On leaving my job as Assistant Principal for Curriculum Design, I was charged to write down everything I knew about mastery. I sent it around to the smartest people I know, the ones I stole all of the ideas from, and one of them said it might be useful to other people. It is just under 2,500 words, so rather than paste it into the blog, I’ve attached the booklet. It outlines: what mastery is, the science of learning, what a mastery curriculum looks like, what a mastery lesson looks like, and some suggestions for further reading.
In my role this term, I’ve been implementing a knowledge-led mastery curriculum across all subjects, following the thoughts of great educationalists like E.D. Hirsch to shape students’ learning around core knowledge to increase their social and cultural capital and ensure they can access the greatest number of choices in their future lives.
So far, the three greatest challenges to implementing this kind of curriculum have been the concerns of SEN and EAL students, along with behaviour.
My school has a very high percentage of pupil premium students, and it is the peculiar case that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are far more likely to be diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) than their wealthier peers. Our school certainly has an extensive SEN list.
Now, while I am not an SEN expert, I do tend to the view that, as it seems unlikely that poor children are just predisposed to having special educational needs, there must be something else at play to explain the higher numbers on the SEN registers of schools serving economically deprived communities. Partly, I wonder if this is just one symptom of the wider knowledge and practice gap between our students and their more advantaged peers, diagnosed and labeled to be worked around.
Whatever the root cause, there can be no doubt that there are certain children who take much longer to learn stuff – any stuff. Try to teach all children incredibly rigorous material, and these children in particular will struggle. I don’t think that is an issue – struggle is the very stuff of learning, after all. But there is the inescapable issue of time: if these students will take longer to learn, how to we ensure we allow them the same space to master core content?
One solution is to focus the curriculum offer, giving more time to the key subjects (like humanities, science, English and maths) to ensure these students have time to truly master the key subjects. It is a point of contention at what stage such a focus should take place – is it in the early years of KS3, to drench them in the basics and catch them up, or should they have equal access to all subjects at KS3 and narrow at KS4 in preparation for the exams?
In general, I would advocate focusing sooner, as the latter can tend to lead to students pushed through a clutch of technical qualifications in an attempt to ensure they leave school with something they can use later in life. Too diffuse a subject offer at KS3 for these subjects means some will continue to struggle, and even fail, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of lack of buy-in.
The second challenge to consider in our school’s particular context is its EAL students. We have a particularly high number of new arrivals, and a phenomenal job is done by the EAL team with these.
But there are students who still really struggle with the basics of communication in English. As one teacher told me, ‘to allow one student to access the lesson, her TA has to look up the words in Portuguese just so she can answer the questions – in Portuguese. What is the point in her learning a nineteenth century novel?’
I have much sympathy with this view. Of course, we would like all our EAL students to miraculously pick up perfect English just by sitting in mainstream lessons, but there might need to be a smarter solution for these students.
It also depends how much time they have before their all-important exams; clearly a student in year 7 can struggle through the year and probably make enormous progress in mainstream lessons, where a new arrival in year 10 or 11 might need alternative curriculum provision to ensure they are not drowning in syntax.
The greatest and widest-ranging challenge to a mastery curriculum is behaviour, because behaviour affects every teacher and every student in a school. If in the past I was guilty of delivering lessons with too much group work and student independent research, this was partly because it was incredibly difficult to deliver to a class that you couldn’t reach silence with. In that circumstance, in my early years as a teacher, I believed it was better to teach them something than to have a complete riot with nothing being learned.
But I know now that I failed those children in many ways. We do not have time to waste – the gap is too large, the stakes too high. These children do not have time for guessing, for card-sorts, for making posters with their friends. They need to read, write, and learn.
Delivering a lesson which is composed of reading, questioning and silent writing is not easy with students who are used to a variety of engaging activities which allow them a quiet word with their friends. A year 11 student only recently reminded me ‘I’m doing the work while I’m talking!’ when challenged, as if to say that as long as their pen was near the paper they were fine to not be 100% engaged with the lesson. (I firmly disagreed with the student, for the record.)
The major concern with implementing a rigorous knowledge curriculum is that the people who deliver it, especially NQTs, teachers who are new to the school or trainee teachers, all run the risk of immense challenge from students who have grown accustomed to lessons which are part learning, part social time.
To be able to deliver effectively to children, for them to really engage with and reflect on the knowledge they are learning, for them to learn enough in a short enough time to close the gap, behaviour must be absolutely impeccable. And if it isn’t, that has to be the number one priority to allow mastery to take place.
On Saturday 7th November, I was delighted to present at Research Ed Literacy in Swindon. I was speaking about memory, and began by saying this is something I have only recently been concerned with. When Michael Gove some years ago suggested teaching children poetry by heart, I thought this was a terrible idea – what a waste of precious curriculum time! They have so much to learn, why waste time with this? I have, however, completely changed my mind on memory, and not just because of external imperatives – though, of course, closed text exams at GCSE has been the trigger for many of us in starting to prioritise memory.
Memory is important because if nothing has been remembered, nothing has been learned. I have an A grade at Physics GCSE, but if I sat the exam now I would fail completely. Can I really say I know Physics? I don’t think so. I’ve crammed Physics, enough to pass an exam, but I haven’t learned it.
Cramming is not the name of the game; we are not computers storing endless facts. Instead, our brains collect these seemingly isolated facts and embed them into networks of perceptions, allowing us to have a deeper understanding of the world around us. And these facts, this knowledge, is vital to all we do; in reading comprehension, a knowledge of the subject matter predicts your capacity to comprehend a piece, as Eric Kalenze brilliantly pointed out in his session, with an incomprehensible piece on American football plays.
As Daisy Chrisodoulou points out, though, we often underestimate our knowledge and overestimate students’. She makes the argument that general knowledge is like oxygen: vitally important, but we only notice it when it isn’t there. Furthermore, the more knowledge we have, the more we can get: knowledge loves knowledge; or, knowledge is like Velcro: it sticks to other things.
English has, in the past, been seen as a ‘skills based’ subject; but the idea we can transfer skills across texts with no regard for background knowledge of those texts is only slightly less ridiculous than the idea that if we can analyse a maths problem, we can analyse a cave painting. For a full and enjoyable debunking of the skills argument, I refer you to James Theobald.
Willingham tells us that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think about. Our job as teachers, then, is to ensure students think hard about our subjects. This links to Bjork’s idea of ‘desirable difficulties’: we need to make students think hard, not allow them to sit back and passively let the ideas wash over them, leaving no trace of their existence. But we must be careful with this idea: school is already very hard; students are shunted from subject to subject, having to come to terms with up to six a day; there is no need to surprise students every time they enter our classroom (‘today – nouns! Tomorrow, ‘Oliver Twist’! Thursday, poetry!’) – this is just too difficult. We only need to put something in place that makes students think a little more. Don’t just read a passage, ask a few questions about it that students all have to think about to answer. That’s a desirable difficulty.
How do we build memory? In my initial scripting of the presentation I had written: ‘it’s not just rote learning of dry, meaningless facts.’ But actually, I disagree with my summer self – it sometimes is. In learning a language, I had to learn how to decline nouns, or conjugate verbs, and rote learning of those dry, meaningless facts suddenly became very exciting and meaningful in the schema of learning a language. Once those isolated facts were committed to memory, they could then link up with hundreds of other ideas. We’re keen to skip this stuff as teachers, because we know it isn’t fun; but school isn’t about fun, it’s about learning. And this is how we learn.
Making children remember what you say can take many forms: Willingham says we are attuned to narrative, so we could make our lessons into stories – not too difficult in English, as we deal in stories, but not always easy to make each individual lesson story-like. He also says we remember what prompts emotion, but it’s really difficult to be sure all your children have felt the emotion you intended. Also, what if someone comes in a bit tired, a bit grumpy, or already very emotional? I don’t think emotion or stories are reliable enough to ensure we build students’ memory in the classroom on a day to day basis. What is reliable is quizzing: any teacher can quiz students about key ideas. When I visited Michaela Community School, in every lesson I saw at least 20 minutes of recap: unabashed testing of prior knowledge, from previous days, but also from previous units.
I shared some strategies borrowed from Joe Kirby and Daisy Christodoulou: first knowledge maps, and then multiple choice questions, and explained how these were quick and easy to get recap into lessons on a daily basis.
In building students’ memories in English over the course of their study, I suggested two guiding principles: first, what are the hidden bodies of knowledge in the subject? The things we just know, that we now need to systematically teach to our students? I’d suggest these are grammar, and the literary canon (in a cruel twist of fate, I was scheduled at the same time as Katie Ashford, who has to be the most forward-thinking expert on grammar working in schools right now). We then need to sequence these ideas in the optimal way to help students see the links between them, and build up their knowledge incrementally, building in time for revisiting and interleaving the core concepts we want students to remember in the long term.
If it’s not yet clear, I need to explicitly say that there is not one original idea in what I have said. I’ve read a great many books, contained in the presentation, and a great many blogs, and had a great many conversations; I’ve stuck them together and worked at these in my own context. I’m not the ideas person. Despite this, I am so grateful that so many people came along, and were so engaging and so warm in their interactions.
As a follow-on to the initial inset session I have written about previously on memory, I was excited to build on these ideas in delivering a CPD session on planning for mastery with an extraordinary Lead Practitioner, Sophie Smith, who has championed Ark’s English Mastery course of lessons at my school for the past year.
That said, as scary as a day one inset it, you know teachers will be automatically more excited and engaged than at 4pm on a Wednesday, two weeks into term time, when a stack of marking beckons. Showing my draft to a colleague, the feedback was: ‘more pictures.’ I’m not a very visual person, so can’t claim credit for any images on the powerpoint – these are all the work of Sophie.
We began with another paper ‘do now,’ but this time I wanted to collect an insight into people’s thinking about education: what, in their view, was the purpose of education? How good was the current planning in their area? What were the most important aspects of planning? And how much time did they spend on those aspects?
First, I wanted to link mastery planning to the school’s context. We know that our children arrive to us further behind than more advantaged children, who have more social and cultural capital, along with simply knowing more stuff, and having practiced stuff more. I also wanted to pick up on a challenge I’d been given in the feedback from the first session: ‘where is the space for children’s creativity?’ asked one colleague. I asked teachers to think of the most creative child they had encountered: the one who had thought of a new way to solve a problem in maths, or had asked a curious question in science, or had linked different factors together in history. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, those children are also the ones who know the most. This correlation suggests to me that knowledge is the essential bedrock of creativity. You can’t create successfully in a vacuum.
We then posed the question: how do you teach a year 11 class who have an exam in a week’s time? Is it the same or different to your usual teaching?
In retrospect, this question would have worked better later in the session, or perhaps in a later session. There is too much to consider in changing the planning paradigm to successfully cover it all in an hour. What we wanted was for people to note the urgency with which they taught year 11 before an exam, and for us to link this urgency to our way of planning in all years – because time is short, and we have five years to close a significant gap.
I then shared what I found to be a useful distinction from Joe Kirby on planning: changing the paradigm from engaging starter, exciting activities, and reflective plenary to recap, instruction and deliberate practice. (I’ve added ‘deliberate’ to Kirby’s wording for two reasons: firstly, because we need to be completely focused on practising the specific aspects our students most struggle with, and secondly because without it the memorable phrase: ‘Recap, Instruction, Practice’ spells ‘R.I.P,’ which I felt would not connote a happy paradigm for teachers.)
Why is this so important? We know our students come to school massively far behind; research shows that less advantaged children at aged five have heard 30 million fewer words than their more advantaged peers. We also know that, nationally, students on free school meals achieve nearly half the five A*-C including English and maths compared with their more advantaged peers. We can’t do anything about how our students come to us, but we do have five years to close that gap to ensure they aren’t leaving us academically deprived.
Then, instead of citing the Sutton Trust’s research on motivation as I had planned (‘too many words! More pictures!’), Sophie engaged teachers with the cart and horse analogy: we often see self-esteem as the horse, pulling along the achievement, but in fact it is the opposite: achievement drives motivation and builds self-esteem; when children start succeeding at school, they are more likely to buy in.
We shared four key concepts on planning for mastery: select the content, sequence it, teach it, and quiz it. In retrospect, each could be a session by itself. Sophie shared the more rigorous texts brought in with English Mastery, and we asked departments to discuss how much children should read in their subjects, and what they could get them to read. In sequencing, I emphasised considering both the knowledge and practice gap when planning any lesson. For teaching, I didn’t go into nearly enough specific depth, and allowed departments to discuss themselves what they felt the highest leverage teacher actions were, with some interesting results. And finally with quizzing, I cited the knowledge maps and multiple choice tests we were already creating and which could be easily reused.
Subject teams took fifteen minutes then to look over a lesson together alongside these key principles and edit it. We finished with a similar quiz, with room for teachers to write their concerns and needs for support. Most wrote ‘time,’ and a few asked for support in making knowledge maps or finding rigorous content. The next most prevalent concern was meeting the needs of all students, which I will be writing about soon.
In reviewing the feedback sheets, I was interested to gauge the teachers’ response to the do now question: what is the purpose of education? Rank these statements 1-6 where 1 is the most important purpose. The vast majority, 60%, rated ‘forming good, kind and moral individuals’ as the top priority, followed by ‘preparing our students for the world of work’ at 27%. Not a single person chose either of these options as the most important purpose: ‘ensuring our students achieve the highest results in national exams’ or ‘teaching our students rigorous content so they outperform their peers in exams’. For the least important, 37% chose that latter option. The next most popular least important choice at 33% was ‘teaching our students the best of what has been thought and said.’
Nick Gibb introduced Hirsch, outlining the influence he had on his thinking and the direction of travel in the Department for Education. He noted the strong social purpose behind Hirsch: the desire to equalise the distribution of intellectual capital in society, and compared this to the 2007 National Curriculum’s hostility to teaching prescribed knowledge.
Hirsch followed, quipping amiably: ‘it’s so rare for people in the USA in high political office to read books,’ before launching into a forty minute survey of his major educational theories. He explored the idea of developmentalism – to allow a child to develop on their own – and noted the ensuing confusion from such a disparate method of education, and gave some of the theoretical history which underpinned such notions.
Behind every utterance, the drive to use curriculum to equalise society was discerned. Explaining the wrong-headed focus on teaching reading skills, Hirsch cited Willingham’s research which suggests that ‘about a week’ is enough time to teach children ‘reading skills;’ ‘any more than that is a waste of time.’ High reading ability can only be achieved by a broad, wide-ranging and well-rounded education. He cited studies of poor readers who could outperform good readers when they knew more about the given topic, and, perhaps more fascinating, that students with low IQ and high IQ who both knew lots about the topic did equally well in reading about it. Knowledge, for Hirsch and most of his audience, overcomes ‘brute handicaps.’
Furthermore, just as the novice finds it debilitatingly hard to look up new vocabulary in a dictionary (in particular, discerning the ambiguities of words), so the internet age rewards those who already have wide knowledge: ‘Google is not an equal opportunities fact finder.’ I know from sending students off to ‘research’ a topic that this is true – too often they stumble across extremely dubious sites, and come away with ever more misconceptions than they began with.
The overriding purpose of education, for Hirsch, is an acculturation of children into society; we need to teach them the language and ideas of that society before they can enter into its dialogue. For those who worry that teaching knowledge is indoctrination, this is a vital point: it is impossible to (successfully) argue from ignorance. The old paradigms of transferable skills and discovery learning ‘have not been successful in bringing about equality’: core knowledge, conversely, has shown a remarkable gap-closing propensity in Massachusetts, Japan and Shanghai among others.
Throughout, Hirsch was self-effacing, describing himself as a classic ‘hedgehog’, knowing ‘one big thing’ (‘I just go around, repeating my one big thing’). We are so grateful to the Inspiration Trust for bringing Hirsch to London and to Jonathan Simons and Policy Exchange for organising this lecture so we can hear this legend repeat this one, big, hugely important thing.
On 1st September, I wasn’t as nervous about starting a new school as I was about standing in front of the teaching staff of the secondary school at 10am to make my pitch about knowledge and the curriculum. I advised myself that it is always easier to speak to people you don’t know, yet this did little to assuage my fears: whatever I told myself, first impressions count.
Happily, I have lucked into my second wonderful line-manager in a row, and together we worked on a session that would hopefully engage the teaching staff at the right level.
To begin, teachers had a multiple-choice quiz about memory, knowledge maps and multiple-choice questions. The idea was to put into practice what we would preach about pre-quizzing and how to construct MCQs.
We split the session into two parts: theory and practice. To begin, I took two key questions: how does memory work, and how can we teach to build memory? I used Hirsch’s example of ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run’ to highlight that we don’t always know how important knowledge is unless we don’t have it and suddenly can’t access what looks like a fairly straightforward sentence (stealing from Daisy Christodoulou the sentiment that ‘knowledge is like oxygen: it is vitally important, but we only notice it when it is not there.’ I went on to explore other examples of sentences students required explicit content knowledge to be able to access ideas. Then, using Joe Kirby’s excellent ideas on knowledge and memory, asked what we mean by knowledge – after all, if many of us took a GCSE paper now we would fail it, having completely forgotten what we once crammed in. We need to move from a cramming culture to one of real mastery.
I then shared the forgetting curve, exploring the idea of revisiting to secure concepts in long-term memory, along with Willingham’s advice that ‘memory is the residue of thought’: we remember what we think hard about.
The two practical implements we focused on were knowledge maps and multiple choice questions. Knowledge maps are hugely useful for three main reasons.
Firstly, they nudge subject leads to make decisions on what to teach. You obviously can’t teach everything about Frankenstein, for example; you must be selective and deeply consider the most vital information you want students to retain for a very long time.
Secondly, they provide clarity to teachers. The first question any new teacher has is ‘what am I going to teach them?’, and a knowledge map answers that in a single slide. They provide further clarity for subject leads in knowing that everyone in their department is on the same page, and are helpful for senior leaders to have more detailed knowledge of what exactly is being taught.
Finally, they are brilliant for revision. Not intended to be only for teachers, students too can be literally on the same page as their teachers. A knowledge map is a powerful tool for revision, helping students to know exactly what it is they need to revise, both as they are taught the unit, and in the months to come.
I then shared three organising principles for knowledge maps. Firstly, they are selective; you should only select what can fit onto a single page. Secondly, their terms are defined – a list of complex vocabulary without definitions is useless as a revision tool. Thirdly, they are organised into manageable sections, allowing teachers and students to focus on the discrete aspects of the unit.
To assuage the fears that MCQs could not test skills, I shared some examples. The first tests pure recall, which is of course important. The second two test application of that knowledge, looking at how well students can infer and analyse. I explained how each of these latter questions still relied on a huge breadth of student knowledge – you need to know the meanings of the poetic terms in order to decide whether they are being used in the example.
- When did Coleridge write ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’?
- a) 1665
- b) 1793
- c) 1797
- d) 1815
- e) 1816
- ‘I, the true murderer, felt the never-dying worm alive in my bosom, which allowed of no hope or consolation.’ Which language techniques are combined here, and what is the writer trying to suggest?
- a) In this quotation, onomatopoeia and religious imagery are used to emphasise how disgusting Frankenstein is.
- b) In this quotation, a simile and religious imagery are used to emphasise that the death of Justine will never be forgotten.
- c) In this quotation, pathetic fallacy and natural imagery are used to emphasise how destructive what has happened is.
- d) In this quotation, prolepsis and a metaphor are used to suggest that the creature will wreak his revenge.
- e) In this quotation, a metaphor and graveyard imagery are used to emphasise how destructive the guilt Frankenstein feels is.
Drawing heavily from people much smarter than I on MCQs, I explained three reasons for using them. Firstly, workload: although requiring a much greater effort upfront, MCQs are quick to mark and can be used year after year, compared with the uphill struggle of the essay, which is quick to set, but must then be marked 30 times, at length, year after year after year. Secondly, MCQs allow for a much clearer diagnosis of what students do and do not know – in an essay, where a student misplaces a comma, we might not be sure if they do in fact know how to use a comma, but were distracted by exploring Macbeth; or if they can use a comma for lists but not to separate clauses, or if they can’t use a comma at all. With MCQs, you can test each of these aspects separately, and have a much clearer diagnosis of what students know and do not know. Thirdly, MCQs enable teachers to test the breadth of their subjects, not just the depth; with MCQs, we can find out what students know about every single theme and language technique, compared with an essay which might focus on one theme, and include examples containing three or four techniques.
After sharing some key principles for creating MCQs – five options to avoid guessing, plausible distractors to make it challenging, unambiguous distractors to avoid contention over multiple responses, building misconceptions into the distractors, and including more than one correct option, subject teams had 15 minutes to make five using a subject-specific text they had brought along.
Finally, teachers re-did the do-now test as a plenary. Looking through teacher responses really helped me to see where my explanation had been clear, and where I need to clarify at a later inset. In particular, almost no-one managed to get the multiple correct options right; often they would get two of the three, for example. This made me consider that multiple correct options might be too tricky for students at the start of using MCQs, or that we should flag up how many correct options there are in the question.
I was excited to find for the rest of the inset days a number of presenters used MCQs, and my colleagues referring to ‘distractors’ as they noted some ‘ambiguous’ or ‘implausible’ ones where they occurred. More than that, though, I was overwhelmed by the excitement and energy expressed by so many teachers on these ideas.
I’m beginning this blog with a very self-indulgent story. If you’re not interested, do feel free to skip the next four paragraphs.
From 2008-9, I embarked on my final “learning for fun” quest, in undertaking, for no particular reason, a Masters in History. I suppose I had loved History at GCSE, and had found few Literature Masters I liked the look of. Truthfully, after four years of stamina reading, I had almost forgotten what reading for enjoyment felt like, and rather wanted to recapture this by fasting from fiction for a short while.
In the long summer between my degree ending and this beginning, I took advantage of my enviably jammy job (theatre box office clerk; the quiet days meant luxurious hours of sneaky reading – sorry to all my managers who told me not to) to read all about a section of history I had never studied before.
I had lived in Ireland for four years, choosing to study in a country lacking in tuition fees (yay!) and student loans (at least for foreigners like me). In my studies and in the many, many jobs I had (such multi-tasking certainly pulled me through my Teach First interview) I had noticed that Irish people (warning: massive generalization coming up) seemed to be much more invested in their history than my English contemporaries. I wondered if this might be partly due to our lack of focus on the history of our own country; or perhaps that history is not compulsory after year 9. I was continually struck in Ireland by the omnipresence of history, and woefully underinformed about the country I had started to call my home.
In my pursuit of an understanding of Irish history, I mostly have the staff of Hodges Figgis to thank. I mean, I was on first-name terms with most of the booksellers in that store; something my new Amazon addiction makes me mournful of. I fumbled blindly in pursuit of even a basic knowledge of that country’s history, and with the help of Hodges Figgis (Dawson Street, Dublin 2) began the course with a more than cursory understanding of it.
What this laborious exercise taught me was the power of self-learning, something I advocate from time to time in my own classroom. The amount we can learn simply by reading, once we have acquired higher levels of literacy, is astonishing. I sought to contextualise my new historical fascination, and even managed to branch out from my country of specialism.
The mighty Hodges Figgis
Yet history isn’t just about places and names and acts. It is also about culture. One of my favourite books is a history book; Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance explores the highlights of Russian culture (including literature, but also music, dance and drama) in the context of its social and political history. Coupled with an exquisite writing style, I would highly recommend this book for anyone even faintly interested in anything to do with Russia.
In my English degree, my most loved lecturer, Dr. Amanda Piesse (Renaissance drama – and no, that didn’t mean very much Shakespeare) talked about New Historicism: the influence of history on a text, but also of a text on history. This pervasive idea in literary criticism strikes me as one very crucial reason that we should all be readers of history.
Far be it for me to expostulate on what a National Curriculum should and should not contain, but should someone more qualified than I suggest a compulsory study of History from the beginning of primary to the end of secondary, I would very much be in favour of this for our budding literary critics.
The purpose of literature is not only decorative; it is also educative. We read not for pure escapism; we read to inhabit other minds, other places and other times. If we are interested and delighted by fiction, we may also find interest and delight in history. We find story-telling not only in fiction.
Our children deserve a broad and balanced curriculum. Can you study literature without history? Can you study literature without Classics? Well, of course you can. But is it as good?