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.

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Assessment in a Knowledge Curriculum

I have written and spoken at length about simplification. In short, I have come to believe that a knowledge curriculum simplifies everything we do as teachers. Rather than considering engagement, entertainment, or pupil interest, a knowledge curriculum relentlessly and ruthlessly prioritises kids learning stuff in the most effective way: that is, reading it, writing about it, and being quizzed on it.

In my past life, here are some ways I assessed pupil learning:

  • Painstakingly marked their books with lengthy written targets for improvement that pupils responded to
  • As above, but for essays and assessments
  • Used spurious National Curriculum levels to denote the level the child appeared to be writing at
  • Developed an assessment ladder based on vague descriptors provided by GCSE exam boards to denote how far a child was from the GCSE expectations
  • Had pupils complete multiple choice exams which, having sweated over making, I would then have to mark
  • Had pupils swap books with one another to write insightful comments such as: ‘good work. Next time, write more’
  • Asked pupils to tell their partner what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to write a mind-map of what they know about a topic
  • Asked pupils to make a presentation of what they know about a topic

Not only are the above techniques unnecessarily complicated, they almost never gave me any useful information about what my kids could do.

At Michaela, we ask the kids questions constantly. Every lesson begins with two to five practice drills. In English, this would consist of two or more of the following:

  • A spelling test
  • A vocabulary test
  • A grammar drill
  • A gap-fill on a poem the pupils are memorizing
  • Knowledge questions on a previous unit
  • Knowledge questions on the current unit

We then read some material, and ask the pupils questions to ensure they have understood. The pupils then answer some questions about the material. We then go over the questions as a whole class, and pupils edit their responses using the whole-class feedback. For a lengthier piece of writing, I would use a half-page of feedback as outlined in my post ‘Giving Feedback the Michaela Way.’

For our bi-annual exams, pupils write an essay or, in subjects like Science or Maths, complete an exam paper that tests their ability to apply their knowledge. They also complete two to five ‘knowledge exams,’ which are simply open answer questions about everything they have learned that year. (Example questions from English could be: ‘What is a simile? When did Queen Elizabeth die? When was Macbeth first performed and where?’) We don’t painstakingly mark every paper – instead we sort them swiftly into three piles: A, B and C. A quick glance can tell us how a pupil has done – lots of gaps is a C, a sample glance at a number of correct answers and all questions attempted with a well-worked extension an A; everything in the middle a B.

The reason we can assess so simply is that in a knowledge curriculum there is a correct answer. There are, though we love to deny it, right and wrong things to say about literature. At Michaela, we are explicit about this. When I asked for pupil inferences about Curley’s wife in Of Mice and Men in my previous school, I remember asking them what the colour red could symbolise. Their answer, ‘jam,’ was simply wrong. What we do at Michaela is to codify the knowledge we want the pupils to learn, teach that knowledge, and then relentlessly test that knowledge.

Simple.