Sunday, 3 July 2016

The Path to Academia or making students ‘cleverer’ – Part1

Yesterday, I spoke at Anne William’s fantastic Teaching and Learning Conference in Leeds. This is just a part of my talk.

Sadly, people don’t play ‘Trivial Pursuit’ anymore. My childhood was often punctuated by hours spent playing the game as a family, or with friends. I always seemed to be good at the brown questions and terrible with the orange questions. But, unfortunately, the days when many a family would sit around a table would play this game have gone. Instead, the games, and especially, board games, have become personal and all about the experience. Look at how we have changed with our attitude towards things. We want a 3-D film experience. We want surround sound in the home. We want to be living and breathing a game or film. It is all about the experience.

If we look at how teaching has changed recently, we have focused too much on the experience. The obsession in lessons was on the experience of the child. It got so silly that learning was kind of forgotten and we focused on what the child was experiencing. Therefore, if a lesson was perceived to be boring, but the child was experiencing a good learning, the teacher was given a bad grade. The recent shift in knowledge has made me think of the old ‘Trivial Pursuit’ game (See other bigger and better bloggers to see justification on that one argument – you won’t get it here.) For those youngsters unfamiliar with the game, here is a brief explanation of the game:

Each person has a counter. The purpose of the game is to move your counter around the board and on each square your counter lands on, you have to answer a question. If you get a question right, you are awarded a wedge. When you have collected all the different coloured wedges, you had to beat all the players by being the first person to get to the middle.

The great thing about ‘Trivial Pursuit’ was that it tested a person’s knowledge in all areas. The ultimate general knowledge quiz. I was always bad at getting orange wedges because of my lack of sporting knowledge. How am I supposed to know who won the Grand National in 1983? The emphasis, however, was on knowledge and not the experience. Now, education has suffered from the compartmentalising of knowledge. This is science knowledge. This is art knowledge. This is English knowledge. Each a different subject a wedge for students to achieve.

Due to the new GCSEs, I have evaluated how students learn and, in particular, what they learn in English. I have concluded that there is a clear problem with knowledge learning in lessons: students are trained to store and dump information after a clear period of time and students associate knowledge in one particular, fine and narrow context. Take Bob, for example. Bob learns knowledge in lessons. He works hard to learn that knowledge because he has an assessment coming up soon. Bob then revises for the assessment. Bob has a test. The week after that test he has forgotten the knowledge previously stored. Then, when the teacher asks a week, month or even a year later about some of that knowledge, Bob looks blank and vacant. Why? Well, simply because he has trained himself to store, test and dump knowledge. The knowledge was, for Bob, only to be used in that one context. No amount of knowledge organisers are going to undo this damage while Bob is in this mode of ‘store, test and dump’.  Does the focus on bigger and higher staked assessments force students to adopt this method to cope in education?

Recently, one of my colleagues made all KS3 students participate in an inter-tutor general knowledge quiz. Aside from proving that students don’t have any general knowledge, it proved that students struggled to recall ideas, facts and knowledge in a different context. Some of the things I knew they had the knowledge of, but, sadly, they couldn’t recall the information in that one, different, situation. Why was this happening? I like to think that it is happening because we don’t use the recall of knowledge that often in lessons. This got me thinking about how we use knowledge in English. Yes, we have adopted the use of knowledge organisers and they are brilliant in making knowledge consistent in lessons, but I think more is needed. That’s when I thought about the different types of knowledge in English.


Core knowledge – What is an adjective?

Knowledge used often in lessons. The information is needed for most if not all lessons.

Topic knowledge – What is a Volta in poetry?

Knowledge used over short period, relating to one narrow aspect.

Multipurpose knowledge– What are the causes of civil unrest?

Knowledge that is used in various other contexts in school.

General knowledge – Where was Shakespeare born?

Knowledge that has no immediate connection to the learning but might be necessary during one specific lesson or moment.

I think your topic knowledge is easily covered by the knowledge organisers in lessons and I think it is the one aspect of knowledge that teachers are comfortable with. But, are we clear about the core knowledge? Are we clear about the basics? Course we are. Then, why do we repeat the following conversation again and again in the classroom?  

Teacher: What do we call that?
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher:  Remember we did this last week.
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: You know it’s a …
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: It’s describing the table.
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: A describing word?
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: Begins with an A?
Student:   Dunno.
Teacher: It’s an adjective.

The core knowledge isn’t committed to memory. It isn’t long-term memory. The student has adopted the ‘store, test and dump’ model of learning. You could say that I haven’t given an incentive to store the memory. Surprisingly, when I tell them that learning the difference between 'their' and 'there' will add 10% to their future earnings, they still don’t store that knowledge long-term.   

The one thing I have a major influence on is what happens in the classroom. So, is there anything I can do in the classroom to change this issue with core knowledge? Simply, yes.

1: Decide on what the core knowledge in the subject is.

2: Change the approach to using core knowledge in the classroom.

This year we have done that. We have decided, by committee, what is the core knowledge we are going to address in lessons. For us, it was mainly the knowledge of different grammar terms and literary devices – something that is becoming apparent with the new GCSEs. We made a list. We shared that list with students and staff.

Then, we thought about how we could restructure the use of knowledge in the classroom. Inspired by James Theo’s use of symbols and icons to teach terms at GCSE, we decided to use simplified images to help secure the some, but not all, terms. Lessons start with the images. Lessons include particular images, if the lesson is related to the aspect. Students are given new texts in lessons, and, then as a way to help students spot techniques, they have the images on the board to help them.

Terms going from left to right in rows:

Contrast / lists / pairs / close detail / colours / imagery / omniscient narrator

Simile / triplets / repetition / symbols / dialogue / conflict

Sound / verbs / adjectives / setting / religious imagery / violence / pronouns

Light and darkness / animal imagery / mirroring / foreshadowing / oxymoron / hyperbole / rhyming couplets

Emotive language / personification / metaphor / soliloquy / dramatic irony

Somethings here are not in the glossary because we wanted to use this as a tool for analysis, but by being on it, we still refer to it as core.

We keep referring and testing the terms. The hope is that the knowledge is committed through regular use and constant reference.

The next thing we are doing is building a structure around the core knowledge. The pattern goes like this.

Start of year
Introduce core knowledge – Year 7s have more time to secure the knowledge
Quick test

Quick test on core knowledge.
Revise missing knowledge.
Final core knowledge test.

Quick test on core knowledge.
Revise missing knowledge.
Final core knowledge test.

Quick test on core knowledge.
Revise missing knowledge.
Final core knowledge test.

The score is out of 50, so students can easily convert it into a percentage. The quick test at the start is to ascertain the long-term memory and identify gaps in the knowledge. That then helps students to prepare their revision.

Here is an example test.                                                  

We produce a department reading log and it contains the core knowledge information so students have it all the time and in every lesson.

Our core knowledge isn’t mind-blowing and over the next few years it will change and develop. We operate like a committee and we have already talked about add verb tenses and structural techniques to the core knowledge. There will be a point next year where we will integrate them into curriculum. The core is core so it is always a consistent part of teaching. You don’t have to save it to all the usual major changes in September. We decided to hold back verbs and structure to a point where we are more secure about the new GCSEs. You want to be confident with your core knowledge. Now, we are clear about the core knowledge and what we are teaching. For too long in teaching, there has been an assumption of the basics, an assumption of the core knowledge and now I feel that if I am clear about the basics, then the students will be clear about the basics. And, maybe, they will be on the path to being ‘cleverer’.

Thank you for reading,

Next time: Non-core knowledge

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