Bouncing on a Bed of Knowledge (or it’s all about the pedagogy, stupid)

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There seems to be a bit of a war going on in education at the moment. I’m not talking ‘Education Spring’ but rather a relentless bickering between teachers. On the one side are people spouting nonsense like ‘there is no such thing as emotional intelligence, so there, and by the way, I hate you’ and ‘relevance is rubbish’. On the other are those who say ‘Who needs facts? I never needed a fact. Fact’ or ‘knowledge is over-rated’ or ‘children are perfect – all the time, (and when they’re not, it’s your fault, so there).’ I sometimes think I’ve walked into a Games Workshop store and the table is all set up for Warhammer Education. In the middle, most of us are standing in bemusement, mumbling ‘I quite like facts really, but I also think you should be able to use them well’. And ‘I like children and they’re very important in all this, but sometimes I feel like poking one of them in the eye.’

So when I started writing this post, I tried to imagine what would happen as the title popped up on Twitter. I can hear cheers and jeers as each side figures out which side they think I’m on. But I’m sort of hoping they’ll read on and figure out that in fact, everyone can be a winner. Oh yes. Prizes for all!

English and Philosophy – a ‘Triple A Curriculum’.

When I made the move to return to teaching this year, it was largely to set up a new curriculum for Year 7. Before you screen shot this to send to @oldandrewuk, let me say I actually share his concerns that often, such initiatives are lacking in rigour and depth. This is largely due to the Year Zero mentality that persists in Secondary Education. I’ve lost count of the times, as both parent and teacher, I’ve looked at children’s work and tasks in KS3 and thought ‘but they were doing this in Year 3!’ As a former tutor for ITT and someone who has worked across all phases of education, I’d say one of the biggest problems we have in the system is the way we underestimate the capability of Year 7 and how, if we are not careful, they quickly learn in high school that it’s OK to coast. It’s a habit which is very hard to break by the time they get to Year 9, when we secondary teachers put Superheroes schemes of work away, pull out a Shakespeare and shout ‘What’s wrong with you all – you’ve got GCSEs starting soon?!!’

So, our curriculum for Year 7 has some founding principles to counter this trend:-

1. We read. A full book, from cover to cover, every half term.
2. We write – frequently and with purpose and the children submit a portfolio of their best pieces for scrutiny every half term.
3. We question – every unit is underpinned by a key question linked to a theme in our book – ‘To what extent am I a product of my environment?’ is one.
4. We ping – context is king and books are full of context. From the pages of a book we leap into non fiction and poetry. We look at data and statistics about poverty and inequality, for example, in order to better understand the social contexts of two characters – one rich and one poor.
5. We assess – formatively, though portfolio work and ongoing peer and self assessment in class, but also summatively in an ‘Assessment for Living’ unit. Here, in the Summer term, each child submits an extended piece of writing of 1500 words and presents a summative review of all their learning in a one hour meeting with parents, teachers and peer reviewers in which their work and their holistic achievements are celebrated and their weaknesses addressed with a support plan.
6. We stretch – no dumbing down of language. If children are learning about democracy, they’ll learn the etymology of the word, explore the differences between direct and indirect democracy and develop examples. They have grappled with notions of inflation and hyperinflation, immigration policy, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, differences between relative and absolute poverty, differences between communism and facism and so on and so forth. If it’s relevant to an understanding of the text, it’s fair game as subject matter.

So far, so Gove. But before the ministerial car swoops up my drive, I’ll say this. None of the above matters a jot if the pedagogy is not up to scratch. That’s where the Triple A stuff comes in. E.D. Hirsch points out clearly that it is vocabulary which forms the real poverty gap in educational terms for children and that intensively plugging that gap has to be a priority for educators. He also points out, rightly in my opinion, that this vocabulary is situated within knowledge schema, a position also supported by Daniel Willingham. Where policy makers go wrong is in assuming that the knowledge alone will plug the gap. Take the following conversation as an example:-

Teacher: The moon was bouncy and the cat had a lovely time leaping on the surface.

3 Year Old Child: The moon’s not bouncy.

Teacher: No, it’s not really, but it is in this story…

3 Year Old : But it’s not in real life. People only bounce on the moon because it has less gravity on it than the earth.

Without being pedantic about the fact that gravity is not ‘on’ the earth exactly, this shows a child who is demonstrating vocabulary based on his social experience. He had been to a planetarium. There had been a statue of a man and an apple. He had asked the question that all three year olds ask ‘Whassat?’ And his mother had explained. For the rest of his school days, he is considered to be very intelligent. I would suggest instead that he simply had more experience and a mother who used big words and then explained what they meant. It made him a bit of a pain in the arse if I’m honest, but a successful pain.

I can say that, by the way, because I’m his mother but I teach every child as if they were my own. And what do we want for our children? We want them to be happy. We want them to be articulate because we know that’s really how you get a job, we want them to be able to thrive independently – to be active agents of their own future. And to do that they have to function effectively within our education system. At the moment, that means they have to know how to pass exams. But that alone won’t make for a happy future – and that’s the goal, people, not the exam. So how does this translate into pedagogy?

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A1 – Articulacy
Words don’t come out of our hands. Or out of our pens for that matter. They come out of our brains, and they take shape through a complex interplay of memory, experience and practice. Hirsch’s research points out that a child with poor oral skills at the age of 5 will be 5.2 years behind the children with good oral skills in reading age by the time they are 13. Vocabulary is crucial. Articulating and explaining that vocabulary is essential in fixing and contextualizing it. An obsession with reading as a technical decoding skill elicits a warning from Hirsch:-

While the process of decoding from letters to language is the foundation of reading, it isn’t the essence of reading, which is the comprehension of written language“. (Hirsch – The Schools we Need and Why we Don’t Have Them)

He argues that leaving content and comprehension too late, disadvantages children for years to come. It is certainly a picture I recognize as our first Phonic Boom Babies enter year 7. Their decoding skills are great – even the Level 2 and 3 kids can read the words off the page relatively fluently. But they don’t understand many of them. Comprehension is being undermined by technical word recognition and is creating a worrying gap. Let me leap back in time for a moment:-

1986. I’m sitting in an exam hall. English Literature A Level. I open the paper and the first question is on the Wife of Bath. ‘To what extent would you agree that the Wife of Bath is a garrulous character?’ Actually I can’t remember the exact wording of the question. But I do remember that the question hinged on my understanding of the word ‘garrulous’. Thankfully, it was a word my English teacher had used to describe me at a parent’s evening and I was well away. Around me, though, my classmates went pale with horror. They could not access the question.’

Our futures hinge on such moments. Assumptions about our language and culture bar many children from successfully answering a paper. A SATs paper, a few years ago, stumped many children as it asked them to formulate an argument to persuade their parent to let them stay up late. The children told their teachers ‘I didn’t get it – I can go to bed when I want.’ Which leads me to the second point about articulacy. In addition to words, children need experience. And if they can’t access that directly, you need to put in place imagined experiences so that they can access even the most remote of questions. For example, another SATs paper asked children to write about a busy place. Most in the city I was working in at the time, wrote about a large shopping centre nearby. Ours wrote about an ancient Greek Agora. They’d been in full role in the Agora, gossiping about Medusa as an anxious Perseus strolled by. They had set the scene, researched what the place would look like, smell like, sound like and accessed it through role. Writing about a busy place for them was linked to relevance and experience. But it was an imagined experience.

And so back to articulacy – our vocabulary, linked to experience, forms our language. Before we can write it, we have to be able to ‘talk’ it. That talk might take place in our heads, or from our mouths. The work of Susan Greenfield and Antonio Damasio show us that our ability to reason effectively is rooted inherently in an emotional realm – that emotions in fact aid reason (although when uncontrolled, can over-ride it altogether). Reasoned talk comes from somatic cues and these cues help us to decide what the ‘right’ thing to say is. In fact the only people not to rely on these cues in order to make good decisions, tend to have brain damage. Good writing and good reasoning stem from vocabulary, experience and emotion. And that’s that. So it stands to reason, that if we make educational experiences deep through challenging language, exposure to new knowledge and emotionally memorable encounters, that good learning will emerge. Who could argue with that?

Well, many as it happens. Because working in this way is tough. ‘We do not natter’ said Dorothy Heathcote, explaining her pedagogy in Mantle of the Expert. Many people see talking as nattering. Nothing could be further from the truth. Proper, probing socratic dialogue is what is required. Not unstructured group work, or broad ‘discussions’, or simply sitting in a circle, passing time. But scaffolded talk, with words defined and dissected for meaning. This is something that Heathcote understood profoundly. ‘That word carries an implication’, she would murmur,‘ and implications are important.’ The class would stop and examine the word, like they were performing an autopsy for its implications. Meanings matter, and investigating them in exciting ways helps to make them memorable.

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A2 – Autonomy
I read a tweet today. It was from the teacher of a nursery child immersed in a mantle exploration, presumably as a zoo keper.

‘It’s a baby tiger,’ he said ‘ then I can carry the cage with one hand.’

Making your own decisions, based on the evidence before you is an essential skill in any subject. I was once astonished when a child handed in homework to me written in French. I’m not a French teacher by the way. We too were immersed in a mantle – as Aid Agency workers, exploring the threats of water borne diseases as the rainy season hit Haiti. I’m not a Science teacher either. They were producing leaflets for the workers on the ground about how to help educate the refugees, still homeless after the earthquake, how best to avoid this new threat. The child handed me the leaflet.

‘It’s in French,’ I said.
‘Yes, well they speak French over there don’t they? So I wrote it in English and then put it through a translator tool on my computer. I’ve shown it to my French teacher – she says it’s alright.’

That’s autonomy in action. Business leaders call it initiative.

We’re trying to develop this sense of autonomy with our Year 7s in a number of ways – letting them choose the mode of their homework for example. They know that they have to submit five pieces of writing for their portfolios each half term, but they can choose which five. In between times, they can complete tasks that show their knowledge in other ways – they can present, perform, write songs, draw, dance, inform through writing, explain, whatever. To be honest, they tend to be quite conservative in their choices, but we’ve had some corkers. Models, films and art work that demonstrate deep understanding of concepts, but without a word written down.

They’re also beginning to shape our curriculum. They wanted to do some fundraising – so they did. Over £3000 for our partner school in Uganda and all neatly connected to our book that term, ‘Millions’ by Frank Cottrell Boyce. They’re getting braver with their reading choices too. ‘Yes!’ said one, as I told them that in Year 8 we’ll be doing Shakespeare. Autonomy connects to confidence. And they’re exhibiting all the signs of a can do culture. Believe me, that’s a refreshing change to the learned passivity of many of the pupils higher up in the school who have not developed their agency and independence.

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A3 – Activity

I wrote a bit about embodied cognition in my post on progress so I won’t go on about it too much, but our bodies are far more than vehicles that take our brains to classrooms, as Claxton memorably puts it. They are inextricably connected to memory and powerful tools for recollection. At the most basic level, this can aid revision – pupils who attach a movement to key words are more likely to remember them. It is a premise that many primary teachers use – Jolly Phonics is a prime example. But there is an assumption by some that as children pass the threshold into secondary school that this is no longer relevant. Remember gravity kid? He pretty much passed his GCSEs by twitching in the exam, using movements to unlock his knowledge. It’s a powerful tool for remembering stuff, but this is not the sum purpose of activity.

Doing creates a narrative experience – actions form sequences. Knowledge is enacted and so it sits even more forcefully in the mind – in the narrative elements of memory AND in the spacial elements. It’s like having your knowledge parked in two spaces in case someone blocks you in. In spite of the huge importance of semantic memory in our testing culture (our memory for words), under stress, this is the first system to break down. Remember that tip of the tongue feeling? Having knowledge stored in other places, can relieve the stress and help to unlock the words. Activity is an insurance policy and it helps us to secure meaning and understanding.

So, in English and Philosophy, we mostly talk and we mostly do. The writing comes at home – the output. Our time in class is spent laying the foundations for the writing.

Conclusion

The best salads have a variety of ingredients. Facts through direct instruction might form one of them. But we can pour all manner of facts into the ears of children, and if they don’t process them, we might as well not have bothered. We also need dressing.

Too many ingredients though, and the salad becomes inedible. We can argue all we like about what knowledge is important for them to learn, but there is simply too much of it to cram into a curriculum and acquiring the rest will be a life long journey for them. If we don’t instill a love for learning and stoke curiosity, we’re peeing into the proverbial wind.

Children will make choices based on their feelings and this will persist throughout their lives. Feelings will impact on which choices they make for exams. They will impact on their career choices. They will haunt their nightmares and dreams of the future. Emotions matter. To argue otherwise is, well, unfeeling. And positive emotions stem from positive relationships. That might be a strict and positive relationship – each teacher will find their own stride in that respect, but the way you make children feel about themselves and the matter in hand are important. Don’t forget it.

So let’s stop arguing and let’s figure out instead, how to make whatever it is they are learning engaging and relevant. Because otherwise they won’t remember it. Let’s bear in mind that relevant need not mean real – harness the imagination. Let’s not forget that engagement does not always mean ‘fun’ and it is not easy. It is about purpose and absorption and a belief that what you are doing is important. That takes thought, planning and care. It demands new knowledge from you, because as soon as you become a teacher, your specialist subject is ‘Children’. And if all that seems too hard to learn then, frankly, you’re in the wrong job. Fact.

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14 thoughts on “Bouncing on a Bed of Knowledge (or it’s all about the pedagogy, stupid)

  1. Completely agree with this 🙂 Yes facts are important, but as you say, children are more likely to remember those facts if they learn them in an engaging and exciting way. For example my class of 5 and 6 year olds can tell you what year the Great Fire of London started, where it started, why it started and who started it. All facts which would have fallen on deaf ears if we had sat and wrote out them out instead of acting it all out 🙂

    Thank you for a post that gives me faith in the profession I have chosen instead of making me want to run and leave!

    Miss Sykes90
    http://www.inthenameofknowledge.wordpress.com/

  2. Thank you! I’ll never forget a Year 1 class I worked with once, re-enacting crossing the Thames to help others to escape the fire – it brought me to tears. The power of empathy!

  3. There are so many brilliant things about this blog, and so many things to be agreed with, it’s impossible to formulate a tweet about it just now. I will though, eventually.

    On the exam questions without context: Imagine my horror when one year my students had a question where they needed to describe the hazard in a picture, the most obvious of which was an upturned rake. My students lived in central London (no gardens) and 94% spoke English as an Additional Language, and though for most of them their language was incredibly fluent who knows the word ‘rake’ in their additional language? “The big fork” was used A LOT.

    1. Oh, thank you Laura! It would be funny if it didn’t break your heart wouldn’t it? On whims and fancies our fortunes lie. Or on rakes and forks.

      1. Agree – great blog and so many things to consider. Totally agree about language, the importance of vocabulary, and the relationship of experience to meaning – to add to the anecdotes, science SATS paper showed a picture of pendulum balance scales with a shoe on one side and drawings of other objects. Question was ‘what would you put in the pan to balance the shoe?’ half the class couldn’t find the pan and were looking for a saucepan. IN this case it is an example of the consequences of poor vocab teaching as they should have been introduced to the equipment they used in science with all the technical terms, including ‘pan balance’. Same paper asked for materials in a coach to be labelled and a lot of them labelled the windows as plastic because the coach they went in from school to get to the swimming baths had plastic windows and they hadn’t been on any other type of coach. This was marked as wrong.

  4. Debbie now more than ever I am convinced I need ‘inset’ on the mantle of the expert. My ks3 science is all delivered through a life experience scenario-mostly real possibilities but some fantasy; imagined harry potter meets crystal maze stuff- either way if I knew really knew how to tap into an emotional level of experiencing the scenario, the narrative that contextualises the science, the learning and the rembering would, for the pupils and me, I am sure, be so much more ( deeply) embedded and memorable.
    This is a wonderful post that must ( imho) provoke deep, pedagogicallly, reflective thoughts in all who read it.
    Thank you .
    Inset please……;-)

  5. I could hug you for this. Many of the kids I teach have very narrow bounds of experiences and a vocabulary that is limited by the confines of the circumstances around them. From the minute they arrive in school we have to provide that immersion in subject and find the words for them. This term that has meant that foundation have been “doing phonics” n the role of pirates with the captain (I know this as I made the display ship for them whilst dressed as a deck hand!). Move through school and you will find each year group has worked on building experience into the curriculum so that the learning of facts is relevant and retained. However, the work that is needed for this is huge as the vocabulary I take for granted is missing from the non school environment for many of them.
    I too have to echo the comment on “the big fork”, It was 3 years before I cottoned on that my kids didn’t know what a duvet was and that a loaf was not how they described bread; I teach a high % of EAL mostly from Miripuri.
    Imagine the fun we had with Goodnight Mr Tom…

    PS I remember that A level paper on the Wife of Bath….

  6. Oh thank you Debra, this must have taken you ages to write, and it is so eloquent and incisive that I’m sitting here with tears in my eyes. I’m going to read it again later and try and take in everything you say as much of it is very complex.

    What a telling riposte to the ‘knowledge is all’ brigade, although I guess we do have to thank them for riling you up to write this kind of blog post – without someone to argue against, we wouldn’t all express ourselves with such passion!

    Education is so much about language and vocabulary, that I have often wondered whether we should pluck out those children at the age of 4 who cannot speak as we might wish, and instead of chucking them into a Reception class of 30, put them in a small ‘nurture’ style school with a very high ratio of adults to children, where they spend an entire year simply upgrading their vocabulary and experiencing all those wonderful things in life that they have missed.

    My children are going on a Human Rights March this afternoon, wearing tshirts they have designed, celebrating the courage of Malala Yousafzai and carrying banners, giant planets, and lots of other exciting things. It is this kind of creative/relevant/engaging/experiential learning that they will remember and that will impact on them in the future. Who could argue that 2 hours spent sitting in the classroom instead, with a teacher ‘explaining’ the facts about Malala’s story, could possibly have an impact anywhere close?

  7. Well done for another inspirational and insightful post. It puts me in mind of Sir Ted Robinson and his work on the importance of Creativity. We need to encourage, nurture and value the creativity of our children at all costs and lose at our peril.

  8. Thank you again, Debra, for a very articulate expose that reminds any who are interested, that education is actually about the individual child and the personal journey made by every learner. There is, however, a sadness that haunts me having re-read your piece.

    Having retired some years ago now, I am no longer in sufficiently close contact with enough teachers to know how deeply the problem goes, but it is clear to me that if there are any teachers who have difficulty accepting that their specialism is children, then we have some pretty deep problems to confront. At least if a politician exposes his indifference to this central vision of education, as is so often the case, it will not automatically harm anyone. If there are teachers who need reminding of this then, as you so aptly put it “you’re in the wrong job. Fact.”

  9. I am so glad that I decided too click “follow” when Twitter made the suggestion. I have now to reread your blog, slowly and more mindfully, but as your words washed over me, I just kept thinking, yes! I now need to find out why. Thanks.

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