Knowing What You Don’t Know


Michael Fordham has blogged recently about what is needed to discriminate between historical sources. Without specific knowledge about the historical period with which they deal, no amount of generic ‘source analysis skills’ will help us. Indeed, the skill of discriminating between reliable and unreliable information in any area is based on our knowledge of that area. Once again, generic skills turn out to be a myth, and what is needed is domain specific knowledge. Fordham used two sources to demonstrate his point. One dealt with Nazi Germany, a topic with which many of his readers will have some familiarity, while the other concerned seventh century Britain, about which most of us are rather more ignorant.

What was so clever about Fordham’s approach here was that he gave us, his readers, the experience of ignorance. It’s worth reflecting further on what this is. In my own field, I know a reasonable amount about Romantic authors, but I am extremely hazy about the Augustan period. It’s one of those gaps which I know I need to fill in my own education. How do I know that? How did I come to be aware of my own ignorance?

Firstly, I needed to know that there is such a thing as classical literature, by which I mean literature that has been widely read and studied over generations, and has had a large cultural and philosophical impact. Without that knowledge, I wouldn’t have been aware that it is worth bothering reading old things.

Then, I needed to know that there are different periods of literature, reflecting large scale shifts in the cultural landscape that are connected to historical events such as the Reformation, the Enlightenment or the French Revolution.

Finally, I needed to have the experience of actually knowing a reasonable amount about one of these literary / historical periods, through sustained study of the writers and events of that time. This gives me a point of comparison with those periods about which I know very little.

In fact, a large amount of knowledge is needed before we truly understand our own ignorance. This is a paradox which everyone who has studied something to an advanced level has realised. The more we know about a subject, the more we realise that we don’t know. Ever new fields of knowledge open up before us, and we realise that a whole lifetime will not be enough to master them all.

Without coherent instruction in specific fields of knowledge, our pupils will never even know enough about anything in particular to know that they are ignorant about anything else. They will never be able to make such a statement as I made in my second paragraph. Those who are truly ignorant do not recognise their ignorance; for them, almost everything is an unknown unknown.

It is absolutely crucial to be able to identify our lack of knowledge. Without this ability, we will easily fall into the delusion that we are capable of judging matters about which we know nothing. We may even make such statements as ‘Well, that’s my personal opinion, and you should respect it’, without reference to any external, objective standard of measurement.

Knowing what we don’t know matters, not only intellectually, but morally. Recognising our ignorance is vital to developing the humility that is the foundation of true wisdom.


Differentiation Damages the Disadvantaged

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIt always sounds like a good idea. It is always framed in a way which casts its opponents as uncaring monsters. Who wouldn’t want to give the maximum attention to each child? Who wouldn’t want pupils’ experience of school to be tailored to their needs? If you oppose differentiation, you can easily be depicted as a child-hating authoritarian or someone who just doesn’t understand the kids.

But we need to oppose differentiation precisely because we want every child to receive the maximum attention and make the best progress possible. Differentiation is one element of the general push to make schooling individualised, or personalised. It sounds wonderful: a curriculum tailored to each individual, adapted perfectly to their needs and to their interests.

It sounds wonderful, but it is one of the most damaging myths in education. Here’s why.

Firstly, we just need to do the arithmetic. If a teacher is paying attention to one individual, they are not paying attention to the other twenty-nine individuals in the class. In a lesson of sixty minutes, each individual could receive two minutes of the teacher’s attention, and be largely ignored for the remaining fifty-eight. But with whole class instruction, the whole class is under the teacher’s guidance and is receiving instruction from the teacher for the whole sixty minutes. The whole class will therefore receive many times more minutes of attention than each child could if they were treated individually.

A well-designed sequence of whole class instruction anticipates the most likely questions and answers them for everybody. Compare this to wandering around the class and answering the same question a dozen times when individual pupils put their hands up. And while you are answering one query, much of the class is off task because they are waiting for you to get around to answering their question. Or they’ve just given up waiting and started chatting about football.

Then there is the question of curriculum. Personalised learning is inherently incoherent. If you want to teach a coherent curriculum, you need to proceed systematically through topics, building up knowledge cumulatively through the years. If everyone is doing their own personalised curriculum tailored to their individual interests and abilities, it is impossible to do this. A coherent curriculum helps everyone to make more progress in many ways. I’ll focus on one in this post: vocabulary learning.

Vocabulary is best learnt through domain immersion. When a whole class studies a topic over a sustained period of time, all pupils are repeatedly exposed to new words in meaningful contexts. Thus they begin to pick up the multiple connotations of words. This sense of a word’s various possible meanings cannot be acquired through being given a definition, whether in a vocabulary list or by looking the word up in a dictionary. Every English teacher has seen the hilarious results when pupils try to use a word which they have just looked up. They very rarely use it appropriately, because they do not have an understanding of its connotations and the ways it is actually used.

A curriculum taught to the whole class, in which they listen to the teacher explaining subject matter, read knowledge-rich material together and in which everyone engages in a well designed pattern of oral drill, whole class discussion, written tasks and low stakes tests, will be of huge benefit to the whole class, but it will be of most benefit to the most disadvantaged. They will come to the unit with a smaller vocabulary. Repeated exposure to new vocabulary in a meaningful context will mean that they catch up with their more advantaged peers. This can only happen when the whole class is taught a coherent curriculum. It can only happen when the damaging myths of personalised learning and differentiation have been dispelled.

Differentiation prevents teachers from teaching the whole class effectively. It therefore damages everyone, but the people it damages most are precisely those it is supposed to help. The pupils who are struggling the most are the ones who are most in need of coherent instruction, and coherent instruction is rendered impossible by individualised approaches to education.

UPDATE: This post has now been translated into French by Françoise Appy.

(Image from Wikimedia)

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair


Should pupils be taught who this man is? Maybe . . .

General reading tests are always unfair because there is no such thing as general reading skill. Every text will be much clearer to those who have relevant background knowledge. Whatever text you choose, you will favour those pupils who know something about its topic beforehand. The test will therefore not be fair, because it will privilege those who just happen to know something about that subject.

The idea that you can create a general reading test which will fairly assess reading ability across the school population is based upon a false notion of what reading entails. Once you have mastered decoding, the most important factor is knowledge. You could be brilliant at reading texts about football, but hopeless at reading texts about politics.

E D Hirsch describes how several recent studies have conclusively shown that background knowledge is the number one factor in reading ability, trumping academic ability and IQ in pupils, and complexity in texts. In 1998 the Recht-Leslie study showed that ‘poor’ readers could read well when they were familiar with the topic, which was baseball. They ‘illustrated the general principle: when a topic is familiar, “poor” readers become “good” readers; moreover, when a topic is unfamiliar, normally better readers lose their advantage’ (Why Knowledge Matters, p88). In 1999 Schneider et al proved the same point, but with IQ, while in 2011 Arya et al showed that text complexity was relatively unimportant compared to domain knowledge (see Hirsch, p88-89). These three studies show that if you know about something, you will be a good reader of texts concerning that topic.

Now consider what happens in the English language GCSE, as currently constituted. It is entirely ‘unseen’, so specific preparation of knowledge is impossible. The reading texts could be about anything. Let’s say the examination board selects a text about spies. Some pupils will know a lot about spies. Some may even be spy geeks. Others will have no interest in the topic, and will not have developed much domain knowledge. The English teacher may have spent one or two lessons doing some reading about espionage and discussing the topic, or they may not. We can hardly blame them if they haven’t, as they had no idea that this topic, among the thousands of possibilities, would come up in the examination. The spy geeks will ace that test, while others’ performance will be based mostly on the random criterion of how much they happen to know about spies.

The pupils who do well will be congratulated on their performance, but to a large extent, they just got lucky. The English teachers may even be congratulated if they happened to be teaching a large number of spy geeks. They may even get a pay rise or promotion based on this coincidence.

This is completely unjust, both to pupils and to teachers. General examinations given to the whole population should always be based on specified content. The more specific the content is, the fairer the examination will be, as it will enable all pupils to master that knowledge, and help all teachers to teach it effectively. As well as being fairer, only testing specific topics would promote education as the transmission of knowledge, rather than the development of mythical generic skills.

Because of the absence of specific content, preparation for general reading tests ends up being largely a process of tedious drills in how to serve up to the examiner what they are looking for. ‘Make sure you mention structure’, advise the English teachers, or ‘look out for similes and metaphors, and make sure you comment on them.’ How dull, compared to the richness and variety of content on which we could be focusing. But such a box-ticking approach seems inevitable when faced with general reading tests, because the knowledge required has not been specified in advance.

But we must not lose hope. We must make things better despite the unfair assessment system which currently exists, and we must work to persuade policy makers that fairness and the promotion of knowledge depend upon making tests as specific as possible.

How can schools best cope with the situation until such a time as assessment policy catches up with the findings of cognitive psychology?

The answer must lie in giving as much coherent knowledge as possible to pupils, especially in the earlier years, and in spending the minimum amount of time on tedious drills in examination skills. We can also make sure that any internal tests which we set are based on specific content which pupils are expected to master.

Instruction in how to give the examiner what they want should be left to the months immediately prior to the exam. The rest of schooling should be devoted to making pupils as knowledgeable as possible, because if we want our pupils to be creative and to think critically, if we want them to read well and write well, it is knowledge which counts.

Further reading:

Against Analysis, or Why William Doesn’t Engage the Reader

Comprehension Worksh**ts

Making Excellence Ordinary in Norfolk

mundesleyThe history of education in Norfolk has had a very personal impact upon me. My mother grew up in Lincolnshire and Norfolk. I have many fond memories of childhood holidays building sandcastles at Mundesley, visiting windmills and rowing around the Broads.

My mother left because she was the only one of her family to go to university. Her father, my Grandad Tony, had left home at fourteen to join the merchant navy, and once he left the sea, he wandered between many jobs on land, including working as a cowherd. There was nothing wrong with his brains, though. When he was convalescing in hospital while my mother was at university, she gave him a copy of War and Peace, and he loved it. He was also a great fan of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and he could certainly give convincing political lectures.

But there were virtually no books in the house when my mother was growing up. She discovered books at school, and she went to university because of the school she attended for sixth form, in Norwich. It had been a girls’ grammar, and had only just started the process of turning into a comprehensive. At the top end, it was still a grammar school, and she had three excellent English teachers who inspired her and encouraged her to apply to Cambridge. It was there that she met my father, who was from a completely different background: the Radices had always been public school, Oxbridge types. If it hadn’t been for those teachers in that school in Norwich, I would not exist. It was because of them that the daughter of a cowherd and the son of a senior Treasury official met and married.

As with so many people, the arguments about academic selection cause me to reflect on how educational policy has affected me personally, and those whom I love. It seems likely that had she lived in later years, when comprehensivisation was complete in Norfolk, my mother would not have gone to Cambridge. But she was the exception in her family. She was lucky. The goal must be to offer such opportunities to everyone.

My mother’s example will stay strongly in my mind as I move to Norfolk next year, and work to provide access to knowledge for every young person who attends the schools in the Inspiration Trust. It should not be an exceptional event for a working class girl to have her mind opened to the wonders of great literature. It should be ordinary. And how are we going to make it ordinary?

We cannot reform education based on what is exceptional. We cannot depend upon a few exceptionally talented, gifted people to effect change on a large scale. We need to build something that will make ordinary classrooms places where ordinary pupils can learn about the great ideas which are the heritage of all humanity. We need to build a coherent curriculum, delivered through methods that immerse the whole class in specific domains of knowledge.

This really is achievable for any school. One of the things that is so attractive about E D Hirsch is his optimism, which is based not on vague ideas but upon the practical experience of helping to create core knowledge schools. He comments in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, that ‘I have witnessed over and over that in a coherent school most teachers can become highly effective’ (p35).

But Hirsch is also clear that a coherent curriculum cannot be implemented without better ideas. Unless those who design and deliver the curriculum are convinced that access to rich, structured subject knowledge is the key to success, and that such knowledge can be transmitted to all pupils, regardless of social background, then they will continue to be bogged down in the failed ideas that have been holding us back for so many decades. They will be hampered by the notion that only a select few are capable of grasping academic knowledge, or that it is tyrannical to impose upon ordinary people the knowledge which the elite has always possessed.

As a teenager in Norwich in the early seventies, my mother didn’t feel oppressed by the traditional teachers who presumed to introduce her to the great writers of the literary canon. On the contrary, she was inspired at the time, and has been grateful ever since. I want to make her proud by giving similar opportunities to the young people growing up in Norfolk today.

(Photo of Mundesley by Philip Halling).

Educational Justice Depends upon a Clear Curriculum

layers_in_the_rock_-_capital_reef_npI’ve tended to think about the importance of teaching specific knowledge in terms of effectiveness. Specifying a coherent body of knowledge, teaching it explicitly, testing it frequently, all help to build mental schema in long term memory, which are vital for advanced thought and communication. But until reading Hirsch’s latest, Why Knowledge Matters, I hadn’t thought enough about another vital aspect of building a clear, coherent, specific curriculum: the question of justice.

Once we have clarified the curriculum, we have opened it up to everyone who wishes to master it. We have made it available to all pupils, and to all teachers. Instead of a guessing game which will always favour the most advantaged, we have created a fair contest where the rules are known by all.

Imagine that footballing ability were made the major marker of employability and social prestige, but the rules of football were not clearly established. Instead, pupils were told that success in football was a matter of ‘creativity’ and developing generalised ‘ball skills’. With no clarity about what needed to be mastered, those who happened to come from homes where their parents had been kicking balls around with them since they could walk would excel, while those who did not have this advantage would have no idea how to improve, and would probably conclude that they were just doomed to failure.

Thinking skills are domain specific; we need to know a lot about about a subject to think well about it. When mythical generalised skills like ‘creativity’ or ‘critical thinking’ are made the goal of education, we do not, therefore, cease to test knowledge. We just cease to make clear to pupils and teachers exactly what knowledge we intend to test. When we do this, we give an unfair advantage to those who have picked up a large amount of general knowledge due to a more advantaged background. We turn public examinations into a sorting system that reinforces current social strata. We give the majority of the population the idea that they are just not destined to be good at anything academic.

But as soon as we make the knowledge required crystal clear, we give everyone a fair shot. The ability to master knowledge, to store vast amounts of it in long term memory, is an ordinary human ability. It is not limited to those whose parents went to university and hold professional jobs.

The more clarity there is in the curriculum, the more accessible we make it to the whole of society. Specifying the knowledge that enables full access to the public sphere is an urgent matter of social justice.

(Image from Wikimedia).

There Are No Dead Facts


Detail of a carving in Lincoln Cathedral

‘There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defence of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic.’ (G K Chesterton, Heretics).

Every field of knowledge has its own structure. Only those who do not appreciate the rich pattern of subject specific knowledge can talk about ‘dead facts’. Only those who know very little about literature could consider a memorised Shakespeare sonnet to be an inert lump, an arbitrary weight upon the mind, instead of a seed that will grow and bear fruit, or a branch that has roots in rich soil and will blossom in season.

The patterns of subject specific knowledge themselves should be our guide to developing curricula. It is a lack of attention to these patterns which renders programmes of study fragmentary, and it is this fragmentary nature which can lead pupils, and even teachers, but especially administrators, to regard individual items of knowledge as inert, or arbitrary, and favour instead the mythical transferable skills which are supposed to sit above them.

But when we develop a curriculum based upon the structure of the knowledge itself, then the patterns develop naturally. For example, when we design our literature curriculum chronologically, we see how the literature of the Renaissance develops from a thriving medieval culture. We see the influence of Shakespeare upon Romantic and Victorian authors. We see the roots and we see the branches. We see the patterns inherent in the knowledge itself.

Really focusing on developing a coherent curriculum means that we stand at some distance and gaze upon the whole, wonderful pattern of knowledge in our subject. Everything is interconnected, and we need to build knowledge in our pupils so that this interconnectedness is part of their experience. They should not need to stumble upon it, because the logical arrangement of the curriculum should develop it systematically within their minds.

There’s nothing dull about being systematic. Patterns of knowledge have an intricate beauty which is breathtaking when we really begin to contemplate it, when we stand back and survey the field through which we wish to guide our pupils.

The beauty of the whole is built with individual stones which are in themselves unremarkable, like the beauty of a medieval cathedral; but no one would claim that any of those stones are arbitrary. And like a medieval cathedral, each subject discipline is something which the whole human community has constructed over the centuries, based upon a shared aspiration to something higher.

We need to raise our aspirations, consider the whole, and meditate upon the purposes and principles of our academic subjects. If we do this, then we will realise that no fact is dead.

(Image from Wikimedia)