know when it was, or between which nations it was fought; it was that they didn’t know that it happened at all. Most pupils had no idea who Churchill was; some had the faint idea that he was that dog off the TV. This was a pervasive rather than isolated experience, including in top sets I taught.

Nor is this unrepresentative of other schools in poor communities without as much cultural capital as leafier suburbs. A colleague of mine teaching English in a disadvantaged school found that pupils were under the impression that the English language was invented in the 1960s and that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Here’s an anecdote from another English teacher:

When I started teaching, brainstorming seemed like a brilliant plan. I would ask them to brainstorm Shakespeare, they would write down the names of a couple of his plays, perhaps the century he lived in, I’d use this as a launchpad to say a few things about Romeo and Juliet, and the context would be established.  In reality it went like this:

PUPIL: But I don’t know anything about Shake – shake – whatever his name is.

ME: But you must know something? Anything at all, anything you think is relevant.

PUPIL B: I know! He was gay!

PUPIL A: Oh yeah! And didn’t he write that film? That one with the man with the big nose? OLIVER!

ME: Well, he was a writer…

So the pupils knew was that Shakespeare was gay and he wrote Oliver the musical. I would stand at the board, desperately trying to convert what they had said into something approaching the truth, desperately not trying to tell them at any point that they were wrong, desperately trying to avoid imposing my one version of who Shakespeare was and unfairly and undemocratically denying their version of him as a gay musical film writer who wrote about 19th century workhouses.

Now, this isn’t a problem exclusive to English, but it certainly is a problem that impacts terrifyingly on these pupils’ literacy. Examples from across the humanities abound. One teacher found her pupils confused over whether Iran and Iraq were the same country; whether Sydney was in California; and whether Henry VIII is the Queen’s son. Another teacher mentions here that 16 year olds couldn’t place their city on a map of Britain, list the four countries that make up the UK, tell the difference between England and Great Britain, or name the date of one significant historical event. Still another teacher and education blogger I know told me that her pupils thought Manchester was in Scotland, Wales was an island and the Romans came from Portugal. Many couldn’t spot the UK, the US, or China on a map, even ‘the top set Year 10 superstars.’ Political knowledge seems particularly impoverished: in another teacher’s school, many pupils couldn’t name the Prime Minister. Some had a hazy idea it was Obama. Some said ‘Gordon Blair’. No one could name all three main political parties, or even any other than Labour. Maths seems to suffer from similar knowledge deficit in some schools in disadvantaged communities. A Maths teacher I know in the West Midlands told me his pupils thought you might measure the distance between Liverpool and London in centimetres; one pupil in a Year 10 top set asked him what ‘square it’ meant; another from another set, one day before a GCSE exam, a Year 11 student asked what a percentage was. Even History undergraduates know little: when surveyed by one University professor, around 90% of them could not name one British 19th century Prime Minister.

The point of all these examples isn’t to laugh. It’s the opposite: it’s deeply, deeply troubling for a democratic society that so few graduates seem to know its past well, and so many school children in tough circumstances seem to know so little about politics and the country’s geography. But perhaps it isn’t so shocking. Many teachers were simply doing what I was doing: teaching and assessing skills, neglecting content, and then wondering why so few of our pupils seemed to know very much.

Given such a content-light curriculum, assessment and training regime, who can doubt that our education system has elevated skills over knowledge?

Joe will be following this up with posts on why teaching skills without knowledge in English doesn’t work, and why knowledge and skills must be integrated later in the week so I suppose I’ll also want to put those up too.

Here is part 2: Why teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work.

And here is part 3: The Double Helix: How knowledge is vital for skills in English

Related posts

Redesigning a curriculum
Should we be teaching knowledge or skills?
Challenging Bloom’s Taxonomy



  1. frank June 19, 2013 at 12:12 am - Reply

    I enjoyed this article. I too am reading Darren Shan with year 7 I supplemented it with some extracts from Dracula and Frankenstein. Far richer writing, I felt, and the pupils found it quite accessible. I’m not sure we would have had time to read the entire book, though.

    However,I don’t think the modern focus on skills is to blame for everything you mention. I started teaching in 1980 and met pupils who had no idea what it meant to be called a ‘Judas’ and no idea who Judas was. Don’t forget, too, that they are still very young; they are still learning so there’s bound to be lots of general knowledge they haven’t come across yet. I think there is a bit of a danger for adults to be continually amazed at how little young people know ; but we do have quite a few years head start. Don’t forget, too, that just because pupils don’t know something (for example details about Shakespeare’s life and works), it doesn’t mean they haven’t been TAUGHT it.

  2. Emma June 19, 2013 at 7:41 am - Reply

    Okay…. now, some of this is factual and I can’t disagree with it, but it misses the whole point, I feel. I write as an ex-consultant, head of department, current examiner and educational writer.
    When the National Curriculum first came out, it had a prescriptive little list of who to study. This seemed to have been conceived at a dinner party of middle-class men entirely populated with Michael Gove clones. Thus, loads of GREAT pre-1914 writers were missed out. Including women. The list was by and large populated by men. It restricted English teachers and took away every ounce of their professionalism in knowing what their class might like to study and what would work best. We were left with this saggy, ill-conceived, boring, dull, masculine list of everything that was supposedly great about English Literature. And, if you ask me, if you can’t pick out great literature, then you shouldn’t be teaching English. That’s up to your university to embed in you. If you need a list, I will guarantee you that it will be as prescriptive and deathly as the list that ruled in 1994. Having NO rules was supposed to ensure you had control of being able to pick out something suitable. It was supposed to empower you and leave you alone with your professionalism.

    Not only that, this curriculum which you seem to desire, well, it was VERY fiction-heavy. The world in which we live is NOT fiction-heavy. In reality, most of the children you are teaching will need to write websites or apps. They will read non-fiction out of the classroom. I think English teaching needs to be both accessible and explorative. Sure, we have a need to give fiction back to our youth (isn’t that a librarian’s job??) and inspire them, but we NEED to teach them about reading non-fiction AND multi-modal texts and how to create it. So when I did a lesson on Monday night, I was talking about how purpose and audience govern everything I write. We looked at a couple of pieces – a blog entry and an article for a magazine – and talked about how form, language, presentation, punctuation, vocabulary and tone were all directed at the purpose(s) and audience. Because what I write now are blogs, text books, articles, web entries… and I need to know the conventions of these texts. My writer friends, it’s what they write too. This is why we teach skills. Because if we teach content, that content will be entirely different in 10 years or 20 years. Skills are portable. Content is not.

    That’s not to say we shouldn’t teach the classics, but it’s also to remember that we are not History or Geography teachers. I marked the old legacy AQA paper on poetry from other cultures, and do you know what? The errors the pupils made, they were usually the errors teachers made. You simply wouldn’t believe how many papers I marked insist that the poems were some kind of concrete poem, like some of George Herbert’s, and that you must turn the poem on its side to look at it. Thousands of children wrote things like this. They didn’t just pick it up by diffusion: they were taught it. Poetry is not some kind of abstract modern art piece and if all a teacher can focus on with form and structure is ‘it looks like slavery’ or ‘if you turn it on its side it looks like a wave’, then that’s a huge issue.

    So whilst your article was obviously inspiring (hence my response), I think there’s a lot of historical reasons why things are as they are, and why, in actual fact, they MIGHT BE better like that. And as for me, I’m of the opinion that I teach whatever content fits the students, because the skills should always be the same. Whether I teach “Oliver Twist” or I teach “Holes”, I am teaching them to read more precisely, to infer meaning, to think about how the writer manipulates us, to develop theories, to support theories with evidence. The content is largely irrelevant as long as they can apply their skills to something different. One thing I am not doing is “teaching books”, because that’s how I was taught in the 80s and it was abhorent. I never even thought about how to improve, and ‘reading more’ and ‘reading broadly’ were the only goals. Sure, I’m great at intertextuality, but what’s the point of that? Not only that, it was something I picked up by accident, not something I learned on purpose.

    The main issue I have with your article, I think, is that it requires reduced professionalism and that it requires someone to decide what is ‘good’ in terms of content. Also, it thinks very much about the teacher and not about the learner. If you ask yourself about YOUR purpose and YOUR audience, then you might see why we are at odds.

    For me, my purpose is enabling children to not only experience what is useful in English Literature, but also what is useful in English and in the real world. My purpose is to create the double helix of which you speak, but to do it with the skills you need in the real world and with content that is an appropriate medium for those skills. Cirque de Freak, by the way, that’s NOT a good reader, I agree. It has no depth, no real ability to allow you to access Bloom’s HO skills. But you said you ‘had’ to teach it. I assume you had no choice. That’s what that original list was like back in 1994. Give me “Wolf Brother” or “Private Peaceful” (and then some war poems) any day. But is “Oliver Twist” any better? It was populist mush with a sentimental hero and the unspeakable Master Bates to navigate. It’s filled with anti-Jewish racism and child crime! Plus, it’s unspeakably long and unless you can trust your Y7s to read it at home, you have to plough through every single bit of it. I did it as a GCSE text with a middle set in 1997 (when we had to read the whole text) and how I didn’t leave teaching I don’t know. How I didn’t have a stand-up riot, I don’t know. Did they learn anything useful? No. I moved onto “Great Expectations” which is a much better text, in my opinion. But that’s what these are. Opinions. If you told me to teach “Oliver Twist”, I’d hate it. If you told me to teach “Great Expectations”, I’d love it. So where you dictate what content should or should not be taught, you cause rifts and leave teachers feeling utterly unprofessional, as you obviously feel about your prescribed text. Can I achieve MY purpose by having enlightened readers who are curious, skilled, and interested in English (and Literature) with these texts? That is the question every professional SHOULD ask. Are these texts suitable for MY audience? I’d argue that this question is something you can only know yourself as a teacher, taking into account your class, their interests, their passions.

    I’m afraid your criticisms would give way to a ‘filling of a pail’ approach rather than a ‘lighting of a fire’ approach.

    • learningspy June 19, 2013 at 8:54 am - Reply

      Hi Emma

      Thanks for such a well-considered response – I do think you should address some of your concerns to Joe Kirby but as I’ve endorsed his post I feel I ought to respond to some of your points.

      1. There are many English teachers who revert to teaching Stone Cold and the like. That is a fact. Maybe they shouldn’t be teaching English? How might their universities have prepared them in they took language degrees?

      2. The world we live is composed entirely of narratives. The way we make sense of the chaos is by constructing stories. Even writers on non-fiction do that. A librarian’s might well be to offer children choice, but I’m concerned with studying literature. The point I made at length in my post about the curriculum is that good quality literature has cultural depth and as such rewards study.

      3. Skills are not nearly as portable as you seem to think. There is a large body of research on this but I suggest you start with Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students like School? Knowledge is, however, completely, and much more usefully portable. It is the way we make sense of our world.

      4. We may well benefit from studying non-fiction and on my programme of study I’ve included much high quality non-fiction writing. My objection is to the trash (and I refer also to its disposable nature here) that students waste time studying. I have no real problem with these as unseen texts but the real problem is that if we just teacher them skills they will continue to misunderstand the content of these websites, articles and leaflets.

      5. Students repeating the shocking misconceptions of their teachers is no kind of argument in favour of the status quo. This just reinforces the woeful state of affairs and the fact English teachers require excellent subject knowledge to teach the subject effectively.

      6. An insistence on good quality texts does not at all an attack on professional. It’s an exhortation to ‘clever up’ the curriculum. If teachers weren’t electing to teach Stone Cold then they would be suitably professional already. But they’re not. That’s the whole point of CPD – our professional capital can always be increased. As Wiliam says, we need to improve not because we’re rubbish (I’m paraphrasing) but because we can be better.

      7. My purpose is to enhance students’ life chances and give them access to the top table. As Francis Bacon told us, “Knowledge is power.” My audience is children who will not get there by osmosis. They don’t have sufficient cultural capital to compete with middle class kids. I’m not concerned with they ‘kids like these’ want, I’m concerned with what they need. They don’t need to study the language of Robert Swindells.
      8. Private Peaceful is on my programme of study, although I’m concerned it’s a bit slight. It does however contain great contextual knowledge and can be complemented by the poetry of Owen, Graves & Sassoon. Yes of course Oliver Twist is better. I’m surprised an English teacher would even ask this. The fact that it contains antisemitism as hardly a reason to not study it. In fact all the more reason to unpick. Should we avoid The Jew of Malta or The Merchant of Venice? Great Expectations is a better text; I study it with Year 9. I would never tell you teach Oliver Twist (I’ve never taught it myself – this is Joe’s choice) but if your alternative was Wolf Brother I’d have serious concerns.

      I’m afraid your criticisms show you have been completely taken in by the Seven Myths About Education which Daisy Chistodoulou tells us about.

  3. Emma June 19, 2013 at 9:21 am - Reply

    Ah, I completely disagree with all of your reasoning here. It’s a head of department’s job to move people gently on from Stone Cold. And you’ve made my point. You think Oliver Twist is worthy of study, and I would prefer David Copperfield. That’s why you can’t prescribe texts or content. And Wolf Brother is one of these stories you seem to think our lives involve – the epic quest. To study this alongside The Conch Bearer and make comparisons to Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Arthurian Legends…. you see, I can argue its merit. I HAVE taught Oliver Twist and agree with you about tackling views (and would still teach Huck Finn for example) but YOU can’t tell me that it is of more use than any other great text.

    I also disagree about the point of learning facts. I teach in the French system and having spent last night with a little girl with a test on the French Revolution, needing to know about the date the cahier des doléances was passed to Louis XVI and where Louis XVI was arrested – what does this add to her education? It is EVERYTHING that is wrong with the French system (which I kind of like, but is leaving French students woefully behind everyone else in the world in terms of thinking and ability to cope with the modern world) All it prepares them for is pub quizzes. I’m sorry that you can’t take these thoughts on board, but if you had taught knowledge rather than skills, you’d see why I’m so dead set against it.

  4. learningspy June 19, 2013 at 10:41 am - Reply

    It might benefit you to read this

    I’m not all interested in prescribing texts. I’m not sure where you get this idea from. I do however want to rule out some. Just because Wolf Brother can be linked to Arthurian legends is not a good reason to study it. My Year 7 study Simon Armitage’s version of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. This is a much more culturally rich text from which to examine the concept of the quest.

    You say “if you had taught knowledge rather than skills, you’d see why I’m so dead set against it.” What can you mean? I do teach knowledge and I have taught skills. The reason I am so convinced is through examining the wasted years where I mistakenly believed that English could be taught as skills based subject free from content knowledge. I am a convert, and, like all converts, I suppose I’m zealous.The only position that makes any kind of logical sense is to teach skills underpinned by content knowledge. Anything else is a betrayal of children’s futures.

    Possessing knowledge about the French revolution improves your ability to think. You can only have thoughts about things you know. This pub quiz argument is particularly bogus and sterile. You know to know that I used to think as you do and have moved on. I understand your arguments because I used to make them. They are mistaken and based on misinformation and cultural bias.

  5. Emma June 19, 2013 at 12:03 pm - Reply

    Proscription of texts is just prescription under another name. My issue is ‘what’s in it for the children?’ How does it improve children’s futures to teach Oliver Twist? I’m not sure I see the link. From the sounds of it, Oliver Twist is YOUR choice and I’m not sure how this improves learning. Wolf Brother, by the way, is incredibly well written. Michelle Paver uses sentences in very creative and imaginative ways, and if it engages the children and helps them unlock the doors to other texts then it’s all good. Is education only good if it teaches weighty and historical texts? Why Dickens and not Eliot? Why Dickens and not Trollope? The problem with a knowledge-based curriculum is that you can’t know it all. It’s a shame that you see you are professional enough to choose wisely and yet you have no faith that others may do the same.

    I wholeheartedly disagree that possessing knowledge about the French Revolution improves your ability to think. If I know Louis XVI was arrested in Varennes, how does this make me think better? I’m also unsure how my arguments are based on misinformation. They are based on many years experience of teaching and examining. That’s not misinformation. That’s my knowledge of what works for many teachers. Cultural bias? I taught in white working class schools and French schools and in predominantly Asian schools, in four different educational systems. I have experience, not cultural biases! My only information is my own first-hand information. I can’t be misinformed if my information is from such a sure source.

    Unfortunately, as you say, you are zealous. Call me cynical, call me misguided, call me culturally biased and misinformed, but a good teacher does not make the classroom about his or her views and beliefs, or on the books of teachers with six years’ experience, but on the children. Being open to new ideas is what has helped me stay at the top of my game. Being open to arguments is what helps me move onwards. I was reading your blog to think about ideas. Unfortunately, as a zealot, you are unable to see that this system to which you aspire is actually the French system as it is now, and it is perhaps just as flawed as the English system. Good luck with your proselytising! I remain unconvinced.

  6. learningspy June 19, 2013 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    And good luck with your proselytising also. I feel you are attempting to caricature my opinions which is fine but if you read this post you might have a more nuanced view of my beliefs and practices.

    If you are as open to arguments as you suggest then maybe you’ll read some of links I’ve provided. It took me about two years from first being challenged about my orthodox progressive stance to arrive at where am now. I’ll wait for you.

  7. Emma June 19, 2013 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    Yes, read the post. Not sure how it’s relevant though? Perhaps you can explain it to me. I’m just wary of basing my teaching on anything other than proven best practice. It’s what made me an AST and it’s why I was an advisor. I’m afraid I must base my opinions too much on the sage words of Geoff Barton and Sue Hackman.

    The problem for me is that when you have taught in an environment where knowledge and content is equal to, or superior to, skills, then you understand why trying to plough through content seems so very pointless. If you can give me a good reason why learning facts about the French Revolution will improve my thinking, I might be more open to your approach. If you can explain why Wolf Brother is such a dreadful text to do with Y7, I might understand. And, despite my personal dislike of Cirque Du Freak, I was this afternoon remembering a very switched-off white working-class boy whose teacher had chosen it for their class reader. Louis begged me to read the others with him. He passed his GCSE with an A* last year, and a boy who would have been switched off by Oliver Twist was actually inspired by Cirque Du Freak; that’s all I’m saying. I tackled Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World’ with a bilingual class here in Bordeaux last year – and despite the fact it was the class’s choice of classic reader, by the end, it was very flat because it had taken an eon to teach. Worthy reader? Of course. Were we all glad it was over at the end? Certainly.

    If you can just answer me two things, you might go half way to convincing me. Who decides what is worthy content, and what is not? I’ve seen Stone Cold done well and Great Expectations done badly. Which is better?

  8. Emma June 19, 2013 at 4:46 pm - Reply

    p.s. It is deeply ironic that you and I probably have very similar goals and approaches. Although you may think I haven’t taken on board your approaches, I have been an active follower of your blog and enjoy what you write. In the end, we’re saying the same thing – it’s that content does matter. However, I stand by the fact that I think prioritising skills and learning over content made me a better teacher. I know it has made my students better learners too. Under it all, learning should be irresistible. I know you believe that too.

  9. Frank June 19, 2013 at 7:13 pm - Reply

    Well, at the risk of being shot down, I have to put in a word for Robert Swindells!

    I have a bottom set Year 9 class with low reading ages and a lot of ‘attitude’. Reading Stone Cold was a haven for me. First of all they enjoyed the story (quite an important part of a writer;’s job, I feel, but sometimes overlooked). So, they looked forward to the lesson.

    We were able to look at the different ways that Shelter and Link speak and they came to see how Shelter’s language had a military quality reflecting his background. this was a step forward for many of them.

    The story allowed them to develop a better understanding of what irony means and how it can be used for humour.

    As far as I can tell, for many of them it was the first time they had read a book with two narrators.

    We had a survey of their attitudes towards young beggars before we read the book (pretty negative for the most part) but the end most modified their views considerably.

    They enjoyed the opportunity it gave them to write ‘missing chapters’ in both narrative form and as scripts.

  10. learningspy June 19, 2013 at 8:49 pm - Reply

    Emma,in answer to question 1: ‘who’ is not the issue. When deciding whether content is worthy I will consider how much cultural capital it contains: will studying it provide students with knowledge about the world which they are unlikely to acquire on their own? Wolf Brother is great. I really enjoyed it and I’d encourage all Year 7 students to read it. I’m just not going to use valuable lesson time studying it.

    In answer to 2: if as a teacher you are ‘doing’ Stone Cold well then you are clearly a skilled teacher but your aspirations are too low: you should be ashamed. If you are ‘doing’ Great Expectations badly then you need support to help realise the ambition you have for your students.

    Let me offer this quote from Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School?

    “Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts., and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers value most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).”

    Facts about the French revolution in isolation are of course of very limited use. But they are part of a schema of knowledge. They more you know, the more mental ‘glue’ you have to learn new information. The more information you learn, the better the quality of your thought. The only reason we’re able to have this debate is because of all the things we know. Our content knowledge makes the conversation meaningful. Otherwise it would be a drab exchange where we showed off off our skill at argument with nothing gained on either side.

    And, yes of course I agree with your post script. Let’s agree that learning should be irresistible. I’m happy for your to display your impressive content knowledge to convince me that valuing facts is a flawed point of view.

    Frank: what can I say? I’ve got nothing really against Swindells – he’s just my current bete noire. See the points above about Wolf Brother. But really, I’ve never seen the dual narrative done so poorly by a professional writer. Swindells definitely ranks below Michelle Paver for me 🙂

  11. cunningfox June 20, 2013 at 3:41 am - Reply

    Emma: ‘if you ask me, if you can’t pick out great literature, then you shouldn’t be teaching English.’

    Emma: ‘How does it improve children’s futures to teach Oliver Twist?’

    Going by your own criterion, Emma, I think it’s time you found a new job.

  12. the Teacher Whisperer June 21, 2013 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    Er… maybe you should both read Edward Said’s The world, the text, and the critic. (1983) Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press…..

  13. Frank June 23, 2013 at 12:55 pm - Reply

    Anybody like to offer their top suggestions for books written in the 20/21st century they would recommend for KS3?

  14. Joe Kirby November 5, 2013 at 7:29 pm - Reply

    Frank – 20th century books: Animal Farm, 1984, Lord of The Flies, Address Unknown, Brighton Rock. Burlington Danes Academy teach Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Camus’ The Outsider. Classic American fiction like Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird could be taught at Key Stage 3 rather than Key Stage 4. I like David’s point about selecting texts according to the cultural capital they provide students with, that they are unlikely to obtain or access on their own.

  15. […] kindly reblogged this post, and the comments can be seen on his blog, The Learning […]

  16. […] How knowledge is being detached from skills in English by Joe Kirby […]

  17. […] definition of skills depends on knowledge. Joe Kirby has written persuasively about skills and knowledge forming a double helix – inseparably intertwined and mutually interdependent. This is definitely a more helpful way […]

  18. […] of skills depends on knowledge. Joe Kirby has written persuasively about skills and knowledge forming a double helix – inseparably intertwined and mutually interdependent. This is definitely a more helpful […]

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