Sunday, 3 June 2018

The Circus of Knowledge – Tent Pegs and Tent Poles

There’s one thing I find dull as dishwater and that’s cloze exercises about the plot. A class reads a section of book / poem / play and then they have to show their knowledge (check they haven’t been sleeping)  of the text by selecting the right word from a selection (differentiated option) or from their brains (challenging option). And, I find them boring. Dull. Uninteresting. Yawn. They are usually involve filling in the gaps of a summary and, although the knowledge of the text is important, I don’t think they help to store that knowledge. They help the teacher to test it, but they don’t help, in my opinion, to store and retain knowledge.

When reading a novel or a play, we are constantly checking to see what students understand and we might test them on certain aspects of the text, because the focus tends to concentrate on the key things. We prioritise knowledge of the text. What is important for the assessment? The problem with that is that we make presumptions about important and ‘not as important’ knowledge. But, how can we possibly know that one specific detail in the opening chapter is as important as a specific episode in the tenth chapter? It is only when we look to make connections across a text, when we see the relevance of points. However, by the time you get to the end of the book and developed some complex ideas about the text, you probably are a bit hazy about chapter 1 and 2. The better students pick up on precise examples whereas the weaker students go for generalised instances. The trick for all teachers is to get the students to focus on precise examples. But, how do we do that and improve the knowledge of specific instances in a text? Well, simply the students need to store more of that knowledge and possibly [gasp] knowledge that might not be necessary or relevant. Because, we don’t see the relevance of one piece in a jigsaw until we put the whole jigsaw together.  

This year I have been writing lots of questions. I have ditched that wafer thin folder of comprehension activities and replaces them with a PowerPoint. A PowerPoint of a slide per chapter or scene. Each slide will contain seven to eight questions. The questions are not complex. They range from quotes, plot points, character’s feelings, aspects of dialogue. They look something like this:

Treasure Island – Chapter 1

  1. Name one character who asks the narrator to write the story down.
  2. What is the name of the inn?
  3. What did the old dog carry with him when he arrives at the inn?
  4. What did he have across his face?
  5. What did he do during most of the day?
  6. What did he ask the narrator to look out for?
  7. What about the ‘old dog’ scared people?
  8. Who had an argument with the man?

Or this:

Romeo and Juliet - Prologue

  1. Where is the play set?
  2. How are the two households alike?
  3. What makes people’s hands unclean?
  4. What kind of lovers take their life?
  5. Where are the children born from?
  6. What could not end until the children die?
  7. How long should the play last?

They are intentionally simple in context, but testing a piece of knowledge. They are used at the start of the lesson. In the middle. At the end. In fact, I put them anywhere when reading the text. Sometimes we answer the questions in their books, but majority of the time we do it verbally as a whole class – almost as a chant.  Usually the first time we look at the questions there’s a bit of hesitancy, because they need to recall an aspect from the reading. However, by the time the class has answer the questions five times, they can offer them freely. Yes, you heard me right. I use the questions again and again. Those questions don’t sit patiently for the next year when I teach the text again. They are used again and again throughout the teaching of the text. When we have finished chapter 10, I will go through chapter 1 questions. Quick verbal test of the class.

I love a knowledge organiser, but there isn’t a knowledge organiser that can effectively convey the body of knowledge for a novel. The knowledge is ‘tent pole knowledge’: knowledge is perceived as holding up a key idea or theme. ‘Tent pole knowledge’ does negate some knowledge. The colour of door. The one word utterance of a character. The flower in the garden.

We have a body of knowledge that isn’t mighty as a pole – more a peg. They are small things that you can easily trip over and miss if you are not watching carefully. They aren’t as gaudy or noticeable  as the tent poles, but they are the detail that that moves you from general to specific understanding. You find that you need a few big poles, but hundreds of pegs to keep the tent up.

This year, I have done this with ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Of Mice and Men’, ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet‘  with much success. It surprised me how well the students responded to the use of the same questions repeated over the course of studying a text over several weeks. I have seen students grow in confidence and the knowledge of the text improve considerably. Students often forget about Pompey when Caesar is killed, yet I had some weak students making explicit connections between the two in his death. Students were not given the chance to forget the knowledge because I repeated the questioning again and again. The bright students commented on how it helped them to keep the plot and ideas in their heads. Plus, it allowed to make connections across the text easier. God is in the detail. Or the Devil.

The great thing for me was that I was actively building on knowledge. We were adding knowledge to knowledge and acknowledging that knowledge was a cumulative process and that has to be taught as cumulative process.  The process of constant questioning made the previous chapters or scenes read relevant in a number of different contexts. It is natural for us to compartmentalise things. Chapter 1 often gets compartmentalised to ‘done and dusted’ by the time you get to the middle or end of the book. This constant questioning allowed for a renewed highlighting of relevance.

Oh, did I mention how long it takes me to write one of these slides. Five minutes. Compare that to the time it takes to write a cloze comprehension task. Oh, and I used the questions up to thirty or forty times over the term. So, five minutes covered about two lessons worth of work over the term.

If we want knowledge to last, then we need to be putting it upfront and use it hold lessons together. There is a hesitancy to ask the same questions repeatedly. I’d say we need to ask the same questions again and again to ensure the answers stick and students can have a starting point for relevance.

Thanks for reading,



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  2. As ever, a really useful blog.
    Thanks :)