I’m a little tired of being positioned as someone who is anti-knowledge whenever I question the purposes and practices of education. Apart from the fact that it is nonsensical that a person with a doctorate despises knowledge, it simply creates a binary divide that is more political than intellectual. So instead of arguing it, I thought I’d share an example. Let’s say I’m teaching a topic – The Ancient Greeks. It’s done all over the place isn’t it?
“We’re ‘doing’ the Greeks. I have to dress up as a Greek for Greek day,” is how it usually goes. In literacy they might study a few myths. In topic, they’ll look at Athens and democracy and if they’re lucky, the Greek Gods. Boom. But what do they learn about life, humanity and values from it? Why does it matter?
My knowledge organiser for The Greeks would have on it at least the following areas of knowledge:-
- The different periods from the Minoans to the Mycenaeans to the Dark Ages of Greece to the growth of the Athenians. They will be plotted on a time line. Children will explore how different empires valued different qualities and how this impacted on their stories and societies. We’ll look at figures from myths and history in each. For example Minoan – Theseus and the Minotaur; Mycenaean – Perseus, Hercules and Agamemnon; Athens – Pericles, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.
- The polytheistic beliefs of the Greeks and how the Athenians came to question them, for example through Plato’s Cave of Shadows.
- The importance of the oracle at Delphi – where it was and what it was.
- The narrative structure of the hero’s journey as seen through the story of Perseus.
- The roles of women and children in different Greek societies – comparing, for example, Athens and Sparta.
- The development of a direct democracy in Athens and how this differs to our indirect democracy in the UK.
Oligarchy, patriarchy, polytheistic, philosophy, oracle, fate, democracy and many more…
None of this matters though, without a good how and what. I’m not going to waste mine and the children’s time getting them to dress up as Greeks. I can’t see the benefit and it adds stress to family time at home. I’d rather they read Percy Jackson stories at home instead. But I do want to immerse them in drama. So I start with a story. I plot the start of our story on a timeline – somewhere toward the end of the Minoan empire and the start of the Mycenaean. Because our story concerns the mythical founder of Mycenae – Perseus.
The children are gathered.
“What if,” I say (the most powerful words in the world), “what if, you were all advisers to a king in ancient times. The King of a city state – here – (point to a map) – Argos.”
We may have to pause for a moment to consider why a shopping company called itself Argos. It was the name of the founder’s wife. But also the name of a son of Zeus. Who is Zeus? Why do people call their children after gods and characters from stories? Why name cities after them? But shortly, we’ll get back to our purpose. How to speak to a king.
“We’d have to be polite”
“We’ll use formal language, like ‘your majesty'”
“We’ll have to be careful not to lose our jobs!”
“OK. Let’s say we’re about to meet him – we’ve been roused from our beds, early in the morning – and he’s back from a long journey – he’s been gone for months…”
“Delphi – he’s been to see the oracle.”
“What’s an oracle? Where’s Delphi?”
“Ahh, well, let me tell you…”
The story is creating curiosity and interest which is in itself forming a vehicle for knowledge. In this very early introduction, the children have been introduced to a place, a time, a belief system and inducted into shifting the formality of language. Not through a lesson objective, but through a dramatic frame – a who, where, when and what of the area of learning.
They meet the king. It is I. And I tell them my troubling news. The oracle has informed me that my daughter, the princess Danae, will have a child. And that the child will grow up to kill me. So I must stop it. I need their help. What shall I do?
And from narrative framing, we’re straight into human dilemma.
As we enter the problem, we learn many things about life at that time. Materials that were available to build a tower to imprison the young princess. Modes of entertainment for her. The children draw upon their knowledge of mythical creatures to guard her tower. They are creating and imagining, but drawing on knowledge to do so.
“We can put a telly in her room.”
“Telly? What is this telly you speak of?”
“Television. So she can watch it and not get bored.”
“Television? Far away vision? I know not what you speak of.”
The penny drops. But let’s not let the etymology get away. Pause, dissect, understand. A mistake becomes an opportunity for learning…
We create many moments of dilemma led learning in our story. When her child, Perseus, the son of Zeus is born (an impregnation that needs to be quite delicately handled) her father, King Acrisios, hears the cries of the newborn coming from the tower. What does he do? We create still images and captions.
In fact he puts the young mother and her child into a trunk and orders soldiers to throw it into a stormy sea. It’s a P4C moment. Should human beings always follow orders?
And we explore and learn more about the Gods. Who has dominion over the sea? Who can calm the waters? Who will help the mother and baby? We follow the course of the story on maps, learning along the way how far ‘Greece’ extended in those days. From Seriphos to what is now Ethiopia – where the gorgon sisters hid from humanity.
In these ways, we continue exploring the story, right to the very end, long after Perseus has slain the poor, cursed, girl, Medusa. Long after he has rescued Andromeda, married her and founded the great city of Mycenae. Right up to the point where he takes part in the great games in Argos. His terrified grandfather, King Acrisios, disguises himself as a beggar in the crowd. Drawn by curiosity, ruled by fear, he cowers. Perseus takes aim at his target. In some stories a discus, in others an arrow. But whatever the tool, a sudden shift in the direction of the wind carries the weapon into the heart of the old king. The prophesy is fulfilled.
What is fate? Why did many ancient civilisations believe in fate? Did the Athenians?
And we move on…
The talk. They design. They calculate. They map. They add to timelines. And they write, and write and write. Their own myths, reports from battle, proposals for laws, letters to kings and gods and generals of opposing armies. They consider what makes a hero. And what is a monster? Back to poor Medusa…
Through stories, culture, language, philosophy, history. Steeped in knowledge. Wading through dilemma. Driven by ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’ but never just telling them. Never just telling them.