Teach Knowledge

What can you do when you inherit a clueless year 10 or 11 class? Teach them the test. It’s something that teachers who join struggling schools know well. Principals who are drafted in to turn around failing schools are not fools to throw their resources at year 11 intervention, a.k.a., teaching to the test. What is the alternative?

But kids at private schools and grammar schools don’t do better on these tests because they were drilled better in exam technique. They don’t even do better because their teachers are better paid, or better qualified, or their schools have bigger, better buildings. They do better on the tests because they have deep subject knowledge, built up incrementally over a great number of years, often beginning in the cradle with a loving parent’s reading aloud each night.

In state schools, we have, for too long, been teaching skills and neglecting knowledge. In English, we have taught any novel, or any poem, thinking that the thing that is important is the ‘skill’: of reading, of inferring, of analysing. And yet, novel finished, what have the children learned? Daniel Willingham says that memory is ‘the residue of thought.’ The problem with skills-based lessons is that they don’t require thinking about anything you can commit to memory. Nothing is learned because nothing is being remembered. Over years and years of skills-based teaching, children aren’t actually learning anything. They are simply practising some skills in a near vacuum.

And yet, when it comes to the exams, we all know what to do: we teach them the test. We don’t like knowledge, but we’ll drill children in quotations and PEE and techniques used in key poems. We’ll drill kids in how long to spend on each question and how many marks are available. We’ll drill kids on the key words in each question (‘bafflingly, when AQA says “structure”, what they actually mean is…’). And then we will complain that we have to teach to the test.

I say ‘we,’ because I am equally culpable. Before joining Michaela, I could not see an alternative way of teaching English. Surely it was all about the skills! Who cared when Oliver Twist was written or what the characters’ names were? The kids could look that stuff up! What mattered was their ideas about the text!

We hugely underestimate how vital knowledge is. Skills-teachers across the land cannot work out why their kids cannot improve their inferences, cannot improve their analysis. Why can’t their ideas about the text just be a bit, well, better?

The kids’ ideas can’t be better because they don’t know enough. We don’t think it matters whether they learn chronology, but we forget that it is not obvious to children that Dickens is a Victorian. It is not obvious to children that Shakespeare is an Elizabethan. It is not obvious to children that the Elizabethans pre-date the Victorians. They simply do not know this.

The children who grow up being taught facts and knowledge will thrive in their national exams. They will use all their background knowledge and cultural literacy to deliver deft insights in glorious prose, and sweep up the top grades with ease. The children taught through skills will improve slowly, painfully, and nowhere near fast enough to compete. They will endure two years of teaching to the test and lose any love of learning they might have gleaned in the previous years.

Is there another way? Of course: teach a knowledge-based curriculum from the very start. Stop giving the rich kids a head start.


Results 2015 (or, ‘I can’t sleep’)

19th August 11.52pm

I can’t sleep. I know as a teacher I am not alone in this. Tomorrow, GCSE results are out at 6am. I went to be early so I could wake up refreshed. After hours of tossing and turning I am resigned to a sleepless night and a day of waking sleep.

I don’t know what to think. I am sad I won’t see you all, so sad. I promised you I would be there when you collected your results, but events have conspired to keep me away. I know you won’t notice. You will have more important things to think about.

I don’t know why our English Language results have gone down so much. I had expected a 5% drop; but never envisaged more than 10%. We did intervention; more targeted and more rigorous this time. We did extra mock exams. Your teachers benefitted from extra confidence having delivered the spec before. I was shocked at the number of E grades-more than our total D grades last year. Besides what this means for the school’s headline figures, I am devastated for each of you who missed that magic C. I am told for many of you had B grades and some even A grades in coursework and speaking and listening. The exam dragged you down. This is little comfort to me, and will be less comfort for you.

I find myself wondering: was maths the same? Did they fall too? And what about English Literature, which you all took? Is there solace to be found there? And what could rises and falls like these mean?

We knew you were a ‘weaker’ cohort. Your SATs results were the lowest we had in the school for any year group. But what does it say about our ability to teach you if results rise and fall with your so-called ‘ability’? Is your fate determined before you even arrive to us, fresh-faced year 7s, hungry for knowledge?

And what of the national picture? Already I know of two other schools: one has experienced a similar drop; one has sustained its performance. This isn’t enough to build a picture of what has happened.

Why can’t I sleep? I can’t sleep because I am racked with guilt. What more could I have done, should I have done? But more than this, my faith in education is shaken. I used to believe we could work miracles with you; that hard work would combat all: low prior attainment and deprived background. I have to still believe this is the case. But the means to achieve this end needs a dramatic overhaul. And I won’t be there to do it. I will be far away, in another school, desperately trying to make miracles happen.

All of you students are miracles. You could not have worked harder. You could not have been more pleasant. You could not have deserved more. You bought in to our every intervention, believing our promises of magic C grades.

We don’t always get what we deserve.

We don’t always keep our promises.

I can’t sleep. It will be a long night, a long day, and a longer year of finding a better way.

How do I revise English?

Around this time of year, “how do I revise for English?” becomes the clarion call of many a desperate student. It seems that no matter how many times I talk through precisely this question on a powerpoint slide in a lesson (from which students dutifully scribe notes), I still receive feedback from various tutors, mentors, parents and other interested parties who tell me: “she has no idea how to revise English.”

It struck me all too recently that perhaps the answer is to begin to “do” the revision in lesson time. It took me a long time to realize that much of teaching was a gradual recognition of things students did not know which I had assumed they did (my year 10, for example, who dropped the bombshell of not knowing what the word “vocabulary” meant, thus rendering half a year’s worth of feedback essentially meaningless (“is it ‘connectives’?”)). In the same way that I would not now set an essay for homework for any class that is not sixth form (as I did for the first homework for the first year 10 set 5 class I taught), I would not now send children into the wilderness to flail about with highlighters. We need to begin this in class.

Starting with year 13, I decided to show them the evidence. Last year, I read Make it Stick, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. One of the central messages in this text is that students learn by retrieving from their memories. So, as so many others have written at length about, not by re-reading, underlining and highlighting.

No: we need to learn by testing ourselves. This seems more straightforward when your subject is orientated around “facts.” Making a test on how many nitrates make up a – sorry, I don’t think I can finish the sentence without completely embarrassing myself. But you get the idea. English is a skill-based subject, right? How could you possibly quiz yourself?

Except when I think back on how I revised, I start to see a way this might work. I recall for GCSE English Language learning around forty-five key technical terms (oh, what I would give to retrieve that scrap of revision paper) using an alphabet-based mnemonic. Before even opening the paper, I wrote each word on the question paper. I then ticked off each term as I used it, thus, in my own mind, securing my top grade.

But it wasn’t until University that I really became self-test-super. By my final year, I had perfected the technique of mind-mapping everything I needed to know about a text (key quotes, critical quotes, key ideas, main concepts), hiding the mind-map, writing it again, checking back with the mind-map to see what I’d missed, adding the ones I’d missed in a different colour, and beginning again.

This seemed like a sensible way forward for my year 13s in preparation for their AQA Lit B “Texts and Genres” exam. Following our weekly “quote quiz” (in which I blank out some key words to test they have learned some quotes from one of the three texts, then go through each quote, writing in the words and reviewing the comments we might be able to make about them), I shared some of the wisdom from Make it Stick:

•       “Learning is deeper and more enduring if it is effortful.”

•       “The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future”

•       “Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Flashcards are a simple example. Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes.”

In order to begin, students would create a ten-question quiz on each text. I could then collate all of these into a handy “quiz-pack” for each student to assist in their revision. I advised students to use the quotes, but also the key critical ideas we were engaging with, and shared with them the mind-map idea.

This is all a work in progress, and not something I’ve previously done with classes. I do think it is worth considering, and I will report back on how year 13 find it. I’m planning to share the same concepts and ideas with year 11 later on in the year. I’ve posted the slides below exactly as I taught them to year 13.

Lesson 9 critical views Frankenstein 4.2.15

The problem with progress

I feel like I’m hearing a lot about progress recently, and not just from “Progress 8.” More and more, our dialogue about education seems infused with progress – first there was “progress within a lesson,” now, progress over time. And what’s not to like? Clearly, the children in our care should be moving on, and improving day to day, year upon year.

And once I think I would have welcomed this: our focus on the C/D borderline, driven by league tables and a desperate need to stay afloat with budgets tied to student numbers, seemed to ignore both the top and the lowest achievers.

Or did it? In the fortunate position of working in small schools, in my experience we’ve always focused on pushing every child, even the lowest achievers, over the C-threshhold that will undeniably open more doors to them. I’ve written about how in my school 95% of students walked away with a C or above in English Language – and that my biggest regret is the 5% we didn’t get, when I knew it was possible. In my previous school, that figure was 98% last year – I wish someone would write more about that! (Caroline, Lizzie… I’m looking at you!) Moreover, the top were not left to languish; in my new school’s last year 11 cohort 35% achieved A or A* grades.

My problem with progress is not concerned with the top achievers. Any measure forcing schools to also stretch those with high prior attainment seems sensible. My problem with progress is when turning an F into an E carries the same incentives as turning it into a higher benchmark.

Cognitively speaking, I can’t find evidence that any child is not capable of achieving a C in English; all I can find evidence of is that they’re not capable yet. Some students need more time; through a variety of factors, whether that be poor attendance (so often linked to other social issues) or being in the early stages of learning English, or else labeling with any of the various acronyms denoting their ‘difficulties’ with learning. All this tells me is that they need more time, more attention, more intervention. And we need higher expectations.

Too often, students coming into secondary school with low prior attainment are victims of a social system which engrains disadvantage and ensures a cycle of poverty, and of an educational system not yet advanced enough to work through those gaps in their learning. The problem with progress, for me, is the potential there is to further engrain this problem, so that we end up fulfilling the low expectations society has had for certain children from birth.

I’m not sure I can ascribe to a system where an equivalent D represents a good thing. I’m tired of people telling me “that’s a huge achievement for that student,” because it might be, but we can do better; they can do better. We need to have bigger ambitions of our own ability to transform the life chances of every single child; not just the borderline children, of all children. In the new 9 to 1 system, I need to know what represents the ticket to the future, so I can ensure all students achieve it.

We don’t have to look far to see schools which are coming close to ensuring that all their students have access to any life they could desire; King Solomon Academy in London has used high expectations and epic amounts of work to secure useful outcomes for almost every student in their care. Then, of course, there are America’s high performing Charter Schools which send every child to university.

The problem with progress is when it comes with a lack of an end game. It is the kind of word which makes it acceptable for professionals to say: “we can’t change society/the welfare system/the class system/the parents” – when in fact we can change the outcome, and overturn the whole.

Give me that patience, patience I need (or: exams, exams, exams)

Having been the beneficiary of kind timetabling heretofore, the exam season has never affected me in any way greater than my singular class and my worries about those 25-or-so children. Being at the helm of a department with exams across two key stages and three subjects has opened my eyes to the reality of exams – never before in my life have so many forms had to be filled in, in so little time, to so little purpose. My life is coursework administration and exam preparation.

I think I’m one of the last people I know to have seen the much-acclaimed production of King Lear at the National Theatre. Certainly, in the early days of the production, numerous friends were lauding it. I nodded noncommittally, and half-heartedly tried to acquire tickets. It was only when a friend actually had tickets that I decided to go.

Why the lack of Shakespeare excitement? It’s just that I don’t particularly like King Lear. Of all the tragedies, it is my least favourite. It is very far down the list of all of Shakespeare’s plays. I’d never say I hated it, as it is Shakespeare and the language is beautiful; but I studied King Lear for my own A-level English, and was fairly unmoved by it; buying fully into A.C. Bradley’s criticisms that “the number of essential characters is so large, their actions and movements are so complicated, and events towards the close crowd on one another so thickly, that the reader’s attention, rapidly transferred from one centre of interest to another, is overstrained.” Indeed, my first experience of Lear was before attempting even a cursory first reading, finding myself with my A-level classmates in a theatre wondering why in some scenes the white-haired man was blind, and in other scenes he wasn’t.

The production at the National Theatre has altered my perceptions of the play, as the best productions invariably do. Seeing this play invigorated me; half-asleep on entering the theatre on Friday, by the interval I was bouncing around in excitement at the genius of it all. The casting: perfection; the staging: ingenious. Those small details, such as the crew of half-lit beggars roaming around the edges of the stage as Edgar proclaims his intention to become one of their fold, before slipping seamlessly into them. The raised platform on which Lear makes both his most wise pronouncements, and his true descent into madness.

At 17, I knew too little and argued too much, and believed the ending of Lear to be incurably flawed by Edgar’s (partial) assumption of the crown. Here was a character we knew too little of; his meek and unassuming nature was whipped past our eyes at the very beginning, and we are given but few snatches of it in asides through the play. For the majority of the play, he is “Poor Tom,” a mad beggar, and behaves as such. To lend part of the rule of the land to him and to a character we also know little of (apart from poor choice in brides), Albany, seemed to suggest a hopelessness, and complete lack of redemption.

Indeed, in the National’s production, Edgar is foppish and careless in the early scenes, before enormously naïve; he has seemingly few redeeming qualities. Yet it is his very descent into poverty and madness which transforms his nature; like Lear, through misfortune he becomes thoughtful of others; caring; a worthy human of society. The message of this play finally rang out clearly: riches and power will corrupt us, and they may only lead who have understood, and indeed lived, a life of suffering; who may empathise with that suffering.

Moreover, this seemed to me a play about duty: Lear wishes to “shake all cares” of his age and “unburdened crawl toward death”; such abrogation of his duty is duly punished, and mere power without duty is seen to lead to utter chaos and cruelty.

Of all the tragedies, this was revealed to me anew as the one most to do with life and death, good and evil, serving and leading, suffering and healing. The play echoes with calls to nature and the gods, who are both embraced and chastised at differing points. It is monumentally huge.

Why am I writing about this play? It reminded me of why I do what I do. One production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream converted me to a fan of Shakespeare; without it, I might not have been an English teacher. And my life is not exam preparation and coursework administration. I am in it to inspire, and to change minds, and to open up texts to the personal interpretation and joy therein. I want my students to come to the door of my room excited that they will think something new about a text. I need to remember what it is all about.