Gold Dust

The teaching of facts has long had a rather negative reputation, from Gradgrind in Dickens’ 1854 Hard Times (‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts’) to the prevalent metaphor today: ‘spoon-feeding.’ The image is of foisting undesirable ideas into young, unformed minds is useless at best, harmful at worst.

When people I hugely respect in education come to Michaela, their fears about our school are often linked to this understanding of facts. ‘What will happen,’ they ask, ‘when the kids go to university, if they have just been spoon-fed facts?’

I reassure visitors that we don’t, in fact, teach our children ‘nothing but Facts’ a la Gradgrind (our children do a lot of whole-class discussion and independent writing). But it is true – we explicitly teach facts in a way, and for a proportion of teaching time, that few other schools do.

That is because we look at learning through a totally different prism.

Facts are the bedrock of understanding. Knowing twenty facts might feel pointless and useless. But when you know one thousand facts, you start to see the reality that facts drive understanding. And when you know more than one million facts, as I estimate is the case for every university educated person (and therefore, every teacher), expert-induced blindness can make us discount their importance.

In Ian Leslie’s Curious, he states: ‘knowledge loves knowledge.’ The more facts you know, the more you can connect them up, forming a web of deeper understanding. Far from futile, facts are the key to unlocking the civil rights issue of our time. E.D. Hirsch argues in Why Knowledge Matters: ‘once the centrality of knowledge is fully grasped by educators and the wider public, the right to parity of knowledge among young pupils will come to be understood as a civil right.’

Part of the reason teachers have tended to dislike facts is because schools are driven by a skills-led assessment system. Look at any exam rubric and all you will see are skills. Yes, there is ‘indicative content,’ but notice that you’re not expected to ensure that content is included to reach the top grades. This has led to a surge in drilling to the test and content-free lessons where we practise the supposed ‘skills’ that will lead to exam success.

Except that, far from levelling the playing field, an exam system predicated on skills is actually biased towards the wealthier in our society. Because behind every decontextualised skill sits a plenitude of facts. It is accepted that richer pupils have more general knowledge by virtue of cultural and social immersion from their earliest years that poorer pupils too often lack from their home background, and are then denied at school. A skills-led paradigm, by encouraging content-free drilling to the test, will privilege those wealthier pupils who have the underlying knowledge to succeed. As Hirsch writes, ‘a child who has the relevant domain-specific background knowledge will understand the passage and get the answer right fast, without conscious strategising’ – they don’t need the tricks the poorer pupils are drilled in, because they have the cultural literacy to access most texts. As Hirsch writes, ‘advantaged students are constantly building up academic knowledge from both inside and outside the school. Disadvantaged students gain their academic knowledge mainly inside school, so they are gaining less academic knowledge overall during the year, even when the teacher is conveying the curriculum effectively.’ (Incidentally, what would level the playing field would be a unified body of knowledge that all children need to learn and be tested on – but that is a post for another day.)

Let me illustrate the arguments above with a specific example.

If I only know two facts about Shakespeare – his birth date and death date, perhaps – I might be tempted to discount the importance of facts. What can I do with those two facts? But if I also know when the bubonic plague was at its peak, when Elizabeth died and James I succeeded her, when more and more plays were published, when the gunpowder plot was, when Elizabeth was threatened with assassination and why, all these additional facts start to build understanding. I can start to make connections between facts and text, and start to have a deeper understanding of the multidimensionality of Shakespeare’s work.

Similarly, if you ask a kid to comment cold on a piece of text they have never seen before, these facts are, in reality, invaluable. If a child only knows what a simile and a metaphor are, they won’t be able to have as rich a response as a child who knows techniques like tricolon, anaphora, anthropomorphism, epiplexis, hypaphora as well. A child who knows historical chronology, and what was happening in the world at the time the text was written, will have a still stronger and deeper understanding. If they know aspects of the form – rhyme, meter, stagecraft, structural techniques in novels – they will be better placed to comment on the piece of writing in question. If they have a broad vocabulary, composed both of wide reading and, yes, learning challenging words by rote over time, they will stand a much better chance of accessing the nuances of that unseen text. And if they know grammar themselves, they can formulate all these ideas into sentences which communicate clearly their ideas about this unseen text. A child who has detailed and extensive knowledge can combine all this knowledge together and respond to a text in a far better way than a child who has been drilled in the skills of inference and analysis.

A broad general knowledge is vital for pupils to succeed: skills-led strategies are not enough. As Hirsch argues, ‘there are strict limits to the progress students can make if the text is on a topic that is unfamiliar.’ I remember asking a lower ability class to make inferences about symbolism. Asking them what red might symbolise, one responded: ‘jam?’ That child did not have the bedrock of facts that become cultural literacy, and at that time I did not know what to do to give them these facts.

Why do poor kids tend to drop out of university in greater numbers? This is a complex question, and one I’d like to return to in future. But it definitely isn’t because their schools have taught them too many facts. In the USA, where these studies are far more prevalent, KIPP kids, and kids from other charter networks like Uncommon, are going to university in droves compared with their impoverished counterparts from other schools. And yes, lots of them are dropping out. But it would be foolish to blame an overly structured curriculum for this.

If anything, learning facts prevents against university drop-out. When I went to university, even though I had attended a good school, I was intimidated by how much the people from those ‘really good’ private schools knew. I remember clearly having no idea what a ‘dichotomy’ was, and the fact that everyone else seemed to know made me hesitant to ask. That was just one small fact.

I like to imagine our kids at university, with all these facts, all this beautiful web of understanding glistening in the October frost. These pieces of knowledge are beautiful, precious gifts. These facts are gold dust.

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E. D. Hirsch at Policy Exchange

I’ve written previously about the impact Hirsch’s ideas in Cultural Literacy had on me, and so, with all the zeal of a convert, I clamoured to hear him speak at Policy Exchange last week.

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.

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Just one book: curriculum

There are countless books on education. Some will entirely change your outlook and thinking, revolutionising what happens in your classroom and in our schools. Some will be a complete and utter waste of your time.

It is with this in mind that I propose to put forward just one book for some of what I see as the key aspects of education. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be exploring one book for each of the following aspects: curriculum, assessment, teaching, school leadership and school ethos.

It has been easy to pick just one book for some of these categories, and devilishly difficult for others. Of course, my choice will be a personal one, informed by my own personal view of education, and I accept that it may not be a view all share. Hopefully, those who disagree with my choices will put forward alternative single wondrous tomes. We are, I think, always honing, always refining our thinking.

I’m beginning with curriculum. I take curriculum to mean the stuff a school teaches its children. Taking the “what” before the “how” is incredibly important to me, and is one of the defining aspects of the writer I have chosen.

E.D. Hirsch: Cultural Literacy

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 I’ve always had a longing to teach children challenging texts in English, but I have often shied away from articulating a curriculum-wide position. I’ve come to believe, now, that we must unapologetically teach the best stuff to all our children; but especially to the children who are least likely to encounter it outside of school, as Hirsch explains:

“Middle class children acquire mainstream literate culture by daily encounters with other literate persons. But less privileged children are denied consistent interchanges with literate persons and fail to receive this information in school. The most straightforward antidote to their deprivation is to make the essential information more readily available inside the schools.”

To be culturally literate, according to Hirsch, is “to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world.” In our everyday interchanges, even in reading a daily newspaper, our comprehension and therefore ability to interact with, question and enact change relies on our background knowledge. The broader our background knowledge, and the more honed to the important “stuff” of the world, the more effective we will be at understanding and communicating.

Contrary to some dissenters, Hirsch reminds us, this “literate” culture “is not the property of any group or class.” I saw this on a small scale when visiting the first school I worked in, in South East London. There, at a fabulous concert in aid of a school trip to Malawi, I saw the children I used to teach uproarious in their enjoyment of classical music, hip-hop and spiritual songs, among others. Just as these children could enjoy every type of music without seeming aware of its cultural baggage, so we can anticipate children will enjoy and be interested in all different strands of literature, history, art, politics.

The key to my agreement with Hirsch is in his drive for social justice: we have a moral imperative to teach the good stuff: “illiterate and semiliterate Americans are condemned not only to poverty, but also to the powerlessness of incomprehension.”

A strong curriculum builds up this crucial, important knowledge piece by piece. We may begin by knowing only a small amount about a wide range of individual topics or people, but that little allows us a place to hang our later acquired knowledge and understanding on. At one point, Hirsch lists off several names, some of which I’ve only heard of, but can at least locate in a time period, discipline or ideology due to this background knowledge I have somehow absorbed (names like James Fennimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses S. Grant) and notes: “most of us know rather little about these people, but that little is of crucial importance, because it enables writers and speakers to assume a starting point from which they can treat in detail what they wish to focus on.” Simply put, “The more you know, the more you can learn.”

Hirsch’s message in this book is a hopeful one: all students can be “highly literate” if they are “presented with the right sort of curriculum.” This curriculum should be organized, according to Hirsch, as a vivid system of shared associations.” He does not advocate arbitrary prescription of the stuff children should know, commenting almost flippantly: “almost any battle will do to gain a coherent idea of battles. Any Shakespeare play will do to gain a schematic conception of Shakespeare.”

But clearly, analysing Shakespeare play is always better than analysing an advert. His comment “in each classroom somebody always does decide what material our children will be storing in their minds in the name of skills acquisition. All too often it is content for which our children will have no use in the future” rang true to me. I have spent too many lessons analysing language in simple advertisements and leaflets with 16 year olds in the run up to an English Language exam that did not teach a thing. This is time wasted, and for the children I teach this is an atrocity. The new, strengthened curricula in English at KS4 at least provide an impetus to teach far, far beyond such trivialities.

Finally, Hirsch makes the point that: “it isn’t facts that deaden the minds of young children… It is incoherence – our failure to ensure that a pattern of shared, vividly taught, and socially enabling knowledge will emerge from our instruction.”

So, a strong curriculum for me has the following components:

  • Selection: of core knowledge: what are the ideas, concepts and facts students need to know in each subject in order to be able to access higher order ideas in that subject?
  • Sequence: your curriculum sequence must build on prior learning; knowledge builds on knowledge.
  • Revisiting: within this curriculum, there is space to revisit content and concepts, to strengthen them and aid learning.
  • Coherence: a strong curriculum dovetails with other subjects where suitable, so that the overarching schema over the course of a year coheres.
  • Challenge: the curriculum contains high quality, challenging stuff that is interesting and worth learning for all young people.

It is nearly impossible to write about curriculum alone; any construction of a curriculum requires simultaneous consideration of how we assess what has been learned, understood and retained. My next post will be exploring just one book on assessment.