Combining GCSE Preparation with Real Education

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Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

GCSEs are fiddly. There’s no way around it. They contain multiple question types which demand slightly different things of pupils, and they are marked according to rigid criteria, often by examiners who lack the deep subject knowledge to make nuanced judgements. This means that knowledgeable and able pupils can lose marks unless they have been trained to serve up ‘what the examiner wants’.

Therefore, although it is not the same thing as education, schools cannot avoid doing test practice. And because it must be done, we need to think about ways of making this test practice as educational as possible. We need to make the test practice as coherent as possible, and pay as much attention as possible to building cultural capital that is retained in long-term memory, even while we are addressing the dreary and anti-educational issue of ‘what the examiner wants you to do in paper 1 question 3’.

If we can crack this issue, we can make GCSE preparation more than just a joyless, soul-destroying exercise in ticking the exam board’s boxes.

Let’s take a look at GCSE English language. However much I deplore the very existence of this non-subject, it’s part of our current educational reality, and so it must be addressed. How might we prepare our pupils, for example, for GCSE English language paper 1 section A? In this part of the exam, candidates are required to read an extract from 20th or 21st century fiction and answer a series of question types which move from fundamental understanding of content to critical evaluation of literary techniques.

The exam boards provide anthologies of extracts for practising these question types, but I would advise English teachers not to use these, because they are not created with any coherent knowledge goal in mind. If we want to make the best use of the time spent doing test practice for GCSE English language, we need to come up with our own anthologies so that we will not simply be reading any old thing in order to ‘practise comprehension’.

Let’s look at some specific examples. If you are studying The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for English literature, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from gothic fiction, such Frankenstein, Dracula and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. If you are studying An Inspector Calls, you could gather together an anthology of extracts from other twentieth century socialist writers, such as John Steinbeck and George Orwell. Or you could gather together some Edwardian fiction, such as E M Forster, to give a better understanding of the time at which the play is set.

The same principle can be applied to GCSE English language paper 2 section A. The two linked non-fiction texts you use could be related to the literature you are studying. I recently pulled together a resource pack for Inspiration Trust English teachers focused on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, using a piece of 21st century journalism looking at the history of the novel’s reception, along with a contemporary review of the novel from the 19th century. These two non-fiction texts contain a wealth of knowledge and vocabulary which has intrinsic value. They are actually worth studying for their own sake.

If you’re going to use rich, satisfying and challenging texts for the purposes of GCSE test practice, then you will need to teach these texts explicitly. You’ll need to leave behind the idea that each lesson can be a mini-mock, and explain key ideas and words to pupils before they attempt the questions. They’ll still be getting familiar with ‘what the examiner wants’, but they’ll actually be learning something into the bargain, instead of muddling their way through and retaining nothing in long-term memory due to cognitive overload.

Once you start thinking about it, there are so many possibilities for using test practice as an opportunity for building rich knowledge and vocabulary and enhancing pupils’ study of literature. So take the leap and abandon the exam board anthologies, which are based on the false notion that it doesn’t matter what material you use for practising the generic skill of comprehension. Comprehension is primarily based on knowledge and vocabulary, and we must not waste our time delivering lessons that are not focused on building retention of these in long-term memory.

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Primary Literature: Telling Stories

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Boy Reading (1843) by Albert Tikos (1815-1845)

I’m currently working with primary teachers across the Inspiration Trust to develop a content-focused approach to literature. I spoke to the whole primary staff about this project back in October – you can read my talk here. In this post, I’ll be looking at why a content-focused approach is more accessible, more equitable, more effective, and more joyful.

But firstly, what do I mean by content-focused literature teaching? Very briefly, I mean teaching that has as its goal the retention in long term memory of the content of literature: its plots, characters and themes. This goal is distinct from the goal of practising decoding to fluency, which is of course a necessary part of primary education (and sometimes of secondary too). It is also distinct from the goal of practising generalised ‘comprehension skills’ such as inference and prediction. I’ll argue later that a focus on content actually enables better inference and prediction anyway.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is accessible

A strong focus on the plots, characters and themes of literature is more accessible because fundamentally, it is about knowing the story well. Everything flows from this. Stories are the most memorable and interesting thing, for everybody. As Daniel Willingham has pointed out (in Why Don’t Students Like School), the human brain seems to be set up specially for the retention of stories. They sink in and they stay in the mind more easily than anything else.

When the teacher is focused on the story as they teach literature, she is using the most powerful and the most accessible tool for transferring knowledge to their pupils, whatever their ability level. When the teacher reads the story out loud to the class and explains it to them, she opens up new worlds to pupils of all abilities and backgrounds.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is equitable

This follows naturally from accessibility. A teacher-led lesson focused on literary content allows the whole class to share in the story. The whole class is building cultural capital. The whole class is building shared meanings that will stand them in good stead as they mature and encounter more sophisticated texts. No one is left behind.

This is always the paradox: when we insist upon differentiation, we embed disadvantage and make our education system less equitable. When we insist that everyone in the class listens and learns the same material, we reduce the gap between the haves and the have nots.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is effective

When the focus is squarely on the content of literature, children’s knowledge and vocabulary will grow, and this is the primary means by which comprehension can be improved. While there is some benefit in general strategies for improving comprehension, they are, as Willingham points out here, easily learned and do not require much practice. The vast majority of our ability to comprehend is based upon what we have stored firmly in our long term memories. So focusing on this in our primary curriculum is the best way to ensure success in the short and the long term. It will lead to better SATs results, but more importantly, it will lay firm foundations for a lifetime of better understanding and ever increasing knowledge.

Our brains, tuned as they are to stories, naturally infer and predict, and their ability to do this accurately is primarily based on how much knowledge is stored in long term memory. The conclusion is obvious. If we want our pupils to be able to infer and predict effectively, we must give them more knowledge.

Content-focused primary literature teaching is joyful

If we want to inoculate our pupils against literature, the best way to do this is to turn every story into a vehicle for practising comprehension strategies or doing SATs test preparation. But when we forget all that dry, dull and empty formalism, we find that there is a wealth of fascinating stories that every pupil can enjoy. Content-focused primary literature teaching becomes a journey of discovery which includes everybody in the class, even the teacher. And you get better SATs results into the bargain.

Not All Reading Is Equal

We often hear about how important it is for children to develop a love of reading. But like so many statements about education, a vital ingredient is missing from this apparently laudable aspiration. It is comparable to bland proclamations that children should learn to be creative. What is missing is specific content.

Creating what? Reading what?

There are many things which I would not want my pupils to read. Reading is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. And the end is knowledge.

There are many kinds of knowledge which reading can bring, which are difficult to access in other ways. Great literature brings knowledge about the fundamental questions of human existence. Historical writing, scientific writing, philosophical writing and even journalism can carry new insights into the nature of the universe and humanity’s place within it. A fluent reader can gain access to thought that will open her mind and raise her aspirations. But she can also gain access to fake news and poisonous propaganda. Reading can poison the mind as well as nourishing it.

There is nothing intrinsically good about reading. It depends what you are reading, and it depends on how accurately you can interpret it.

Of course we want all our pupils to be able to decode fluently. But beyond this, we must think about how we nourish their thinking so that they can use this wonderful opportunity to expand their minds, not to poison or pollute them. A regular diet of knowledge will give them a taste for reality, so that they are increasingly able to discriminate between different authors, and reject what is false.

Liberated by Cognitive Science

Understanding the essentials of cognitive architecture is a wonderfully liberating thing. So many of our misconceptions about education, our own and our pupils’, can be laid to rest.

The first, and most important principle is the understanding of what education actually is: changes in long term memory. This simple definition can and should be refined, but it’s an essential starting point. If you haven’t remembered it, you haven’t learned it. You were wasting your time, as teacher, as a pupil, if the knowledge which you were supposed to acquire has not at least begun to make its way into your long term memory.

This affects the questions we ask about teaching. Instead of chasing endless proxies for learning, we begin to focus on the thing itself. Instead of asking ‘were the pupils engaged?’ or ‘did they enjoy the lesson?’ or ‘did they write lots in their books?’ we can simply ask ‘what did they remember?’ In the end, that’s all that matters.

But that question logically leads to others. If we are interested in long term memory, we have to be interested in the long term. We are therefore liberated from the obsession with individual lessons as units of learning. We must ask ‘what did they remember the next week, the next month, the next year?’ Now we are able to see education as a coherent long term programme for building mental schemas in the minds of pupils, not a series of isolated fragments which could be judged as ‘outstanding’ or ‘satisfactory’. Thus do the principles of cognitive architecture liberate us from the madness of graded lesson observations.

These are just a few of the ways in which understanding cognitive architecture liberates us professionally. But there is a wonderful personal liberation too. So often I have complained over the years about how poor my memory is. Recently, when I was explaining to a colleague how much explicit memorisation I require of pupils, he said, ‘My memory’s rubbish. I suppose you have trained yours to be able to do this?’ From his tone, it sounded like he thought such ‘training’ would require Herculean efforts, beyond the capacities of most ordinary mortals.

But when we understand that we all have extremely limited working memory, but practically limitless long term memory, and that repeated practice and testing can ensure that anything can be securely stored, then we know that we do not have a rubbish memory. We have a human memory, and we face the same limitations and have the same amazing potential as the rest of the human race. The obstacles we face to filling our memories with countless treasures of poetry, history and science are obstacles that we, and our pupils, can overcome with persistent, faithful, steady effort.

It is also a wonderful liberation to realise that we have not, in fact, forgotten most of what we learned in school. Every well educated adult has a vast store of tacit knowledge which enables her to read a wide range of texts, as well as listen to other articulate, educated adults and take part in intelligent conversation with them. It is amazing to consider just how much we do, in fact, remember, but this also places a solemn duty upon us. When we realise how much we know, we appreciate how important it is that we should pass this on, so that succeeding generations can also take part in this conversation. And we’ll never succeed in doing this unless we talk to our pupils!

So with the excitement and liberation of discovering the reality of how the human mind works, come solemn duties: to pass on knowledge, and to fight against the lies which prevent us, or our colleagues, from doing so, such as ‘education is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything you learned at school’.

These lies are so often glibly repeated in staff rooms or displayed on classroom walls, and they strike at the very root of what education is, and even what human beings are. To fill the mind with knowledge, and to treasure this knowledge and pass it on to succeeding generations, is to perpetuate human civilisation. To refuse to do so is to abdicate from one of the most fundamental human responsibilities.

An Orwellian Education

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Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950)

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), education plays a crucial role. It is because most of the animals do not succeed in learning to read and write that the pigs dominate the formulation of the principles of Animalism, the allegorical equivalent of Marxism-Leninism. But it is not only literacy which matters. Memory is a vital component of the plot too, as most of the animals fail to memorise the Seven Commandments, the founding principles of the Rebellion which are painted in large letters on the barn wall. Thus when Squealer, who represents Stalin’s Minister of Propaganda Molotov, alters the Commandments, the animals do not have a clear and certain reference point in their long term memories which allows them to be sure that something is amiss. Squealer also changes history, reversing the role of Snowball (Trotsky) from that of revolutionary hero to that of traitor. Squealer’s lies are so detailed and persuasive that they come to replace reality in the animals’ memories.

As the animals are the allegorical representation of the people of the Soviet Union, it’s worth considering what Orwell is suggesting about education for the masses. There are different types of animals on the farm, and their educational capacity varies from full literacy, in the case of the pigs who represent the Bolshevik elite, down to a complete inability to learn how to read and write, together with a very hazy, indistinct memory that is easy manipulated.

What does this suggest about the people of the Soviet Union under Stalin? Animal Farm suggests that there are different types of people who are capable of different levels of education, and there are those whose capacities for learning are so limited that they will always be at the mercy of their intellectual superiors. This was a widely held belief when Orwell wrote the novel in the forties, and it led to the creation of the two tier education system after the Second World War, based on the assumption that only a small minority could benefit from an academic curriculum.

Thankfully, this belief does not correspond with reality. The capacity to remember is not limited to a privileged few. It is a universal human capacity. Although fluid intelligence – the processing power of the brain – varies quite widely, crystallised intelligence – the store of schemas in long term memory – can make up for this variation. Everyone can remember. Everyone can become smarter and think better about anything, so long as they build up a store of knowledge in their long term memory.

This means that there are no sheep among the human race. There are no people condemned just to bleat whatever slogan the elite imposes upon them. All can remember, and this is the antidote to propaganda. But this antidote depends upon an education system that recognises this reality and endows ordinary people with the treasures of knowledge from past ages, so that they won’t be stranded in the present and easy prey to those who tell lies about history.

William C Bagley, who did valiant battle with his colleagues in the progressive-dominated Columbia Teachers College, put it well in 1922. He was concerned that the misuse of intelligence tests was leading to the categorisation of humanity into those who could and could not benefit from an academic curriculum:

To endow the masses with genius is biologically impossible; but to endow the masses with the fruits of genius is both educationally possible and socially most profitable. The mental tests will help most if they aid the teacher in discharging this transcendent duty. They will render a gratuitous and disastrous disservice if they encourage in the teacher the conviction that the illumination of common minds is either an impossible or a relatively unimportant task. (See Diane Ravitch, Left Back, p153)

The rhetoric of the twenties, with categories such as ‘feeble minded’, would not go down well these days. But in a softer form, these ideas persist. Too often, children are labelled as incapable when really they are just ignorant. The role of the school is to give them the knowledge that will make them capable, not to pander to their interests, and leave them just where they are: easy prey for manipulation.

Reasonable Hope

However much our opponents may wish to portray us as gloomy Gradgrindian schoolmasters, traditional approaches give us grounds for reasonable hope. The positive, practical outworking of a coherent, knowledge-rich curriculum and a consistent culture of discipline is not gloom but a cheerful commitment to hard work and a resilient reaction to setbacks. This is because traditional approaches are based not on how we might wish human beings are, but how they actually are.

A traditional teacher doesn’t get downhearted when a pupil forgets something they studied yesterday. She is fully prepared for this. In fact, she expects it, and she has a plan for review of material, spaced out over time, so that the sharp forgetting curve can be overcome. Instead of complaining or blaming herself, she gets on with applying that programme so that pupils can truly master the knowledge that will enable them to think creatively and critically.

A traditional teacher doesn’t despair when pupils don’t share her love for classic literature. She knows that this love will build slowly over time, as their familiarity with the great stories and characters increases. She knows that curiosity is not immanent but emergent: it is a property that must be cultivated in pupils by giving them ever greater knowledge, so that they can make connections and comparisons, and enter into worlds that they would never encounter without her expert guidance. So she presses on with her programme of rich cultural capital, confident that pupils will one day come to appreciate the inheritance which she is passing on. Some will appreciate it sooner than others, but their ability to appreciate it at the age of thirteen in no way affects its intrinsic value.

A traditional teacher doesn’t take it personally when some pupils misbehave, because she knows that good habits take time to form, and that it is her responsibility to form them in her pupils, by consistent discipline over time. Their poor behaviour is a reflection of their imperfect moral formation, which she and her colleagues are striving to improve. She knows that she will be letting her pupils down if she gives in to the desire to be liked, and fails to apply sanctions consistently. So she perseveres, day in, day out, applying rewards and punishments, and knowing that over time, as part of a whole school culture, her pupils will be given the priceless gift of good habits that will serve them well throughout life.

Traditional ideas give us the strength to be cheerful, positive and persevering, because we know that our pupils are on a long journey towards responsible, knowledgeable adulthood, which will take many years of consistent effort to achieve. We’re not looking for instant results or flashy gimmicks. We’re just looking for steady, faithful effort, in ourselves, and in our pupils.

And we know it isn’t personal. We know that there is something outside ourselves which is worth striving for: we know the value of knowledge and good habits, which do not come naturally, but which must be formed in young minds by our efforts and theirs. Nothing worthwhile comes easily to anyone. We’re ready for the setbacks, and the remedies are already accounted for in our planning.

The fantasy land of progressive ideology is what brings gloom, because its bubbles are bound to burst, and its delights will always be temporary. When you break free into the light of reality, then you can actually begin to make progress towards worthwhile goals.

Should Young Children Learn Through Play?

Deadly Nightshade

Not all of the products of nature are nourishing.

The earliest years of education are those which have been reformed the least. In secondary schools, there is a significant and growing movement in favour of strict discipline and formal instruction. Secondary school teachers are subject teachers, so it’s not so hard to convince them that subject knowledge should be foregrounded and children should have to listen to the expert in the room. But teachers of younger children are much less likely to be subject specialists. Primary school and preschool teachers tend to see themselves as teachers of children, not teachers of subjects.

Of course, understood correctly, there’s nothing wrong with considering oneself as a teacher of children. It would be worrying if any teacher did not say this, if we mean by it that we care about those we teach as human beings. It’s stating the obvious.

But when teachers say that they teach the child, not the subject, they often mean more than the obvious. They mean that education should be led by the child. They mean that they believe in what E D Hirsch calls ‘providential individualism’: the idea that if we allow individuals free and unfettered choices, then things will somehow work out for the best in the end. In other words, saying ‘I teach the child’ is frequently a confession of faith in the progressive creed that education must be child-centred, so that it can take its ‘natural’ course.

Because this is an article of mystical faith, and has no basis in the reality of growing up (how many children are potty trained through child-centred learning?), its adherents are fiercely resistant to alternatives, and tend to react with outrage and disbelief when someone says, for example, that basing education mostly around play is not the best way to introduce the very young to the wonderful world of knowledge outside their immediate experience. They tend to see any attacks on their creed as necessarily emanating from child-hating monsters.

But what do very young children do naturally? Even play is not ‘natural’. Anyone who has cared for more than one young child at a time will know how frequently disputes have to be resolved, and how much effort is required to establish some rules for playing: sharing, for example, is not something which children naturally do. They have to be instructed.

Even playing successfully requires formal instruction and an authority figure to enforce rules, if it is not to descend into the Lord of the Flies type experience I had at nursery school, which is still the most savage of my memories of ‘education’.

Then there are the other wonderful things that can be done with groups of young children, all without their having to start learning to read and write excessively early. They can listen to stories, they can learn songs and poems, they can make their first attempts at drawing. All of these require an authority figure to be in charge and to maintain order if they are to be executed successfully.

Most wonderful of all these aspects of early formal education, if we are thinking about opening minds to the wider world, are the ability to listen to stories and to memorise songs and poems. So much fascinating and valuable knowledge can be built into education from the earliest stages, if we are prepared to take charge and stop idolising children.