How a knowledge rich curriculum has improved teaching and learning in the English classroom.
This is a guest post from Zoe Enser (@GreeboRunner) Director of Improvement and CPD at Seahaven Academy and former Head of English.
For years I was told that English teaching was unique in relation to other subjects. Yes, there was core knowledge of grammar and terminology that was important to teach. Yes, students needed to know a core list of facts about a text or author. But no, English is not a knowledge based subject. Unlike pure sciences and maths, English, we were told, resides in a liminal world, with one foot placed firmly in the camp of the arts, the other with the sciences. Lots of what we were doing was about skills and skills are things we develop in isolation of knowledge.
For a long time, this sat uncomfortably with me. Of course there is a highly creative element to English teaching, with creative writing skills accounting for fifty percent of students’ language GCSE grade, but is this something we can teach? Where does creativity come from and how can we help students to acquire it? Then we move onto the equally desirable skill of inference. Students making ‘insightful’, ‘thoughtful’ or even ‘sophisticated’ inferences about a text (all words which have appeared on reading mark schemes) is without a doubt the pinnacle of English teaching, but what about the knowledge they need to do all of this?
Knowledge rich curriculum or ‘powerful knowledge’
I have read a number of interesting texts around the importance of a knowledge rich curriculum over this last year, including E.D. Hirsch, Mary Myatt and Christine Counsell work. Despite the title, David Didau’s ‘Making Kids Cleverer’ is especially good and I would recommend that everyone gets a copy or at least looks at his chapter summaries on the ‘Learning Spy’ blog. As a result of this reading and thinking I have come to the conclusion that I have been getting it wrong. I have been trying to teach creativity and inference as skills, like they are some sort of ephemeral art form, but actually they are completely related to knowledge. If I want students to write well they need to have knowledge, and not only knowledge of what good quality writing looks like, but knowledge of the topic in hand. If I want students to make insightful inferences, I (and the curriculum as a whole) needs to teach them about lots of different topics so they have a lot of interesting knowledge to work with. Daniel T. Willingham in ‘The Reading Mind’ argues that a student with a lower reading age will more successfully make inferences about a text on say football, than a student with a higher reading age but with no knowledge of the topic. We need context and context comes from knowing lots of things about lots of different things.
Paul A. Kirschner has, quite controversially, begun to talk about how we only have two skills we need to focus on: the acquisition of knowledge and the application of knowledge. What is it we want students to know? What do we want them to do with it? This is something which has really got me thinking. After eighteen years of teaching a ‘skills based’ subject what does this really mean to me?
Shifting my focus
As a result of the above my planning has shifted to some very simple questions:
- What do I want students to know by the end of this lesson/ topic?
- How will I get them to know it?
- How will I check they know it?
- What do I want them to do with it?
I’m sure that sounds very familiar to many of you, but it has not really been the focus for English. Often we would begin a plan with the ‘what do we want them to be able to do’ and focus on the skill they were acquiring as opposed to ‘what do we want them to know’? It doesn’t sound like much of a shift but it has both refined my planning (it is taking a lot less time than it once did) and allows me to quickly see what it is students can do well, because of the knowledge they have acquired, and what I need to revisit to improve this.
Students love to write creatively, but often struggle when asked to write a non-fiction text, for example an article. I used to spend a long time going over the features of an article. However, the problem wasn’t that they didn’t know how an article worked, it was that they just didn’t have enough knowledge of the topic they were supposed to write about. Now when I am teaching students to write non-fiction texts, I begin by sharing a high quality text on the theme they will be writing about. We discuss the topic as presented and explore responses to the way the text was written. We then plan, using the knowledge they have taken from the text, plus knowledge they may already have had, plus any more knowledge I or the class have added to the mix. Then they write.
The quality of what the students now produce is by far some of the best I have seen. There are still those who struggle with the task, as their knowledge of some of the basics of text construction is still not embedded, (they need lots more deliberate practise for it to become innate), but by removing some of the struggle in knowing what to write those students can afford to focus on the crafting required in the task.
Another good example of the importance of knowledge came recently when I was writing an essay with a key stage three class. Their first response was a belief it was going to be too hard and they would never achieve it. However, after some modelling and prompts, all students were able to write a good quality piece of work, where they discussed the how racism had been presented in a text. When I asked them if they were surprised at what they achieved they said they were. When I asked them how they were able to achieve what they did they replied it was because they knew a lot about the topic. Finding evidence, making inferences and exploring impact had come quite easily to them because they knew the text really, really well. Some of them have asked if they can type up and refine their work as they are so impressed with what they have achieved.
I think the new focus on knowledge gives a really good opportunity to evaluate our curriculum further. What is the key knowledge we want all students to acquire? How are we going to deliver this and how are we going to check this knowledge sticks? The final question is what do we want them to do with the knowledge they have got? There is a lot to explore there, both from an individual subject and whole school curriculum perspective, but one thing is certain; knowledge is empowering the students in my classroom and I am going to keep providing them with as much as I can.
Just a reminder that Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: A guide to effective and efficient teaching is available for pre-order now.