Effective reform must start with the understanding that the curriculum is the central focus and the central business of schools. Effective curricula are the sina que non of the system that is capable of delivering a quality education to all kids.
At the start of the year I foolishly asked what the good people of Twitter would like me to write about. The message came back, loud and clear, that you wanted to know my thoughts on the Key Stage 3 curriculum. Well, whadda you know? Through my usual process of bathing in ideas until good and clean, I now have what I think is a way forward.
Three main considerations have been playing on my mind throughout this process:
1. Knowledge is power. (But France is not bacon) The more you know, the easier it is to learn. It’s no good dismissing knowledge and saying, you can just look it up, because whilst that is undoubtedly true you need to know a stack of stuff to make sense of what ever it is you’ve looked up. How much quicker and easier to just know that Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark and that Vespasian was the Roman Emperor that eventually succeeded the Julio-Claudians, and that the Julio-Claudians were a loosely knit family of inbreds, perverts and sociopaths who oversaw the transformation of Rome from a bloated oligarchy to a slightly more streamlined monarchy? Or something like that. Anyway, the point is that I want our curriculum to enrich our students’ cultural capital; to give them access to a broad base of interesting and useful cultural concepts into which they will be able to contextualise new ideas and knowledge in a rich tapestry of learning. To this end, I want to try delivering English through a range of good quality texts that will increase students’ ability to make links and connections between their cultural heritage and the world in which they live.
Also, what you know informs your ability to think. If you don’t know something, you can’t think about it. Texts which demand background knowledge which most students don’t already have will mean valuable time can be spent placing the texts in context and exploring elements of society, history and the literature that the author assumes his audience will have read. Now I know the pronoun in that last clause will have set some readers’ teeth on edge but the fact that most of our great literature was written my dead, white men is not a reason not to study it. Arguably, the more alien the culture of great literature is to your students, the more you owe it to them to permit them entry into this foreign country. Simply deciding that ‘kids like these’ won’t understand, or be interested is an inexcusable cop out.
This does not necessarily mean that we should only teach the ‘canon’ (although I do think we need to do some of this) but it does mean that it’s not OK to use store cupboard favourites like Stone Cold as class readers. Whilst this may be a perfectly enjoyable read, it’s not particularly worthy of study. I think even Swindells would be reasonably content to agree this point. So, while we should encourage students to read anything and everything, we should only actually study texts which build cultural capital.
2. Knowledge of grammar is particularly important. Every subject has its own grammar; a domain specific body of knowledge which needs to taught if students are to make sense of the content and apply the skills they are meant to develop. In maths this might be times tables and number bonds, in science it might be the scientific method and the period table. In English the grammar is, well, grammar. As Ted Hughes said, “Conscious manipulation of syntax deepens engagement and releases invention.” Clearly this is something every English teacher ought to be concerned with. But there is a wider importance to knowledge of language; students need to be able to navigate their way through the strictures of academic register. Obviously kids know how to speak and by and large they’re almost all able to read and write by the time they arrive at secondary school. To a point. As Daisy Christodoulou pointed out in her workshop at TLA Berkhamsted, students tend to write things like this:
It makes sense but clearly they have little or no understanding of what a sentence is. Does this matter? Clearly they can communicate their thoughts; why burden them with knowledge of grammar? Well, my thinking is that knowing the rules allows you to break them. If you don’t know what’s ‘right’, you’re not able to make an informed choice. Another problem that Daisy highlighted is that if you don’t have grammatical knowledge you can’t express yourself with any precision. Take this example:
JB Priestley also presents Mr Birling as confident he says to Gerald with no hesitation at all ‘But what I wanted to say is there’s a fair chance that I might find my way into the next Honours List’ he shows he’s confident in his business and in himself and he’s not telling Gerald he’s going to have a knighthood he’s boasting.
This is an able student but their inability to express themselves precisely is getting in the way of their ability to interpret and analyse the scene. Daisy offered us this improved version to demonstrate how a little grammatical knowledge can improve the quality of students’ thought and uncover hidden knowledge:
JB Priestley also presents Mr Birling as confident when he says to Gerald with no hesitation at all: ‘But what I wanted to say is there’s a fair chance that I might find my way into the next Honours List’. Here, he shows he’s confident in his business and in himself. He’s not telling Gerald he’s going to have a knighthood; he’s boasting about it.
Daisy advocates the need for separate lessons that involve deliberate practice and offers the following as a model for teaching this knowledge:
- Activate prior knowledge
- Teacher explanation
- Guided practice
- Independent practice
- More feedback
The concept of deliberate practice is one what has occupied me of late and is perfectly in line with my thinking on how students should be encouraged to learn. So, to this end, I’ve incorporated Daisy’s idea of a lesson a week of decontextualised grammar drilling as a key component in our curriculum. If you want to read more (and you really should) she writes eloquently on her own thinking here.
3. What cognitive psychology tells us about learning. Ever since being confronted with Robert Bjork’s concept of ‘desirable difficulties’ I’ve been puzzling out how best to make use of his ideas of spacing and interleaving instruction in order make use of the role of forgetting in the retention and transfer of what they’ve learned. As we forget, we make space for information to be relearned. This space and relearning promotes knowledge moving from working to long term memory. Bjork makes the point that “people tend to learn in blocks, mastering one thing before moving on to the next.” If instead we interleave what we want students to learn we will get reduced performance. This is troubling to both teachers and students in a world obsessed by rapid and sustained progress. But over time, the benefit of “seating” all these small pieces of knowledge pays dividends. Bjork says, “If information is studied so that it can be interpreted in relation to other things in memory, learning is much more powerful.” Spacing works in a similar way: “When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future. Provided the retrieval succeeds, the more difficult and involved the retrieval, the more beneficial it is.” So, if you take notes after a class instead of during the process of struggling to remember what was said will act on your ability to remember it in the future. There it is in black and white: copying off the board is not useful!
But English has always been a subject which in many ways is detached from a specific body of knowledge and has always been subject to the idea of threading together warp and weft. Do we interleave instinctively? Well, mebbe, but I don’t want to leave the process to chance. I’ve written before about using the learning loop to continually revisit knowledge but now I’ve applied some of this thinking to curriculum planning. This is what I’ve come up with so far:
Anyhoo, here’s the first draft of our Key Stage 3 programme of study for next year based on a conflation of the 3 points discussed above:
As always, I’d welcome any feedback. This is a work in progress and I’m aware that there may be some weak points. Please note however, the omission of ‘media’ is quite deliberate. Non-fiction articles that link to the texts being studied will be read and analysed, but no more studying popular culture. Sure it’s ‘engaging’ but kids can use their own time for this. School is for the breadth and depth of stuff they would not otherwise be bothered to learn.
And do take some time to read Joe Kirby’s post of the subject: How knowledge is being detached from skills in English