Tag Archives: History

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.


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?

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.

Some stuff I think I know… after one year of teaching

Here’s a collection of nine random thoughts  with no particular connection, logic, or order, as I come to the end of my first year’s teaching…

1. It seems like no one cares about explanations…

This I have found rather confusing: the idea that we shouldn’t really tell the kids anything. In fact, I think it’s insane. Insane. I mean, come on, whether you’re “prog” or “trad”, prefer direct instruction or discovery, at some point you have to explain stuff. Ultimately, there’s information in my head that I must get into the kids’. That’s the essence of teaching, surely? I know, for example, how Shelley’s manipulation of the sonnet form works to create meaning in Ozymandias. It’s a chunk of knowledge that exists amongst a whopping swamp of litter and junk in my brain. The challenge is to remove it from my murky mind-swamp then deposit it into the kids’, preferably while leaving all the other crap behind.

Whether I write out information and hide it in envelopes around the room, or I stand at the front of a class and explain it, I’m using words to explain concepts. Not once this year have I encountered any CPD or training that focussed on the quality of explanations or the different approaches to explaining. But there are so many questions we should ask: What is the ideal method to communicate this information? When should I use analogies? Might this analogy confuse matters? How should I harness the power of stories? When are stories appropriate? What is the best definition of this concept? In which situations is it best to provide a definition prior to a clarifying example? In which situations post? Which potential misconceptions should I address during the course of this explanation? And so on and so on.

I reckon explanation might be the most important part of the craft. A clear explanation provides knowledge and understanding, but an unclear explanation doesn’t simply prevent this, it actively creates a barrier against it occurring in the future, by embedding confusion that must be unpicked at a later date. I don’t know about anyone else but I spend a whole heap of time honing my explanations. If there’s one Edu-book I wish I owned, it is this: “How to Explain Concepts in English”. Actually, I’ll write that book in future. So don’t pinch my idea. My lawyers are at the ready.

2. The whole prog v trad thing is so cringe…
Given my approach to teaching, other people might say I’m a bit “trad”. But I would never label myself as such. Mainly because I’m not a seven year old geek, so I don’t behave like one.

There are genuine debates. Important debates. But childish labels cheapen them. They also make it much easier for people to dismiss your views. Better to stick with evidence, I’d say.

3. ‘Literacy’ should replace English Language in Bucket 1…
The English Language qualification is not fit for purpose. I’d replace it with a literacy qualification that is more along the lines of literacy skills test that teachers have to take. There are problems with that test, but, in the main, I think they can be overcome. Most importantly, some extended writing must be included. I would also have writing assessed at the sentence-level; in the final analysis, a great writer has the ability to construct and combine great sentences.

If this were to work, garnering more agreement on the rules of punctuation and grammar would be essential. Remember, written communication is a human invention, and it is, therefore, within our power to agree on a set of rules. In this way, grammar and punctuation are similar to money and laws. Money only works because we assign agreed values to random bits of paper, so long as they are marked with the correct squiggles. Similarly, laws only work because we agree to follow them and accept that we must be punished if we don’t. Grammar and punctuation are the currency and laws of language.

We would also need to think carefully about how we test reading and comprehension. Background knowledge is hugely important to reading, scientists have demonstrated. Currently, the reading sections of the English Language qualification is, to a large extent, a general knowledge test. Broad general knowledge is an admirable goal of education. But it should be tested in a General Knowledge exam, not a reading exam. And it gives a huge bias to pupils with more cultural capital. Or, put another way, it disadvantages the disadvantaged. In a literacy exam, we could instead test decoding. If this sounds too basic, take look at the number of pupils who leave secondary school illiterate.

If we want to test comprehension/inference/implicit/explicit etc. then a specified body of knowledge from which the comprehension extract is selected would improve matters. It wouldn’t eradicate the problem of cultural capital, but if all children have the same opportunity to swot up on the body of knowledge in advance it at least begins to flatten the field.

4. History should also be in Bucket 1…
Since you can’t understand the present without knowing the past, History should be included in Bucket 1. And if the goal of education is “broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation” (Amanda Spielman), and if “there are some things that all pupils are entitled to know when they leave school,” (Stuart Lock) then historical knowledge is essential.

Why? Because it is perhaps unlikely that the knowledge and discoveries that will lead us to these lofty goals is being thought, invented, or said right here, right now, in this very classroom, for the first time ever, while simultaneously being discovered in many other classrooms all over the country. And since an unforeseen orgy of enlightenment, led by led by the nation’s teenagers, hasn’t erupted out of the blue and overtaken our schools, every subject is, in essence, history. We’re studying books that have already been written, influenced by previous books and influencing subsequent books. That’s history. We’re learning mathematical stuff that some dudes and dudettes discovered in the past. That’s history. We’re looking at scientific ideas that have already been proven. That’s history.

And a broad knowledge of what is traditionally considered “History” (wars, kings, revolutions et cetera) gives a good background to all the various subject-specific histories, making them more understandable and accessible, because it allows a skeleton narrative to form in a person’s mind, off which other information can hang.

Ideally, all pupils should read Andrew Matt’s History of the World. Is it academic? No. Is it authoritative? No. Is it accessible? Yes. Does it give a broad and accessible explanation of how humanity went from spears in Africa to 21st Century “global village”? Yes. Children should absolutely leave school understanding that, right?

5. We waste most of our time on irrelevant flim-flam…
I think they’re are really only about six questions teachers should ask themselves prior to a lesson:

  1. What information do the pupils need to know?
  2. What is the best way to present this information to ensure they understand it
  3. Which methods will best help them retain this information?
  4. What is the best way assess whether they’ve retained this information?
  5. In what ways will they need to use or apply this information?
  6. Is there anything I need to teach so they are able to use or apply this information?

Currently, I think teachers spent more time thinking:

  1. If SLT come in, what will they think of this activity?
  2. Will X pupils behave today?
  3. By next Tuesday, I have to have seating plans with SEN, PP, prior attainment, target grade, current grade, EAL, and most-able completed and colour-coded. If I change my seating plan. I’ll have to do all all over again. I won’t change my seating plan. Ever.
  4. Also by next Tuesday, I must have a 4-sided context sheet completed, with a narrative for the class and a narrative for every pupil, which must broken down by SEN group and racial background. Why do I have to do this anew each half-term? If any set changes occur in the meantime, then I’ll have to do this again. Again-again.
  5. I must complete triple-lock marking for all my groups but I have a meeting every evening this week. In fact, I have 2 meetings and parents’ evening on Wednesday evening.

You get the idea.

6. Everyone knows the research shows PP pupils lack cultural capital and vocabulary…
So why do we not spend our time improving their cultural capital and vocabulary? Hel-lo? Anyone?

7. Marking and feedback are not synonyms…
They’re not.

8. And neither are marking and assessment…
They’re not either.

9. And while I’m at it…
Neither are assessment and feedback.

Just sayin’.