Teaching Knowledge: Spoilers Are Essential

800px-london_hoefnagels_map_of_1572If we are reading a novel for pleasure, we want the plot to unfold, and we very much resent having the surprise undone by being told in advance what is going to happen. But when teaching complex works of literature, we must use spoilers. We must give the game away right from the start.

Knowledge of a Shakespeare play, like any other knowledge, must build on the foundations of what was previously learned. If we jump in and start reading through the play, our pupils will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Unless one has a good idea what one is reading about beforehand, one will struggle to make sense of what one is reading. This problem is particularly acute with Shakespeare, where there are so many other challenges in terms of language, densely packed imagery and allusion.

Therefore, it is essential to begin with an overview. Before studying a play in depth, I require pupils to memorise a summary of the main events. This provides the framework, the map, so pupils do not become lost and unable to make sense of their surroundings. Having memorised this overview, we can repeatedly return to it. I can pause when dealing with an important passage in the play, and draw pupils’ attention to where we are.

For example, if we are looking in detail at the scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, I can say to the class, “We’re in Act Three. What are the main events?” At this point, I will fire questions at pupils, ‘cold calling’ them to give them the opportunity to recall and retain this key information. We’ll go through the murder of Banquo, the ghost at the banquet, and the news that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England. Then I’ll ask what these events have in common – and we’ll remind ourselves that at this middle point in the play, Macbeth is consolidating power, but also that his downfall is beginning, and will continue through Acts Four and Five. Then we can return to the banquet scene with a fresh sense of its significance as a key moment in which Macbeth begins to lose the support of the Scottish nobility, who will desert him in ever greater numbers as the play moves towards its tragic conclusion.

All this discussion depends upon beginning with an overview. It depends upon frontloading explicit knowledge of key facts, before going into detail, and requiring the memorising of those facts to the point of fluency.

With this map in hand, pupils can begin to explore the complex territory of a play by Shakespeare. Without it, they are liable to get lost in the undergrowth very quickly.

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Do We All Have Special Needs?

Slapping labels on certain people creates the idea that they are fundamentally different, and therefore must be taught in a fundamentally different way from their peers. This idea has wrought untold damage in our education system, whether in the form of learning styles, or spurious special educational needs, or the pervasive idea that personalised education, differentiated for each pupil, is the ideal.

No one would deny that there are a small number of pupils who really do have serious special educational needs. These pupils should be educated in special schools, because ordinary schools cannot possibly provide for them. For the vast majority, however, including the vast majority of those currently labelled as SEN, what they need is what everyone needs: a coherent curriculum and teaching methods based on sound cognitive principles.

We are told that the working memory of SEN children is limited. Everyone’s working memory is limited, which is why instruction should be done incrementally and each step mastered thoroughly, and why discovery learning, which crowds the working memory, is such a disaster.

We are told that SEN children are easily distracted. Everyone is easily distracted in a noisy, chaotic classroom, which is one reason why order and discipline are so important. How can anyone concentrate on anything worthwhile if someone is talking loudly about something else in their vicinity?

We are told that SEN children appreciate routine. Routine helps everyone, because it means that most things are automatic, so the attention can be focused where it is really needed, on the challenging academic subject matter which we wish pupils to master.

We are told that SEN children easily forget material they have been taught. But the sharp forgetting curve applies to everyone. Without review and practice, spaced out over time, we all forget material very quickly.

SEN children often receive catch-up instruction in phonics, as their mastery of the fundamentals is weak. But every child benefits from proper phonics instruction, and if their primary school failed to provide it, their secondary school needs to do something about this. As with every area of academic study, it is a case of making sure the foundations are in place before moving on.

The huge growth over the last few decades in supposed SEN pupils within mainstream education has resulted from two factors: poor instruction, which harms everyone, but is most harmful for the weakest pupils, and child-centred ideology, which places the innate qualities of the child rather than the instructional methods of the teacher at the heart of educational thinking.

The obsession with innate qualities has a very dark side. It seems terribly sympathetic and humane to place the needs and concerns of children at the heart of education. But if we consider education to flow from the child rather than the instructor, it is a logical step from this idea to looking to the supposed nature of the child rather than the methods of instruction in order to explain educational failure. If Johnny can’t read, it must be because he is dyslexic, not because he was not properly taught.

There is no doubt that some people find it harder to learn to read and to write. Some people process information more readily than others. Some people grasp abstract concepts with greater ease. Not all brains are the same. But they are more similar than they are different. This is one of the most important conclusions of cognitive science.

Forgetting is normal. Distraction is normal. It is normal for mastery to be achieved only through long term effort. The cognitive bottleneck for all of us is our limited working memory.

We underestimate the normal difficulties, but we also underestimate the normal strength: the wonderful human power and capacity to remember. Our long term memory is virtually limitless. For all of our pupils, we need to play to this great strength which we all possess.

The Problems with Primary School Testing

Boy Reading

‘Boy Reading – Ned Anshutz’ by Thomas Pollock Anshutz (1851-1912)

From having been a strong advocate of the general reading tests which have been a part of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ federal policy, Hirsch has now become an opponent. In his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters, he explains why he has changed his view. Although the general reading tests are valid tests of reading ability, they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’. However accurately they may test reading, they have harmful educational consequences.

General reading tests are educationally harmful, argues Hirsch, because they promote the idea that there is such a thing as a general reading skill, when in fact, reading ability is based primarily on knowledge of the domain about which one is reading. Because general reading tests support the fallacious but widespread belief in general skills, their use as a national measure of achievement on which schools and teachers are judged leads to ever more lessons in these general skills. Pupils do ever more practice of comprehension strategies, and ever less time is spent learning specific subject knowledge.

It’s easy to sympathise with teachers and schools that adopt the strategy of training in comprehension skills, rather than take the risk of giving a good general education. Good general knowledge is the best way to improve reading comprehension, but the fact is that teachers and pupils are presented with high stakes tests for which there can be no specific preparation, and this fills them with anxiety. Naturally enough, they want to do something specific that will help their pupils perform better in the tests. And the only specific thing they can do is practise comprehension strategies. All other preparation is indirect, and we cannot blame teachers and schools who are placed under such pressure from being doubtful about indirect, incremental, long-term methods when they are facing an imminent high stakes test.

So the main practical, observable effect across the American education system of holding schools to account through general reading tests has been a further impoverishment of the curriculum, as pupils waste ever more time working on mythical general skills. Hirsch recognises that, politically, there is no possibility in the USA of their being national tests which focus on specific knowledge, so he suggests that school districts remedy the deleterious effects of national testing by introducing their own local system of tests which are focused on subject specific domains rather than general reading ability.

The British government should take heed of the damaging effects of making a general reading test the measure of school attainment. These damaging effects are a matter of historical record in the USA. If the Department for Education wishes to promote a richer programme of subject specific education in primary schools, they need to change the way primary schools are held accountable. They need to scrap general reading tests at key stage two and replace them with specific tests of pupils’ knowledge about literature, history, geography, science, art and music. And while they’re reforming key stage two tests, they should scrap the English Language GCSE, which is also an unfair and educationally unhelpful assessment.

Of course, there will continue to be courageous and intelligent school leaders and teachers who build a rich curriculum of subject specific knowledge, and eschew the false promise of training in mythical general skills. But at the moment, our assessment system, especially at primary level, is hindering rather than helping this movement for educational reform.

Further reading:

General Reading Tests Are Always Unfair