Combining GCSE Preparation with Real Education


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.


Whole Class Instruction Enables Targeted Support

In-class differentiation means that the whole class is disadvantaged, because they cannot experience an ordered classroom where the expert instructs them. They cannot experience a coherent curriculum because the curriculum must be personalised.

But there is a huge difference between in-class differentiation and targeted support outside class. Schools such as Michaela, for example, target pupils who need it with an intensive synthetic phonics programme. This is because they recognise that without these fundamentals firmly in place, pupils will not be able to access fully the rich knowledge curriculum that they offer through whole class instruction.

Or consider the example of Japan. Large mixed ability classes receive whole class instruction, and they are all expected to reach the same standard. But teachers regularly give additional support to pupils outside lesson time. They are able to do this because they teach far fewer lessons per week due to the large class sizes, and because they are not wasting time producing complicated, ineffective plans for different activities within each lesson.

This is the best model. Coherent, whole class instruction in orderly classrooms, with the expectation that everyone will master the content, combined with targeted support outside the classroom, made possible by an efficient whole school approach.

In the madness and chaos of differentiated classrooms, with exhausted teachers and the noise and distraction of multiple activities, those who need additional support do not get it. In the orderly, sane world of a coherent curriculum and whole class instruction, there is plenty of time and energy to give them the extra help they need.

Whole class instruction enables targeted support. Differentiation damages everyone’s progress, but like all ineffective approaches, it hurts the disadvantaged most of all.

Further reading:

Differentiation Damages the Disadvantaged

The Cult of Differentiation

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.

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)

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)