Saturday, 9 July 2016

Why teaching things in topics ‘might’ be bad? The Path to Academia or making students ‘cleverer’ – Part 2

In my quest to improve students I have, recently, jumped onto the glittery bandwagon of the Knowledge Bus and started looking at our curriculum from a knowledge basis. Rather than sit on the top of the bus and enjoy the view, I thought I’d stay near the door and see where the driver was taking me first. For me, the bus was going too, too fast. Knowledge is good, but I like to rationalise the use of it.  So, instead of cramming the little vessels with everything under the sun, I wanted to go with a more structured approach. Yes, I could teach about Jane Austen’s favourite cross-stich pattern or about Charles Dickens’ secret door, but I want the knowledge to be meaningful and with purpose.

Often the first questions teachers have asked when planning for knowledge are:

What knowledge does a student need to understand a text?

What knowledge is needed for a student to achieve the highest grade / score?

Now, this is fine for most people. But, for me, I am bothered about information retention. As I stated in my previous blog, I feel that students have built up a cognitive structure of ‘store, test and dump’ structure for knowledge. As a process, it isn’t a bad one and for some it is necessary for success. However, it isn’t helpful for converting short-term memory to long-term memory. The repeated pattern in education has meant that students have seen knowledge as ephemeral and fleeting. Knowledge isn’t necessarily seen as benefitting the person. It is just a hurdle to overcome.

I think part of the problem of knowledge is the teaching of topics. Because of our desire for clarity and order, we present our subjects in themed areas or topics. We do it for ease. We do it for security. We do it for clarity. We do it for the students. We do it because someone more important than us tells us to. We teach students a body of knowledge and then test students at the end of the teaching. Then, the topic is over and students purge their brains of the knowledge stored. It isn’t needed for them, because they know the next topic has a bank of new knowledge for them to learn. They need to make room for that knowledge. Bang goes the short-term memory. This is repeated, probably, six times a year. That’s where interleaving comes in. But, do we interleave knowledge? Or, are we reinforcing the idea that knowledge is easily compartmentalised. Like a ‘Trivial Pursuit’ counter, the different wedges are needed for success.

In registration time, we have been quizzing students on their general knowledge. Individually and collectively we have been testing them. The results are interesting. Students are not very good at general knowledge. Culturally, we have changed how we do things. Look at what students can do now. They can watch the things that only interests them. They can read things that interests them. When I was a child, I had to watch what my parents had on the telly. I sat through some rubbish, but my parents exposed me to different bodies of knowledge or contexts of information. By a process of osmosis, I picked up information. But, today the focus is on the individual and choice. They are in control of their experiences at home. Because we are creatures of comfort, students will select and go for a safe context of experience. A girl will choose a Jacqueline Wilson novel over a novel by an author she is unfamiliar with because it is safe and comfortable.

If we look at how we teach, we teach topics to build safety for our students. The experience is consistent and not scary for the student. This term, you are going to be looking at ‘newspapers’. They know what to expect.  Even AQA have provided GCSE exam style question papers for Years 7, 8 and 9 so students feel safe.  There lies a contradiction in education at the moment. On one hand we want students to have more ‘Grit’, yet we are at the same time mollycoddling a large amount of things for students. We make things too comfortable for them.   

Teaching in long termly topics shows students that there is no urgency to learn knowledge. In plain words, it is telling students that the main body of learning needs to be done at the end of seven weeks. The structure of learning has a far greater impact on behaviour and attitude of students than other things.   

One of the biggest areas hit by this topic teaching is writing. I cry internally when I see non-fiction taught in topics. The non-fiction writing is context dependent. Each piece of non-fiction is a product of one particular context. Right, you have to convince an audience that you think Britain should leave the EU and you have very few facts. What will you do? Imply a threat. Be ambiguous. Focus on the emotions of the audience. Refer to a bleak future. Exaggerate the alternative. The choices are based on the context. Yet, we teach students to write on the basis of a set number of pre-set writing choices. A persuasive piece of writing must have A, B and Y and Z. No it doesn’t. Because we have been led down a path to teach writing in topics, we have stifled the fluidity and fluency of writing. I love blogging, because there are no rules for me: I sit at my computer and type.  I make a number of choices and I play around with things and experiment.

We are breaking the narrowness of topic teaching in our department. We have done it in stages. Last year it was poetry. This year it is non-fiction and writing. Now, I have seen models of ‘interleaving’ units which focus on a set number of lessons a term on a range of aspects. It is a great principle but hard to put into practice.  Instead, we are doing the following things:

·         Every Friday is a writing lesson. Students will compose a text and the context will vary each week. The best on written will shared with the class. The work will be peer assessed.

·         Writing only taught as a discrete unit when comparing for stylistic choices – Travel Writing / Gothic Horror

·         A set number of poems are to be taught over the year. Teachers can select when they are studied.

·         Each term staff are to use several non-fiction texts. They can be related to the topic, but most will not be about the topic.

·         In books, students will write notes and answer questions on the left page and write prose and extended pieces of text on the right side of the page.    

The basis for some of the changes here is simple: we are breaking up the ‘experiences’ in English. Creating more experiences of texts is paramount for me. Students need lots of experiences in the classroom. They don’t benefit from experiencing the same thing for seven weeks on the go. Plus, there is no point, personally, starting GCSE work in Years 7, 8 and 9. KS3 should be about making many meaningful experiences in the classroom. What will help students with the new GCSE structure is reading hundreds and thousands of texts and then more. That will only happen if we stop focusing too much on topic teaching. Instead of searching and finding texts that link, we should be just finding texts and getting students to see the links. We have structured our curriculums to be tailored, neat and tidy and understandable. Maybe, we need to have chaos, anarchy and disjointed curriculums. Our students have compartmentalised learning and so have we. What if we shake up the structures we currently use?

We want student to combine and link knowledge, yet curriculums feature walls between bodies of learning. An academic student will see across those walls and see connections, but a less academic student will define learning by those walls.  

Thanks for reading,


Disclaimer: any reference to anything relating to science or cognitive theory and behaviour is purely anecdotal and provided by Brian down the pub.

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