Author Archives: Thomas James

About Thomas James

English teacher. Aspiring novelist. Wannabe boxer.

On mark schemes and how they hinder good writing

Old vintage typewriter

A couple of years ago, I took almost nine months off work to write a novel. In spite of my booker-winning dreams, were I to weigh all the decisions I’ve made throughout my life, this one would not rank among the greatest. At the time, I was living in an expensive flat in West Hampstead and the novel itself was a stinker.

Why so bad? Because I tried to write it. What I mean by that is, I tried to write it. I was so conscious of my writing that I paid little attention to other considerations. Y’know, trifling things like character and plot. Worse, because I was so conscious of style, the style itself was awful. I mean truly hideous. I missed no opportunity to add an extra adjective or metaphor, and never did I use a simple word when a showy one would suffice.

So I know a little thing or two about bad writing. Today, however, I’m more interested in what it is that makes writing good. Unsurprisingly, given the above, this is something I ruminate on from time to time. What constitutes good writing is both complex and subjective, but there is one quality that all good writing has: control.

I’d define a writer with control as a writer whose language communicates the exact meaning he wishes. There is little room for ambiguity, unless the writer desires it, and even then, he is able to manipulate his words to mean (and not mean) precisely what he does (and does not) want them to.

A mark scheme for writing is, therefore, a problem. A mark scheme will necessarily reduce the amount of control a writer can have, because it will exert an unnatural influence over him. It will control him. It will say: “What you’re writing is irrelevant; good writing must tick these boxes, always.”

If you look at the paragraphs above, they would certainly attract reward using AQA’s GCSE mark scheme. We have rhetorical questions, punctuation for effect, some decent vocabulary, et cetera, et cetera. But the writing is also pretty plain. Save for one or two clichéd metaphors (“a stinker”) and too many rhetorical questions, I haven’t gone out of my way to add unnecessary literary flourishes. How often can you say that about writing that aims to pick up marks at GCSE? How often do you read through a few paragraphs without being battered by a tsunami of similes, metaphors, alliterations, or tricolons? Rarely.

Leaving aside the pupils for just a moment, it is also true, I think, that many an English teacher has been ruined by the GCSE mark schemes for writing. Sometimes, when I read a blog, article, or TES column, I cannot help but hear, underneath the sentences, a teacher who has taught to the GCSE mark scheme: “Open with a rhetorical question to engage your reader… Try and use a simile or metaphor in the first three sentences… Use a statistic to make your point feel valid.” Yawn. Of course, there are plenty of examples of excellent writing from English teachers on Twitter and in TES. But you get the idea. The tail is wagging the dog.

Content is king. It should dictate writing style, always. Form should be ruled by what the writer has to say; his message should not be subservient to the arbitrary considerations of style, especially those dictated by a poorly designed GCSE mark scheme. So, if we return to our pupils, we can see that this is important, because no writing, however “creative” the task, needs an overabundance of trite literary “techniques”; unnecessary literary flourishes are harmful to both clarity and style, yet the GCSE mark scheme mandates, for example, that pupils “sustain” their use of linguistic devices alongside a “wide range” of punctuation. But great writing doesn’t require endless linguistic devices and needless little marks cluttering up the page. By asking for this, the mark scheme not only places style over substance but also hinders that very same thing, stylish writing, that it is purporting to promote. Talk about boneheaded.

Now, let’s pause for a moment. Instead of creative writing, let’s consider a piece of analytical writing on, say, Romeo and Juliet. A pupil writes the following sentence: “Romeo is impulsive, immature, and sensitive.” Recently, I have read more than one blog in which teachers have written about how they have coached their pupils to write a sentence such as this. Nothing wrong with that, you might think, it’s a decent sentence. And I agree with you. It is a decent sentence. In isolation.

However, if this is a piece of analytical writing then the pupil’s use of a tricolon is misplaced. In terms of tone, it just doesn’t work. It’s too writerly. Rarely in analytical or academic writing would a writer use a tricolon such as this, because it would jar with the rest of the essay or paper. Further, unless he is a particularly skilled writer, by using the tricolon the pupil is likely to cause himself another, larger, problem. He will likely suffer issues with his paragraphing and structure.

In terms of structure, allow me first to acknowledge that a pupil might get away with using the tricolon above if he employs it as the beginning sentence of an essay. Assuming, that is, that the question asks specifically for a character analysis of Romeo. This works because, as readers, we assume that by placing this sentence first, the writer is indicating that his answer will focus in its entirety on these three traits.

Still, I would be cautious before recommending this to pupils as a strategy. Were they to do this in an exam, they risk getting themselves in a muddle, given that time pressure often forces pupils to follow where their ideas lead moment by moment. Too much specificity early on might prove counterproductive.

But let’s return to the issues with paragraphing and structure that tricolons will lead to. The tricolon above is almost certain to cause the pupil problems, because as soon as he mentions Romeo’s characteristics (impulsive, immature, sensitive) at any point other than the opening of his essay, he is obliged to address and analyse each of them there and then. This is because in an analytical essay, you can’t just mention things in passing. The effect of this is likely to be one of two undesirable outcomes: an average-length paragraph with superficial analysis, or a long, winding behemoth of a paragraph that is both confused and confusing.

An entire essay could be written on each of the characteristics that the pupil has identified—Shakespeare presents Romeo as immature. Discuss.—so to brush quickly over them is clearly a waste. Conversely, extending the paragraph will result in the pupil attempting to weave together too many ideas at once, and the threads of each will become tangled and lost. There’s too much cognitive load for both writer and reader.

If a pupil decides he wishes to write about these characteristics, then he is best to leave out the tricolon and address each individually, and the best way to do that is in separate paragraphs. This will allow him the time and space to make a decent attempt at communicating his ideas about each characteristic without muddling awkwardly between them. It will keep his writing clear, as well as his thoughts, which is necessary because their is considerable overlap between the two. Importantly, it will also allow a the pupil’s teacher or marker to follow his train of thought with ease.

Unfortunately, if the pupil chooses to use a tricolon in his essay, and if he also wishes to explore each idea within its own paragraph, as he writes he must clumsily flag to the reader which of Romeo’s aforementioned characteristics he is now referring to, with something along the lines of “Firstly, I will analyse how Romeo is impulsive”, before stuttering into his next paragraph with “Secondly, I will show how Romeo is immature.”

No. Just no.

As a writer, everything you write is a promise to your readers. As readers, we expect the words we read to be connected to both what has gone before and what is yet to come. If you flout this rule when you write, you lead us down blind-alleys and confuse us. We begin to lose the thread of your argument or analysis. However, writing also has an onward flow. It cannot constantly reference what has been said already and what will be said shortly, otherwise that flow is broken. Navigating this can be tricky, but skilful writers, writers with control, do it seamlessly.

This is why the ticolon is problematic in academic writing, which is about explaining and analysing information, not about sprinkling beauty through the use of detail or persuading through the use rhythm and repetition. These are the things that a tricolon is best at doing, but in academic writing, you should not pause to linger over something whimsical, nor should you aggressively repeat your point to leave it ringing in the ears of an audience. To use a tricolon in academic writing will not achieve either of these things, but it will disrupt the order in which information is presented, and so will often result in turgid prose, because the writer must constantly pause to remind readers where he has been and where he is going.

This obsession with linguistic features is surely a knock-on effect of mark schemes and their diktats about what must be present for writing to be good. Like any art form, what is good is context specific. For example, I’m rather partial to a Caravaggio painting, but I wouldn’t hang a print of ‘David with the Head of Goliath’ above my dinner table. Similarly, though I enjoy the music of Wu-Tang Clan, I’d think twice about blasting ‘Protect Ya Neck’ through my car speakers when picking up a girl for a first date.

When the mark scheme for writing is adversely affecting literary analysis, you know you have a problem. But what’s the solution? Well, comparative judgement looks promising. If examiners were simply presented with two scripts and told to choose which is best, then we get do away with writing mark schemes altogether.

While I’m tearing things up, I would also do away with the current grading system. In place of grades, pupils would be assigned a percentile score. This would be based on where their writing falls in comparison to everyone else’s once the judgement process has been completed.

All this would certainly be a leap into the dark. It would risk the same problems that occurred following “life after levels”, whereby the vast majority of schools passed up the opportunity to redesign their assessment practices, opting instead to rebrand levels and sub-levels, which many had complained so bitterly about, with names such as “steps” or “progress points”. Perhaps, in a similar way, schools would simply reproduce these god-awful mark schemes and camouflage them as “success criteria” to inform teaching prior to the exams.

Or perhaps, just perhaps, this might initiate a large-scale conversation about what actually constitutes good writing. Perhaps it would remove any sense of a cap at the top end. Perhaps it would encourage pupils to aim higher and higher, and so perhaps their writing would improve and improve. Perhaps, when unshackled from the mark scheme, teachers would be free to help pupils produce genuinely high-quality pieces writing. Perhaps, just perhaps.

A Quickie On Irony…

I’ve blogged before on the subject of irony. I’ve long been intrigued by the concept, mainly because for quite some time I had no idea how to correctly use the term. Like most people, I just rolled it out whenever I found myself discussing a situation characterised by coincidence and/or bad luck.

Of course, we all know where the blame for this flagrant misappropriation of the word lies: at the guitar strings of Canadian songstress Alanis Morissette. Rain on your wedding day? Not ironic, but pretty bad luck. A free ride when you’ve already paid? No again (but absolutely bloody typical). The good advice you just didn’t take? No! God damn it! It’s foolish, but it’s not ironic.

Incidentally, the whole Alanis Morissette debacle is, like, soo peak irony: pop star, who clearly doesn’t understand irony, writes song about irony, which turns into best-selling global smash, thereby confusing an entire generation as to what irony actually is. The needle on the irony gauge is twitching at max here.

Because of its slipperiness, I’m always on the lookout for simple ways to explain irony, and I came across one this week, when reading Penelope Lively’s short story The Darkness Out There with my Y9s. Long story short (well, short story shorter): girl who thinks bad stuff is all monsters, creepy things in forests, and scary stories in newspapers, ie. “out there”, comes to understand darkness is in fact “in here”, ie. within the human soul.

So I asked my Y9 boys: “The story is called The Darkness Out There but it’s actually about what?”

“The darkness inside people.”

“Good,” I said, having already told them the answer. “So the title is an example of what we call irony. When an author appears to say one thing, but you, the reader, understand that he is actually saying something different, or perhaps even opposite, that’s irony. It’s a little like a lie, except that irony relies on the audience being aware of the truth, whereas a lie relies on its audience being unaware of the truth.”

I then whipped out my board pen and drew my little irony doodle on the whiteboard. My little irony doodle looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 09.47.44

And it was pretty much as straighforward as that. When I’ve blogged about irony in the past, it has been in relation to Browning’s poem ‘My Last Duchess’. You certainly need to understand irony to understand that poem, but given that it’s tricky at the best of times, introducing pupils to both the poem and irony all at once is problematic and  likely to lead to cognitive overload. Conversely, using The Darkness Out There allows for a relatively straightforward introduction to a concept that is routinely misunderstood.

Too much knowledge, too soon. Might that keep the poor in poverty too?



Readers are touchingly loyal to the first history they learn — and if you challenge it, it’s as if you are taking away their childhoods. For a person who seeks safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look.

So spoke Hilary Mantel. It was the first of her fascinating Reith Lectures, and though she was talking about the problems a historical novelist faces when ‘fill[ing] the gaps’ of history, I’ll bet any teacher who’s toiled to unpick a pupil’s misconception can relate. People cling to what they (think they) know.*

Unlike historical novelists, teachers, when we plan, are not overly concerned if our pupils will question whether what we teach is correct. Unless we ask them to identify a falsehood, credibility should be a given. Instead, we have other considerations, such as: when is the best time to teach this piece of knowledge? What prior knowledge do pupils require? In how much depth should I teach the topic? Why are we teaching this at all?

These questions are critical, if you believe a curriculum should be knowledge-based, as I do. And asking these questions is not only critical if we are to provide pupils with a coherent curriculum, but also because, as I demonstrate below, if they are not asked then knowledge-based curricula risk becoming the next 21c skills. That would be a travesty for the poorest children of this country, who are disproportionately likely to be taught problem solving and teamwork in place of reading, writing, and history.

To illustrate the point, I read a series of tweets recently, in which a number of people got excited about the idea of teaching philosophy at KS3. There was even some talk about designing a KS3 scheme of work. To me, with the above questions in my mind, this seemed absurd. Mostly because philosophy is hard, and at times impenetrable, sometimes maddeningly so.

On the flip side, it can be wonderful, enlightening, and highly satisfying, but many intelligent and well-educated people find it doesn’t come easily. To see this in action, check out this course—called ‘Philosophy For Beginners’—delivered by Oxford University’s Marrianne Talbot and made available for free online. The course is pitched below undergraduate level, at lay members of the public who simply wish to know something about the subject. Still, witness how quickly a group of educated adults begin to struggle with the content and concepts, and how quickly some become frustrated. To a large extent, this is woven into the stitches of philosophy, and seeing a group of well-educated adults struggle with an introductory course does lead one to wonder whether KS3 pupils are really ready for the subject.

Now, I’m no philosopher myself, and have only a passing interest, but it seems to me that, of all the academic disciplines, philosophy is the one that most thrives on complexity. A great deal of the time, philosophy isn’t about finding answers but about posing questions, and often those questions call into doubt the very nature of things we take for granted. A philosopher might ask: What is truth? Does reality exist? Why, exactly, is there anything at all? Does space come to an end? How do I even think about a question like that? Are things infinitely divisible? Et cetera.

Stop for a moment and consider the questions above. Ask yourself whether a twelve-year-old possesses the knowledge required to attempt coherent answers. The answer is surely not. It follows, therefore, that in place of coherent answers will be incoherent answers, and incoherent answers are unlikely to be an effective method of gaining the knowledge required to get to coherent answers. There is much more to be gained by teaching twelve-year-olds the fundamentals of literature and history, of science and maths. Calling into question those fundamentals before they are understood will facilitate misjudgement and confusion amongst pupils.

Ah, you might retort, but a good teacher would make the content accessible to the pupils. Perhaps. Actually, I have no doubt that KS3 pupils would pick up a superficially profound idea or two from a course of philosophy. But what else would they pick up? To paraphrase Mantel, would not the first philosophy they learn just leave pupils with a gross oversimplification of philosophical ideas, which later teachers or lecturers must unpick with great difficulty, since they have been embedded and re-embedded over a number of years? I can see aesthetics being reduced to what something looks like rather than a complicated investigation upon the nature of beauty of itself. And if you’re not dealing with its complexity, if you’re not ‘thinking like a philosopher’, or at the very least trying to understand a philosopher’s ideas, are you studying philosophy at all? (This is all getting very meta and, er, philosophical.)

So if KS3 isn’t the right time to teach philosophy, when is? KS5. Personally, I would like philosophy, or an introduction to the history of philosophy, to be mandatory for anyone taking A-Levels, because it is so foundational to so many degree-level courses. And even for those subjects where it is less obviously useful (nursing, perhaps?), the ability to think through an argument or idea, formal logic, is useful. You might argue that developing free-thinking pupils who are able to question the world is precisely the aim of a knowledge-based curriculum, and that philosophy is therefore exactly the kind of knowledge we should teach our pupils, and I’d agree with your aim. But I’d argue that prior to KS5, the best way to develop pupils’ thinking is to through literature, history, and maths, your traditional subjects, because the questions these subjects raise feel concrete: In what way has Dickens presented Nancy? Why has he done this? What is he trying to illustrate? How has he achieved this? A good teacher will guide pupils through logical lines of enquiry that lead to valid conclusions. On the other hand, a philosophical question, such as ‘What is the nature of beauty?’ feels significantly more abstracted. Not only is it an abstract question, but a deep understanding of literature, art, and music will make it far easier to think upon the nature of beauty. As has been said numerous times, and by people wiser than I, people cannot think about a subject until they have a well-developed knowledge of that subject.

To be clear, pupils simply aren’t equipped to think about philosophical problems at KS3, because they don’t possess the foundational knowledge that allows them to think about the subject in a meaningful manner. Before pupils consider Aristotle, they should, for example, have a firm understanding of Greek history, of the Trojan war and the Peloponnesian War, of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the myths. This way, when they are ready to study ancient Greek philosophy, pupils will already understand the historical circumstances out of which a set of complex philosophical ideas emerged, and thus be on the road to understanding why. With a bit of luck, and armed with this knowledge, some A-Level pupils might even begin to make reasoned assessments about the validity of the philosophical arguments. Yet even with all this, others won’t. And that’s ok, like I said earlier, philosophy is hard.

As I’ve mentioned, there is a broader point to all this: to teach a subject like philosophy at KS3 is to allow the knowledge-tail to wag the knowledge-dog; it is to make the same mistakes as those who argue for a 21c-skills curriculum — conflating ends and means. To study philosophy too early, before pupils are able even to think about the subject it is being applied to (politics, say), will lead to exactly the same place as does teaching problem-solving: no man’s land. Worse, and somewhat ironically, the opportunity cost of teaching philosophy is that it would decrease the time available for pupils to study the very subjects that would develop the broad knowledge-base that is required to think philosophically about those subjects. Paradoxically, teaching philosophy before pupils are ready will actually leave them less-able to think philosophically.

This is so important, because the folly of your own ideas is always seductive. Presumably, this is why some proponents of discovery learning are so loathe to give it up, in spite of evidence against it, and even manage to ascribe a peculiar logic to it all, claiming pupils remember more of the things they discover for themselves. Ok, but if that’s true, it makes things worse not better, because, since the problem is that they don’t discover very much, and most of what they do discover is wrong, what they end up with is a few misconceptions that are very well embedded.

Like discovery learning, the prospect of corridors filled with mini-Aristotles is seductive. But to teach philosophy at KS3 would involve a huge amount of curriculum time and most children would end up confused regardless. And where would proponents of knowledge turn then? Well, I can envision a scenario whereby well-intentioned but misguided teachers point out that since pupils don’t possess enough knowledge to ‘think philosophically’ about Marx, we must teach them some politics and economics. Given that curriculum time is already at a premium, before you know it pupils will be doing economics in maths and politics in English. Because politicians give lots of speeches, right? Attempting to turn our KS3 pupils into PPE undergrads will not be a good look.

It is imperative to avoid mistakes like this with knowledge. Attitudes are a-changin’, but it’s hardly universal, and such madness would leave knowledge once again open to attack and political whim. Having high expectations and recognising the benefits of knowledge doesn’t overrule the need for a carefully designed curriculum with information organised into a logical sequence. A knowledge curriculum is far better than skills curriculum, but it won’t make wine out of water; you can still design a knowledge curriculum poorly, and you can still teach the wrong stuff in the wrong order at the wrong time. They are also not without limitation, for with so much knowledge available, we can only skim the skin of the cream. The question isn’t so much ‘What to teach?’ but ‘What not to teach?’ and decisions about what to include and exclude require careful thought.

So, here’s my point: if we don’t discriminate between knowledge, and if we don’t recognise that some knowledge is ill-suited until children reach a particular stage of development, then we’ll end up with a self-parodying curriculum that undermines itself. As such, those of us who recognise the essential role of knowledge in learning must not abandon common sense. Instead, we must recognise there are limitations, as well as legitimate debates and criticisms, to all curricula, including those based around the transmission of knowledge; we must acknowledge those limitations, engage with them, attempt to overcome them, but not ignore them.

At KS3 in particular, but also at KS4 and to some extent KS5 as well, the curriculum should build foundational knowledge so pupils can think through complex topics, such as philosophy, in later life. If KS3 simply becomes a time when we try to teach pupils everything, or when we just teach pupils anything, so long as they know lots of stuff, then knowledge-based education will become a caricature of itself; it will aim to teach everything but leave pupils with nothing. And if that happens, who knows where the pendulum of education will swing to next?


* Incidentally, for anyone who loves language, Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures are an absolute goldmine:

  • “History is what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have passed through.”
  • “There are wars fought in footnotes.”
  • “Myth is not a falsehood — it is fact, cast into symbol and metaphor.”
  • “Dead strangers did not live and die so we could draw lessons from them.”
  • “Time is not an arrow pointing; it is a candle burning.”


Many thanks to Stuart Lock, who provided feedback and helped to clarify my thoughts.


Michaela: well behaved pupils being taught well


So much has already been written about Michaela that it leaves one in quandary about what exactly to add. Most people reading this will be well aware of their marking and feedback policies; the family lunches; their approaches to teaching, homework, and curriculum; the no excuses behaviour policy and silent corridors; and all the other ideas and innovations that have captured people’s attention. Therefore, I shan’t investigate any of these things directly, since, as far as possible, I have tried not to repeat things that others have said before. If I have failed, I apologise.


For a while now, I have thought that were I to run my own school, its motto would be ‘Well-behaved pupils being taught well’. It’s simple, straightforward, and seems to capture the essence of a good school. So, when I say Michaela is a ‘normal’ school, it is with that approach to schooling in mind. Because, for all the extraordinary things I saw at Michaela, and I saw many extraordinary things, what they added up to was a school in which well-behaved pupils were being taught well.

Perhaps it was because of the noise around the school—the detractors on Twitter, the lunch-money controversies, the newspaper headlines anointing Katharine Birbalsingh as ‘Britain’s strictest Headteacher’—that, with retrospect, a small part of my subconscious was expecting to be confronted by something utterly strange, entirely abnormal. Thus, it was not the sense of fellowship imparted by communal poetry recitals at lunch, or the pupils’ enthusiasm to answer questions in class, that I found most striking. Nor was it the abundance of warmth between pupils and teachers, or the two Y9 girls who confidently told me they had “left the pyramid behind”, as evidence of their having fully embodied its message.

No, what struck me most was the downright normality of seeing pupils, in a school, gasp, working hard. That and the dissonant feeling I had when contrasting the perfectly uncontroversial sight of teachers teaching and pupils learning, and the positive relationships fostered therein, with some of the histrionic criticism I had seen online. I felt as though my eyes were broken. I watched and wondered what some people, even if they favour a different approach to educating children, could find so offensive?

The reason I draw attention to this is because, even for someone who consider’s himself in accord with Michaela’s approach, as I do, it can sometimes feel as though the school is a far-off quirk, a remote outpost existing somewhere on the periphery of our education system. But it isn’t. Far from it. True, the staff at Michaela have been in many ways trailblazers, prepared to think differently, originally, daringly, but the school isn’t doing anything that another school couldn’t do, should it wish to. And since that it has, for some time, been unusual for schools to expect that pupils will listen silently and attentively while their teacher explains things, for pupils to complete individual work without chatting to their neighbour, and for teachers to be respected simply because they are teachers, that’s an important point, I think. These things need normalising; people need to say these things are normal.

Now, I teach in a school in a very different situation to Michaela. As such, my classroom will often look quite different to a Michaela classroom. But when I close my classroom door, the goal is exactly the same: to have the pupils behave properly, so I can teach them what they need to know. And when you stand and see Michaela’s approach for yourself, or at least when I stood and saw it for myself, consistently implemented across the school, it just seems mind-bogglingly sane. A simple, common sense approach to teaching, free from soul-destroying box-ticking and time-wasting flimflam. Ultimately, what was remarkable about the school was not any particular policy, procedure, or idea, but what, together, they added up to: Well-behaved pupils being taught well, unanimously. By implementing everything with painstaking zeal, the staff have created classrooms that are extraordinary precisely because of their apparent simplicity.

Understand, in no way am I diminishing or downplaying what Katharine Birbalsingh and her team have achieved. Quite the opposite. I can only speculate, but I’d guess that to develop the school into what it is today, the amount of forethought required was astonishing. Simplicity is deceptively difficult to achieve; the minutiae of numerous complex issues must be considered, allowing for clear and candid systems to be developed and implemented. As I have said before on this blog, a great writer is not one who can make a simple idea seem complex, but one who can make a complex idea seem simple. Having read Tiger Teachers, I presume something similar is occurring at Michaela. They are taking complex problems, grappling with them deeply, and then implementing their solutions so efficiently, consistently, and relentlessly that it feels like they just happen.

But things don’t ‘just happen’. People make things happen. So when I say Michaela is a ‘normal’ school, or that things appear ‘simple’, I don’t mean to suggest there is a lack of complexity, or that here it is your average, identikit comprehensive, no different from any other. No, I mean it as a great compliment. Because to go against the grain, to take old ideas and combine them with new ideas, to add in some original ideas of your own, and then, on top of all that, to implement them so seamlessly that the whole thing seems entirely normal, that, it seems to me, is a remarkable achievement indeed.


I’d like to end by extending my thanks to Katharine for finding time for me to visit and the rest of the staff for being so welcoming. In particular, Joe Kirby, Barry Smith, Jo Facer, Jonathon Porter, and Katharine herself all gave up their time to chat with me and answer my questions.

The flow of bad ideas in education…


Like something seen through bad glass, the liquid form of an idea can be tricky to discern. And, like flowing water, it’s course can be both corrosive and beautiful.

Strangely enough, in education the source of many a bad idea resides in a positive change that occurred during later stages of Victoria’s reign. The initial drip, in 1870, was the introduction of universal education. Then, as suffrage expanded during the early part of the 20th century, power began to diffuse through society. Soon, the ruling class would not be saturated solely with aristocratic men.

Fast-forward to WWII. It had become impossible for the ruling class to load-up ships with working class men and dispatch them off to remote corners of the earth, in order to fight for a nation in which many  still felt downtrodden. Understanding this, Churchill and Attlee promised that, following the conflict, Britain would become a land better, fairer. If the people fought for the nation, the nation would fight for the people, so they promised. And with improved schooling, healthcare, universities, and welfare, Britain did become a fairer place. So far, so good.

But with so much change occurring, it is perhaps unsurprising that the proponents of competing economic and political ideologies took up arms. While, broadly speaking, capitalists won the economic battle and democrats the political one, many of the cultural fights were won by Marxists, communists, and socialists. Traditionally, within these three related ideologies, there have been two distinct roads of reasoning about how best to approach ‘remaking’ society: 1) spread privilege (i.e., raise those at the bottom up to the top), and 2) rip it all up and begin again. Culturally, one of the ideologies, ‘rip it all up’, remains prevalent today, while the other, ‘spread privilege’, remains less so.

It is the ubiquity of the ‘rip it all up’ ideology that has led to the problems within education. Rather than spreading privilege, those who advocate progressive teaching and radical alterations to the curriculum see our system of education (in both its method and content) as much like some invisible scaffolding around Buckingham Palace: a sneaky instrument designed by the ruling elite to support and maintain the structures that keep them in power, and to covertly foreground ‘their’ culture at the expense of alternatives.

This idea, coalescing with many other post WWII events (the miners strikes; the decline, and subsequent unease about, empire; the recent banking crisis), has helped to create a narrative in which the poor and marginalised continue to be exploited by the powerful. And there is truth in that narrative. A lot of truth. But let’s not get distracted by large-scale sociological narratives. Let our eyes stay firmly fixed on the topic at hand: education. Because if the ‘rip it all up’ solution is to work, it must be implemented at a societal level, not an educational one; society must be dismantled and fundamentally redesigned, from the bottom up, and divested of its centuries-old power structures (which will get replaced with new ones).

If we assume that this is not going to occur imminently, then, just as removing only a staircase won’t bring down a house, ripping up the education system alone won’t change society. In fact, progressive education is actually exacerbating the problems its proponents want to eradicate, because, like a house without any stairs, access to the top is denied. Many of the ideas promoted by progressives actually work to prevent the poorest and most marginalised from achieving academically (and thus economically and politically), by denying them access to the knowledge of the powerful. Thus the knowledge gap between the poor and the powerful increases.

This leaves us with the ‘spread privilege’ solution. Unless remaking society in its totality, this is bound to be more successful, because it takes account of society as it is, rather than as a multitude of possibilities that some might wish it to be. It aims to provide the poorest pupils with the same knowledge and skills as their richer counterparts, so that they might also gain access to the firmaments of power.

But what about the accusation that spreading privilege simply maintains power structures? Well, as we have just seen, it actually disseminates power amongst the populace. And, in the final analysis, is it the structures of power themselves that are the problem, or the marshals at the bottom saying only certain pupils may climb them?

“Ah yes,” I hear you retort, “but the ‘spread privilege’ solution values the culture of the ‘dead white male’ above all others.”

The term notwithstanding, there is surely some truth in this. But first, let’s interrogate the term. The word ‘dead’ is redundant here. Realistically, education can only study things that have already happened, and thus, since it is mostly concerned with the past, most of its protagonists are likely to be dead. A more useful term would be ‘privileged, white males’. This is important to note, not only for accuracy, but also because it also brings into the spotlight an underlying assumption held by some of those who use the term; they believe the past is unimportant. In a sense, this is the nadir of progressivism: Forget the past! It’s all about progress! Forward, march!

But this raises a question: if we don’t teach the past, what do we teach? The future? How can we? We can’t. Of course we can’t, at least not in any meaningful way. So, if we cannot teach what has not yet happened, what are we left with? Nothing perhaps. Or perhaps we are left teaching something more sinister: how the future should be. Immediately, this suggests ideas of Orwellian thought crime. Teaching how the world ‘should’ be, rather than how it is, or has been, is the very aim of many a book burning, totalitarian despot who is ushering in Year Zero.

Tell me I’m out-of-date, but it seems to me that that this is not a particularly progressive state of affairs. Now obviously, I’m not claiming that there are legions and hordes out there who actually want to use our education system to enact an Orwellian future. But if we refuse to teach what has happened in the past, and in a truthful way, then the education we provide will become a values-based one, and teaching a vehicle for people who wish to promote a vision of how they would like society to be. And what is that if not naked political indoctrination?

(It may be argued that I myself am putting forward a political argument here, which, of course, I am. But I contain my argument within the realm of the education system; I am arguing that the education system should provide all pupils with what I believe is a good education. To my mind, this is an argument qualitatively different from one that posits using the education system as a proxy for wider political goals.)

I should also recognise that the phrase ‘dead white male’ is a play on a secondary meaning of ‘dead’, as in ‘very’. To spread privilege means to teach a curriculum that is very white and very male, so the argument goes. The argument is broadly correct. And the reason for this is that Western history has been both very white and very male. So we have a problem because, as we have just discovered, essentially, we are always teaching history. But let’s be clear: this does not mean we must rush off to read Mein Kampf or endorse a world in which white males hold the vast majority of power. Nor does it preclude us from critiquing societies that are based on any such or similar principles, first and foremost our own. But it does mean that if we are to attempt to teach the best that has been said, thought, and done, in order to build a fairer society, a society in which the poor can compete with the privileged, then the curriculum will inevitably be skewed towards that which has been said, thought, and done by privileged, white males. Again, this is regrettable, but we teach it not because we want to endorse that world-view, but because, like parrots perched atop pens of parakeets, privileged, white males were, for a long time, the only ones able to talk and act freely.

Crucially, while a high-quality curriculum will be skewed in its content, its protagonists will not be privileged, white males exclusively, nor will it promote white-only/male-only privilege as an ideal. A unit on the slave trade, for example, must include the voices of the slaves and should value them above both the voices of slaveholders (obviously), and, in my view, the voices of white abolitionists; ultimately, any unit on the slave trade that omits to study Toussaint L’Ouverture is not a unit of study at all. Similarly, a chronological study of English literature should see a plethora female writers emerge during the 18th and 19th centuries, and, appearing after WWII, there should be working class novelists and post-colonial writers, such as Alan Sillitoe and Chinua Achebe. These are but three examples; their are, of course, many others. But organised like this, the curriculum demonstrates to pupils the influence that power structures have had over time and that is a fact that we should not hide. Truly, it is important that this fact is taught in a meaningful way, and it is the job of the teacher to mediate the fact with contemporary attitudes towards it.

While ideas and attitudes have changed significantly over the past 100 years or so, and will no doubt continue to do so, we must remember that we can’t change the past to suit our aims for the present. Indeed, we must not learn only from the best of our words, but also from the worst of our deeds. So unless we would rather rip up society and start all over again, we must have a curriculum that aims to teach the best that has been said, thought, and done, and this means recognising and critiquing the fact that power and opportunity have been skewed towards privileged, white males. And although it might seem paradoxical, perverse even, by providing our poorest and most marginalised pupils with access to this knowledge, it means our future will be more diverse. And really, isn’t that what we’re aiming for?

Understanding what you don’t know: dual-coding, cognitive load, and using diagrams in explanations

So, full disclosure, I’m no expert in either dual-coding or Cognitive Load Theory. Actually, I am really not an expert in many of the issues I will be covering in this blog post. But that’s ok. In fact, in many ways, it’s desirable because, as teachers, we have to interact with so much information on a daily basis that it is simply not possibly to become an expert across so many different domains. When interacting with research, advice, or theories, we must attempt to take the ‘headline’ principles and apply them to our classroom practice. Some stuff we’ll get wrong; other stuff we might get right. The great thing about blogs, and also about platforms like Twitter, is that they allow the flow of ideas to be shared, refined, discussed, and critiqued.

For Cognitive-Load-Theory I’m going to take this from Dan Williams as my ‘headline’:

“Working memory is only able to hold a small amount of information at any one time and instructional methods should avoid overloading it in order to maximise learning (Sweller, 1988).”

For my dual-coding ‘headline’, I’ll make us of what Oliver Caviglioli describes as Sweller’s “hack”:

“The amount of information that can be processed using both auditory and visual channels should exceed the processing capacity of a single channel.”

Given these explanations, it seems dual-coding is technique that allows the brain to complete additional processing, sort of like a processor upgrade in a computer, to partially overcome the limitations of working memory. No doubt this is true, but when I reflect on how I use visuals in my teaching of English, it occurs to me that I use them for the opposite reason: to decrease cognitive load, rather than produce increase in overall cognitive capacity.

For example, when teaching ‘Bayonet Charge’ recently, I felt would be useful for my pupils to have an understanding of what ‘no man’s land’ is. Were I to have stood in front of the class and explained the concept to them, I might have said something like this:

“In World War One, armies generally fought in long trenches. Imagine a field with two trenches dug parallel to one another; one army is in one trench trying to advance east while the other army is in the other trench trying to advance west. There is a gap of land between them that no one owns. This is called ‘no man’s land’ because it belongs to ‘no man’.

While some pupils may grasp the concept, many will not. This is not because they are incapable of understanding the concept but because there are many bits of information they must remember: WWI, trenches, a field, parallel lines, east and west advances, a ‘gap’ of land. Another problem is that I am trying to explain something visual, but since I am attempting to explain where certain things are located in relation to one another, the explanation comes across as quite technical. I can hardly be said to have “painted a picture” in their minds. Further, I’m asking them to apply mathematical and historical knowledge to a poetry lesson in an English classroom. So, clearly, there is a number of potential pitfalls here, and I am expecting them to simultaneously hold and manipulate multiple pieces of information.

And yet, by simply drawing a crude diagram, I can negate most of these pitfalls:

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For me, the beauty of the diagram isn’t so much that it allows extra information to be processed, as advanced by the definition of dual-coding above (although it may do that), but rather that it releases pressure from the pupils’ working memories. I would begin with a blank white board and add to the diagram piece by piece as I explain the concepts, thus freeing the pupils’ to fix their attention on the upcoming piece of information rather than using it to hold onto the last piece of information; in effect, the diagram performs the role of long-term memory and, in the process, frees up working memory. Hopefully, when the explanation is complete, the diagram will also allow the information to be processed and stored as a single concept, rather than as a number of disparate pieces of information that must be pulled together.

Let’s look at one another example. This time capitalism. When studying texts such as ‘An Inspector Calls’ or ‘Blood Brothers’, I might consider it useful for pupils to have some understanding of capitalism. While I could tell them something like: “capitalism is an economic system in which private individuals own companies and employ workers to make a profit,” this alone doesn’t cut the mustard; there are problems with this explanation. Do the pupils know what “capital” is? How many will know what is meant by “economic system”? What about “private individuals” or “profit”? Et cetera. But actually, even before we get to the point of defining capitalism or the constituent parts of knowledge that are required to understand the definition, I think it is useful for pupils to first have an understanding of how capitalism works.

Again, to illustrate this, I can use a combination of explanation and diagram:

“Mrs Builder has £1,000,0000 from a job she has just completed. For save keeping, she gives it to Mr bank. Now Mrs Builder still has £1,000,000 but Mr Bank also “has” £1,000,000.”

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“Along comes Mr cake, who wants to open a cupcake shop. He asks Mr Bank if he can borrow a £1,000,000 to set up his business. Mr Bank agrees, but says Mr Cake must pay back £1,100,0000. Mr Cake now has the £1,000,000 and the bank “has” £100,000 (owed in interest).”

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“Next up, Mr Cake employs Mrs Builder to build his cupcake shop. Mrs Builder charges him £1,000,000. Mr Cake now has £1,000,000 of assets. Mrs Builder, who now has £2,000,000, places the £1,000,000 Mr Cake has paid her in the bank. The bank now has £1,000,000 of deposits and £100,000 of interest owed.”

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“Unfortunately for Mr Cake, halfway through the job Mrs Builder realises she has severely underestimated the cost of building the cupcake shop, as builders are likely to. She charges Mr Cake an extra £1,000,000 to complete the job. Mr Cake is not happy but he can hardly stop now, so he goes to the bank, who again approve his request and again charge £100,000 in interest. Mr Cake now has £2,000,000 worth of assets, the bank £200,000 of interest owed, and Mrs Builder £3,000,000.”

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“Finally, Mrs Builder also puts this additional  £1,000,000 into the bank.”

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Now, clearly this is a gross oversimplification of how a modern capitalist economy actually functions, and the pupils may ask a series of follow-up questions (“what if Mrs Builder wants all her money back at once?”), so if you’re going to explain this you must anticipate those questions and know the answers. However, it does give a nice example of how capitalism uses credit, and the idea of future earnings, to turn money into more money (useful for ‘Blood Brothers’). In this case, £1,000,000 has been “turned into” £6,200,000. Mrs Builder has £3,000,000, Mr Baker has £2,000,000 of assets, and Mr Bank has £200,000 owed in interest from Mr Baker and £1,000,000 of Mrs Builder’s money, which it can invest elsewhere. In the future, assuming Mr Cake pays his debts, Mr Bank will also be able to re-invent this £2,000,000 in other ventures, turning it into yet more money. From here, it will be easier to have conversations about things such as “capital” “investment” or “bosses v workers” (useful for ‘An Inspector Calls’) as pupils have an idea, albeit very basic, of how a capitalist economy works. If you use Mr Cake or Mrs Builder as illustrations of bosses, then a discussion of bosses v workers feels more concrete than simply saying they are a part of “an economic system in which private individuals own companies and employ workers in order to make profit.” The pupils may well never use the precise knowledge gained  in an essay on BB or AIC, but they may well become more confident and coherent when discussing capitalism and its surrounding issues in the texts.

However, my point here is not really about the discussions this knowledge may lead to. Again, it is about how the diagrams facilitate understanding. If I had explained the process without the aid of diagrams, it is highly unlikely that any pupils would have grasped what I had said, because the volume of information is simply too large. Again, the diagrams stand in place of long-term memory, freeing-up working memory to understand and follow the explanation.

(Just in case you’re wondering, banks operate on the premise that not all of their depositors [people or organisations who deposit money] will want to withdraw their money at the same time. It was, in part, this assumption that caused Northern Rock to fail, as, all at once, its depositors lost confidence in the banks’ ability to pay them their money. Thus they simultaneously withdrew their funds, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is also what happens during the bank scene in Mary Poppins.)

Lastly, I want to touch on how I explain Browning’s use of irony in ‘My Last Duchess. I have previously blogged about this, so I won’t give another blow-by-blow account. (You can download the resources here, should you wish.) In short, what I do is talk the pupils to a point whereby they understand that there is a gap between what The Duke says in his monologue and what it is that the reader is supposed to understand from his words. The Duke says one thing and the reader understands this. But the reader also understands that Browning, the poet, is using The Duke’s words to tell us something opposite. We end up with this diagram:

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I recently read an extremely enlightening blog by Clare Sealy, in which she investigated knowing and understanding and pointed out that they are more interlinked than people often assume. Traditionally, the debate has focussed upon whether knowing is enough and whether memorising information alone can be said to produce understanding. The implication is that knowing (or memorising) is the grubby second-cousin of true understanding, and this model of thought naturally assumes that knowing/memorising comes before understanding.

But what I touched on in my previous post about ‘My Last Duchess’, and what Cognitive Load Theory and dual coding make clear, is that it is possible to understand something without ‘knowing’ it. That is, without having committed it to long-term memory. This flies in the face of much of what is said about memorisation — which is often claimed to be superficial. But sometimes, if we take the time to give pupils clear and cogent explanations, with diagrams standing in for long-term memory, they can understand much more than we think. This has important implications for what we teach our pupils, as it allows us to raise the threshold of our expectations.

It might also change the nature of our instructional sequences. Were I to solely consider pupils’ prior knowledge, I might think it a bad idea to teach irony in relation to ‘My Last Duchess’. Irony can be a slippery concept at the best of times, and this might put me off teaching it in relation to ‘My Last Duchess’, a difficult poem itself, especially when pupils do not know nor understand the concept. But irony isn’t like alliteration. You can’t just explain it and then confidently expect pupils to begin identifying it — it is far too complex. To avoid confusion and misconceptions, pupils need to have irony demonstrated for them before it is defined for them, before they know the definition, and the use of diagrams allows for this; by standing in for long-term memory, diagrams allow us to reverse the knowing/understanding relationship.

Here, it is important to note that this in no way means we can do away with committing things to memory. Quite the opposite, in fact. How can I be so sure? Well, I have taught the lesson on irony in ‘My Last Duchess’ to two different bottom set Y10s in two different schools and I’d say 90% of the pupils I explained it to understood it. You might be sceptical, but, trust me, these are not the kind of shy kids who will meekly agree that they understand if they don’t. If they are confused, they will make sure you know about it! But what was interesting was as soon as I used the blank screen function on the interactive whiteboard to take away the diagram (i.e., to remove the crutch that functions as “long-term memory”), the pupils could not parrot back to me what I had just explained, what they had just understood, and what they could parrot back when the diagram was displayed.

Unsurprisingly, the pupils found this highly frustrating. But they were frustrated because they understood, not because the didn’t. They were frustrated because they understood the concepts but the mental architecture that would allow to explain what they understood had not been constructed in their long-term memories.

The clear inference is that, in a well-designed instructional sequence, not only is memorisation vital to enable pupils to demonstrate what they understand, but memorisation, far from being a grubby, secondary learning-goal, can sometimes be the harder and more advanced learning process; it is not shallow, dry, surface, or disembodied, but effortful, useful, and the ultimate goal of education, because it is memorisation, the ability to recall information at will, that allows that information to be used at the moment it is required. Memorisation allows performance, is a pre-condition for long-term performance, and, without it, understanding cannot be made visible.

No knowledge. No teacher talk. No challenging texts. It’s as if we’ve designed our schools to keep the poor in poverty…

So I once had a child in my form who was a real pain in the ass. A real pain in the ass. Everyday: “Raymond, put your food away”; “Where’s your tie? Your lanyard?”; “Raymond, I’ve just asked you to tuck your shirt in”; “Watch your language”; “Raymond, can you put your phone away, please? Raymond, put your phone away. Raymond. I won’t tell you again. Put it away.” Et cetera, et cetera.

But for all that, we got on well. We fell out a lot, but we got on. For example, he was internally excluded multiple times for swearing at me, but when I accidentally left my classroom door wide open and my phone on the table, he sat beside the phone and “protected” it until I returned. “Sir,” he said. “You’re such a beg. You left the door right open. Any crack-head could have come in and nicked your phone if I didn’t  of sat here.”

I paused and smiled at him. “Thank you, Raymond,” I said. “But now put your own phone away.”

He smiled.

From time-to-time, I still think of Raymond. I think of how he couldn’t string a sentence together and yet occasionally said something so insightful it would altogether halt me. But I try not to think of these things. They make me angry. I’m angry because if things had been different for Raymond, if he were from the other side of the tracks and had gone to a prep school, then he could have gone to Eton. And if he had gone to Eton then he could have gone to Oxbridge. I’m angry because, while there are complex social issues at play, I don’t believe that social issues or the divide between private and state schools explains how a gap so large, between hardly being able to construct a sentence and going to Oxford, can form.

It’s well established that by comparison to those born in relative prosperity, children who grow up in poverty generally have a vastly reduced vocabulary. By some measures, at age twenty-four months they are already six months behind in terms of vocabulary and language understanding, and have heard thirty-million(!) fewer words by age three. Considered in light of these statistics, the stigma that still exists around both “teacher-talk” and challenging literature seems not only misguided but an outright outrage. It damages children like Raymond.

If we are to improve the vocabulary and language skills of our most disadvantaged pupils, if we truly want to close the attainment gap between rich and poor, then we need to address the issues that are within our power as teachers to address.  We cannot simply bemoan issues that are outside our sphere of influence, such as government policy, structural power in society, or lack of parental enthusiasm for education. I’m not denying these things exist. I’m saying that, as things stand, we  each have but one poxy vote with which to change them. And though wealth and vocabulary are correlated, income does not determine the breadth of a person’s vocabulary.

To broaden the vocabulary of our pupils, we must teach vocabulary, ambitious vocabulary, explicitly. But we must also allow our pupils to hear us talking, to hear the extent of our own vocabularies. And since most teachers possess a relatively broad vocabulary, it is madness—madness—to deny children access to our personal word banks as though they are as personal and precious as our piggy banks. I have written before about the remarkable stickability of vocabulary when compared to other knowledge, so I won’t repeat myself here, but it is worth restating that the discomfort that exists around teacher talk is actively harming the children we teach.

To illustrate, we’ll compare a teacher explanation and a treasure-hunt activity. Let’s say the treasure hunt takes ten minutes to complete, as children roam around the classroom finding the information that’s been hidden (hidden!) from them. Inside an envelope they will discover a short piece of information written in dumbed-down language, because each pupil has to read it independently and it is highly unrealistic for the teacher to individually check everyone’s comprehension. Now, let’s consider all that could have been achieved in ten minutes of teacher-talk: a clear explanation employing rich language, complex words defined and then clarified with examples, and all before some quick whole-class AFL is used to check for understanding and clear up any misconceptions. Just consider the difference in total word-exposure that the children in each example have been exposed to and then multiply that over an entire school career. Tens of millions of words, I would guess.

To compound matters, once we have denied them access to our own vocabularies, we deny them access to the vocabularies of our great writers, by studying texts that pupils can “relate” to. Some advocate this because they worry about fostering a love of literature in our young people. I sympathise with the concern and have no problem with the principle. But you have to ask yourself, what, exactly, are you fostering, and what, exactly, are you getting paid for, if all you are doing is providing pupils with a book that they will love regardless? Because anyone can do that. Literally any mug with a library card can say to a child: “Pick whatever you want, mate.” The challenge is to foster a love of great literature in children by illuminating the words and ideas that our greatest writers have left behind. That’s where, as English teachers, we earn our money. And it is with these texts that a child’s vocabulary really develops. It is here they are exposed to a plethora so-called Tier-2 words; words, such as “plethora”, that are found in print but mostly absent from oral language, and where the majority of discrepancy exists between children from poverty and prosperity.

(As an English teacher, I’m primarily interested in literature. However, in other subjects too, surely pupils should be reading quality material in every lesson and familiarising themselves with the nomenclature?)

Of course, more ideal would be to prevent the gap opening in the first place. This is why I think it would make more sense to direct the majority of Pupil Premium funds towards EYFS and infants. But that is perhaps a whole other blog, by someone more knowledge in EYFS and primary education than I. (And yes, I think that is the march of secondary Headteachers and their Business Managers I hear, as they line up to stone me for suggesting yet more money is taken from their budgets.)

More controversial still, are ideas around cultural literacy. (For expedience, let’s put asside the knowledge vs skills debate.) As soon as one accepts that our first responsibility as teachers is to teach “stuff” to the charges in our care, a culture war erupts centering upon who gets to decide curriculum content. During his excellent (seriously, seriously excellent) presentation at yesterday’s #REdRugby, Chris Peirce commented (words to the effect of): “I think it’s useful for children first to have an understanding of the culture they’re part of.” This prompted a couple of responses from other members of the audience, with one even commenting that she would be sending her own child to his school in September, and as such would be able to keep an eye on things herself, which I thought was unnecessarily antagonistic.

As it happens, I agree with Chris’s position. I contend that, if a person doesn’t have access to a rather large and complex web of metaphors, symbols, and references from their own culture the culture in which they live (please note the critical difference there), they are excluded from opportunities within that culture. Ultimately, being unable to navigate the warp and woof of their surrounding culture leaves people in a state of alienation. And, like it or not, in every region of our planet there is a dominant culture that prevails. People need access to the culture of the place that they inhabit in order to participate in society. I, for example, have fairly decent knowledge of communist cinema during 1960s Hungary. While this is quite nice, it serves me little to no purpose on a day-to-day basis. Were I a film scholar, it would be useful. But I’m not, so it isn’t. Better, say, that I have a decent understanding of the Mary Celeste. Why the Mary Celeste? Well let’s have a look at a headline from today’s Sunday Times:


Without an understanding the Mary Celeste, a reader of this text misses most of the meaning in the headline. But knowledge of the Mary Celeste is not the only knowledge a resident of Britain needs to unlock meaning here; there is other cultural knowledge and concepts that must be recognised and understood in the forty-or-so words: paradox, that Theresa May is the current British prime minister, that in Britain political mandate is granted by a general election, what a general election is, the result of the recent general election, and what Brexit is.

Let’s investigate another:


Here, readers need to be aware of the different cultural stereotypes that are associated with people of old and new money. They need to be au fait with ideas about the corrupting influence of money, and how, in Britain, these are overtly connected with a person’s class. They need to know what a hereditary peer is, and to understand that they will require a fairly well-developed understanding of how the Palace of Westminster operates. They will  also need to understand the stereotypes associated with hereditary peers, in order to understand the reference to his being “157”, as well as stereotypes around how they behave in parliament, if they are to infer what Liddle is implying when he says: “I’m not sure he knew who he was, or what he was supposed to be doing.”

They will need to know all this and have a developed sense of irony, if they are to understand that Liddle is not, in fact, saying the peer was a nice chap when he says, “seemed a nice enough chap” but, rather, is affecting the assuredly nonchalant language of those from “old money”. However, to pick this up, it’s not enough to simply know what irony is. No, the reader must understand the particular linguistic-tics of those from old money, as well as stereotypes about their attitudes.

Last but not least, they need to take all this information and connect it to the reference to “old money” in the headline. So, as we can see, quite a lot is going on, and if one is to understand it, one must understand the minutiae of the surrounding culture.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think our children should be able to read the newspaper when they leave school. Many, perhaps even most, wouldn’t be able to extrapolate all the meaning from the examples above. If pupils are leaving school unable to understand the references in two very short extracts, which I found in less than a minute or so’s searching through today’s paper, then we have a problem. It is for this reason that a country’s schools should foreground it’s “home” cultural knowledge; it grants access and cultural capital to those who wouldn’t otherwise would possess it. Incidentally, this is particularly vital for children who are first-generation immigrants, who have a triple-lock to overcome: they have comparatively limited understanding of the language; their parents’ cultural  literacy in the new country is likely to be highly limited, so they are not exposed to it at home; and they often find themselves in inner-city schools, where ingrained attitudes suggesting that certain knowledge, or culture, is (not) for certain people often still prevail.

Some people believe it is elitist to foreground the teaching of particular knowledge and culture, but, in a wonderfully succinct tweet, Rebecca Foster exposed the fallacy of this position. She said: “I think it’s elitist NOT to teach challenging texts to certain groups of students.” I’ve already addressed the issue of challenging texts, but there is a broader truth implied by Rebecca’s words, and it comes down to the difference between “is” and “ought”. While no one culture is objectively better than another, all people in society ought to have access to the cultural knowledge that will allow them to be socially mobile, should they wish to be; elitism is not about the content of but access to that culture. The snob is not the man who asserts we should teach Latin, but the man contends Latin is not for those he considers socially inferior. If you’re arguing that certain knowledge isn’t for certain children, then take a look in the mirror, because you are the snob.

At KS3 especially, I believe we need to conceive of ourselves as teachers of culture, as well as teachers of our subject. Even today, I have basically no scientific knowledge. I’m embarassed to admit it, but I could not tell you for sure what Galileo (something to do with telescopes?) or Newton (electricity?) did, just that they are important. Until fairly recently, I knew basically nothing about the ancient Greeks and Romans, actually nothing about art or art history, and felt entirely like a philistine if I got dragged into an art gallery. So I’d walk around gibbering about how boring and rubbish I thought it all was, as a cover for my ignorance (and I’m sure most who are reading this can easilly bring to mind a raft of pupils who blanket their ignorance with similar behaviour in the classroom). And all this despite having a first-class degree in English! Bizarrely, all this knowledge is useful to me as an English teacher, for, in an English classroom, any subject can become relevant at a moment’s notice (I think it was David Didau who said at #REdRugby yesterday that knowledge is “Velcro”, ie it sticks to other knowledge). But as an adult, knowing where to look and what to read can be tricky. It’s far better to taught it by an expert teacher at school.