The Community of Knowledge

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Contemporary miniature of the Battle of Agincourt, 1415.

We still read out loud to our older children every evening. They are perfectly capable of reading silently by themselves, but we don’t want to lose the experience of sharing stories together. Sometimes we read old favourites that we’ve read several times before; sometimes we read something new. Over time, we’re building up a shared body of knowledge. We all know who Pip is, and Magwitch, and Aslan, and Frodo Baggins. In family conversation, these characters are part of our shared frame of reference. It’s a miniature version of what E D Hirsch has been campaigning for vigorously at a national level: shared knowledge for a shared conversation.

One of the examples which Hirsch gives which stays most strongly with me is that of his own father, who was a businessman, but who saw nothing odd about referring to Shakespeare in business letters. He only needed to say that ‘there is a tide’ to express the idea that here was an opportunity which needed to be seized, a time to act which would pass by if it were not taken advantage of. He expected his business colleagues, who had received a traditional education as he had, to pick up the reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Brutus argues that now is the time to attack, using this naval metaphor:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Hirsch’s father evidently didn’t consider it elitist or obscure to quote Shakespeare in a business letter. The reference was commonly known because of the persistence of traditional education, which collapsed in the decades which were to follow.

From small beginnings, but with increasing momentum as the years go by, we need to rebuild the community of knowledge which Hirsch’s father took for granted, giving an ever greater number of people access to the richness of great literature. This richness is the heritage of every human being, because it is human knowledge, not the possession of an elite. Shakespeare, of course, wrote for the common people, and his plays were popular amongst all classes of society. Dickens, likewise, felt no shame in aiming for a mass audience. He did not consider the rich language of his novels to be something that only a cultural elite would be able to access. Many an ordinary family would sit around the fire in the nineteenth century, listening with excitement to the latest episode of the master storyteller’s latest novel, which he published through his own periodicals. The first of these was called Household Words. Not university words, not academic words, not obscure words: household words. The reference is to another great Shakespearean speech:

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.

It’s the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. This is a speech which my year eights memorise, and I often reflect on how fitting it is as we chant it together in class, because it is about a shared memory which will regularly be revisited as part of the cycle of liturgical feasts. It is about a past which the ordinary people of England will treasure together. It is about tradition and inheritance.

There are two things which need to be understood before the community of knowledge can be rebuilt.

Firstly, teachers need to understand that everyone can have access to the richness of literature, when direct, effective methods are used, which involve memorisation through oral drill and repeated practice. Why should anyone be excluded? There are no practical reasons, only ideological ones, for the restriction of great literature to a privileged few.

Secondly, the greatness and importance of the literary tradition must be understood. What is in the past, what has been known and spoken and written by generations of English men and women, what has entered into our very language through countless references in countless texts, that must be the common foundation which is laid in our schools. On that basis, we can rebuild a community of shared knowledge which will civilise and enrich our national cultural conversation to an immeasurable extent.

Liberation from Levels

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This man wrote ‘effectively’. But was his writing ‘sophisticated’?

Since national curriculum levels were abandoned, schools have had to build their own systems for describing and assessing progress. Unfortunately, as with many of their new found freedoms, few schools are making the most of this opportunity to transform curriculum and assessment, and make them more specific, reliable and meaningful. Instead, they are producing schemes of work and assessment filled with recycled versions of the old national curriculum level descriptors.

It’s understandable that schools do not want to leave level descriptors behind. They were statutory for many years, and they are still used by examination boards to describe grades. The only problem is, they are nonsense, and educationally harmful nonsense, too.

For writing, they typically involve statements like ‘wide vocabulary’ or writing ‘effectively’, or writing with ‘sophistication’. What do these words actually mean? How ‘wide’ is ‘wide’? What does ‘sophisticated’ look like? Such statements do not provide an objective standard of measurement, because they are open to multiple interpretations.

A far better method of assessing writing is by ranking it. Systematised comparative judgement looks like an excellent way of harnessing the reliability of ranking. Teachers cannot agree consistently on a mark for any given piece of writing, but they can agree very consistently, when shown two pieces of writing, on which one is better.

Even in the absence of the more systematised comparative judgement, teachers can mark by ranking. When they have a set of essays or stories to mark, they can put them in a rank order, and if they have to assign a grade, they can do so according to that rank order.

An experienced marker is doing some kind of comparative judgement in any case. He will say ‘I know what an A looks like’. What this means, is that he has marked hundreds or even thousands of pieces of work and compared them mentally, placing A grade work at the top of the rank order. An experienced marker will never be thinking to himself, as he gazes at a mark scheme, ‘Now is this sophisticated, or is this effective?’ Even if he uses those words because the mark scheme tells him to, what he will really be thinking is, ‘Is this top, middle or bottom? How does this compare to the best writing I’ve seen?’ and similar questions.

As well as being hopeless for accurate assessment, level descriptors undermine efforts to build a knowledge curriculum. They tend to be generic. In the study of literature, they will contain statements like ‘Can analyse the author’s use of language’. If we’re measuring progress against vague, general statements like this, we will not be thinking in terms of content that must be mastered, but in terms of general skills that can supposedly be demonstrated with any content. The content becomes indifferent.

Level descriptors take us away from specific content, because they never say clear, specific things like ‘Knows in what century Chaucer lived’, or ‘Knows Chaucer’s attitude towards late medieval society’. In fact, it’s rare to see the word ‘knows’ in a level descriptor. They tend to be about what you can do, not what you know, and thus they perpetuate the myth of general skills divorced from specific domains of knowledge.

If we want to assess attainment meaningfully, and if we want to build a knowledge-rich curriculum focused on specific content, we need to consign level descriptors to educational oblivion. Once we’ve left them behind, we will be able to focus our attention on specific content that should be mastered, and measure attainment against exemplar work.

Specific content and exemplar work give teachers and pupils something clear and definite to aim for. Pupils will be relieved and pleased to be shown a definite way forward, instead of wandering in the vague territory of the difference between ‘effective’ and ‘sophisticated’. And teachers will be able to say to pupils, ‘I want you to know this’ and ‘I want you to be able to write like this’, instead of muddling around with grade boundaries and tick boxes.

The Price of Knowledge

One of the greatest beauties of knowledge is that it can be shared without division. I can know something and I can pass that knowledge on to someone else, without any reduction in what I possess. I will even be richer for the giving, as the process of teaching deepens my knowledge.

Knowledge grows and develops among people more like plants than like manufactured commodities, by the abundant production of seeds in the minds of those who acquire it, which in turn produce further seeds, and so it spreads, as long as the conditions are right for germination.

But how widespread are those favourable conditions? How many schools have a clear, direct mission to transfer to the next generation the most important human knowledge, which cost so many of our ancestors so much struggle? How many teachers realise that every single one of their pupils is capable of establishing firm foundations in every academic subject, so long as memorisation and repeated practice are an ordinary feature of teaching? How many pupils are cheated out of the mind-expanding potential of the great truths of science and literature, being patronised instead with ‘relevant’, dumbed down content that leaves them exactly where they started, or even poorer, convinced that it is their opinion that matters, not the timeless insights of greater, wiser minds?

Knowledge only costs us the effort to acquire it, but it is a priceless acquisition. It is one of the greatest tragedies of our education system that knowledge has so often had a price tag attached. Because of the bad ideas that have burdened so many state schools for so many years, those who have wished their children to acquire knowledge, the heritage of every human being, have often felt that they need to pay fees, on top of the taxes which they have no choice but to pay, in order for this to happen.

(Image: The Little Schoolboy by Antonio Mancini, 1852-1930).

Direct Instruction: Getting It Right

Apprentice

‘The Young Sabot Maker’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937).

For many, it is a truism that we learn from our mistakes. This leads to an approach to education which places pupils in unfamiliar territory which they have to explore for themselves. They may stumble; they may take wrong turnings, but that’s an accepted, in fact a welcomed, part of the learning process.

The intellectual territory which our pupils must explore is rugged. Many greater minds than theirs over the ages have ended up wandering down a narrow valley which turned out to be a dead end, and never getting out again. Many greater minds than theirs have fallen over cliffs as they stumbled across the terrain, without the lights to guide them, or the better paths, which later ages discovered.

It is our job as teachers to guide our pupils through this rugged terrain, as an expert guide takes uninitiated travellers over a mountain pass safely. He has the knowledge to make sure they reach the other side. He has the experience. He knows the pitfalls and the dangerous false paths that will lead to disaster.

Mistakes are not helpful for those at the beginning of the intellectual journey. Beginners need careful guidance, or they are likely to end up in all sorts of difficulties and picking up all sorts of misapprehensions. Of course, they will learn something, but it is just as likely to be the mistake as it is to be the right answer. Or maybe they will find their way over to the other side of the mountains by some miracle or slice of beginner’s luck, but they would have reached the goal more efficiently with careful guidance. And they might have done it once, but will they be able to do it again? A one-off lucky right answer is very far from secure mastery.

Direct instruction is based on this principle: the principle of getting it right. When following a direct instruction programme of study, the carefully guided, incremental path that pupils take will mean that they very rarely make mistakes, and when they do, those mistakes are quickly corrected so that they do not solidify into permanent misapprehensions.

It is also part of the principles of direct instruction that you do not begin by scaling Everest. You practice repeatedly in the foothills, then you travel to the first base camp over and over again until you know the route inside out. You need to know that route, the route which wiser and more experienced travellers mapped out, and many other similar routes to other mountain peaks before you can begin to think about planning your own mountain climbing expedition.

It’s the age-old principle of apprenticeship. You learn first by imitating the masters that have gone before you, and you need to do that for years before you can begin to work independently. Once you do begin independent work, you will not be inventing it from nothing, like the mythical Romantic genius. Your work will be based on the solid principles that have been worked out through centuries of slow, painful human progress.

Rubbish in, Rubbish out

My older brother studied physics, while I studied literature. He now works as an IT consultant, while I continue to study literature (and teach it a bit too). Over the years, our divergent intellectual paths have led to a fruitful exchange of metaphors. I even made use of the different theories of light (wave versus particle) in my PhD thesis on postmodern poetry.

Brains may not be comparable to computers, but there are still many principles of computing that can help us think more clearly about education.

Rubbish in, Rubbish out

This is my favourite. It doesn’t matter how clever your coding is: if the end user feeds your elegantly designed software with rubbish, they will not get good results. The actual content fed into the system cannot be ignored.

In teaching, content is often relegated to a footnote in discussions of how to improve. Vague abstract notions about pedagogy and transferrable skills for the twentieth century, or technological fads, or the harvesting of spurious data according to mythical notions of ‘progress’, prevent teachers from actually examining the content they are teaching, or spending time improving their own subject knowledge.

Nor does it matter much how a school is governed or whether it selects academically, if the content of the curriculum is still packed full of, for example, ideologically driven anachronistic gibberish about how Shakespeare was a feminist, or a socialist. And no matter how many exciting activities you design, no one will know much about the geography of Britain after five years of doing the geography of shopping or the leisure industry.

Whatever your methods, whatever your governance structure, the principle remains: rubbish in, rubbish out.

It’s a Software Problem

Most of the computer problems that cause us so many headaches arise from software issues, not hardware. Computer hardware is actually very reliable, but the complexity of the hundreds of different programmes running on it, the endless updates and patches and security threats and compatibility problems, not to mention the above mentioned tendency of users to mess things up, lead to myriad issues which can cause us to conceive an unjust desire to throw at the wall the poor innocent piece of metal suffering under all this oppression.

That’s how the discussion can go with schoolchildren too. Instead of examining poor methods of instruction, poorly designed curriculum, slack discipline or self-serving school leadership, we are too eager to place the blame on the hardware: the children themselves. ‘What can you do with these children?’ teachers ask. ‘Of course I’d like to teach them proper academic content, but they wouldn’t cope,’ many claim.

But it’s not a hardware problem. With effective methods of instruction, a coherent curriculum and strict discipline, every child can learn a huge amount of important knowledge. The normal human long term memory is almost limitless. The bottleneck is the working memory. We’ve just got to stop crowding it with distractions and trivia, and then we can harness the true power of the hardware which every ordinary child possesses.

Reboot and Start Again

My older brother once recounted to me an episode from a comedy series where IT staff changed the recorded message on their computer help desk, to include the suggestion ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ Their workload decreased dramatically.

So often the seemingly insoluble difficulties we experience with our computer equipment resolve themselves when we just make a fresh start. Right now, the state education system is going through a system reboot. Many schools will fail to start up again after the power down, but it is to be hoped that many more will emerge refreshed and able to shed the rubbish that has been clogging up their processing power and causing them to freeze up at the crucial moment.

The brand new laptop that is Michaela shows us how things should be functioning. They haven’t spent years installing unnecessary software that just slows down the system and produces nothing of value.

Selection Is Inevitable; Curriculum Matters More

Non-selective education is a myth. There is no such thing as a non-selective school, because there is no school which can admit every pupil who applies. That is a practical impossibility. Every school has selection criteria. Priority is given, for example, to those with statements of special educational needs. And is anyone going to tell me that such statements are evenly and justly distributed among the population? There are all kinds of reasons why some children end up with them, and others don’t, whatever their difficulties might be. One of those reasons is that their parents pay for a dyslexia report to be done.

Then, of course there is the selection by location. This makes some of the country’s so-called comprehensives some of the most expensive schools in the world, because their postcodes contain such expensive property. There’s one near where I live where you have to be a millionaire to buy a family house in the neighbourhood. This, of course, works in the other direction, with property prices being depressed by the perception of poor local schools, as middle class parents move out in search of better opportunities.

The fact is, that whatever policy the government introduces, those with more money and cultural resources will find ways of getting better opportunities for their children. And why shouldn’t they? I was happy when my nephew got a place in a grammar school. He’s less likely to be persecuted for being intelligent there, as both his father and his uncle were when they went to the local comprehensive. I have every sympathy with parents who are just trying to do the best by their children.

There is no way of flattening the whole education system into a single standard. Even within the same school, a child may have a better or worse teacher, which will have a significant impact on their education. Flattening everything out can never be achieved while the human race is so infinitely various. Like all utopian socialist ideals, this goal simply ignores human reality, perhaps because it is proposed by those who don’t really believe in the existence of humanity: in the existence of rational beings who are radically free to make choices for themselves.

Still, the government’s energies are not best spent on reintroducing academic selection. The best way of ensuring that as many children as possible receive a decent general education, regardless of their background and despite the variability of teachers, is to produce a proper, knowledge rich national curriculum and a set of excellent resources for delivering it. This is the hard business of actually making decisions about what children should be learning and how they should be learning it. Fiddling about with systems of governance and selection is just a political sideshow in comparison to this.

Image: ‘Little Schoolboy of Bonmahon’ (circa 1915) by Edith Collier (1885-1964).