I teach, therefore I am.
I have been an advocate of a knowledge-rich curriculum since around 2013, which is relatively recently and in that time I have experienced several iterations of this approach to curriculum. Being a recent convert to this thinking about curriculum and having made an intellectual journey over the last few years has led me to be quite evangelical about why a knowledge-rich curriculum, and the knowledge-thorough teaching that it requires, is crucial to a successful education. Therefore I am particularly concerned that if the approach is not careful and considered we could be in danger of this becoming another initiative or fad.
One of the problems that us knowledge types now face is that we have become the establishment. This sounds like a very nice problem to have – and of course it does have its benefits. It is certainly reassuring to not be constantly railing against policy or finding yourself in tension between Ofsted expectations of good teaching and your own (not to say this has been completely resolved, but there are definite moves in the right direction). Being able to talk at education events and conferences about knowledge and not being shunned is also pretty delightful. However when something becomes seen as the orthodoxy this can make it more in danger of being misinterpreted and misappropriated.
Potential misconceptions about what a knowledge-rich curriculum aims to achieve and schools paying lip service to knowledge in order to meet the requirements of Ofsted and/or government policy are very real threats. If you take a glance at many school websites, you can already see a shift with the words ‘curriculum’, ‘rigorous’, ‘academic’ and ‘knowledge’ now displayed prominently. However when delving further into many of the curricula in these schools they often do not seem to uphold the values or details of a a truly knowledge-rich curriculum. Instead, there is often a danger of the aims of a knowledge-rich curriculum being misunderstood and made reductive so that the proxy (whether that be the knowledge organiser or the exam specification) is mistaken for the curriculum or that knowledge-thorough teaching becomes disconnected from the subject curriculum.
The menace of a thoughtless, reductive approach to knowledge-rich curriculum is that it will lead to the exact failures and problems highlighted by its opponents; therefore resulting in a retreat back to a curriculum more focused on generic skills.
I’m going to explore this with a direct focus on writing within a knowledge-rich curriculum as I think writing is a prime example of where a lack of expertise and curricular thinking results in a retreat back to a generic skills approach. This is particularly clear when speaking to teachers and leaders post-exams; when results suggest that pupils were able to answer recall questions but did not perform well in the essay, you see an instant panic and retreat. I will look into this in more detail in Part 2, including borrowing from The Writing Revolution to give some practical examples of how to deal with this issue. However, we must remember that the issues with writing are symptomatic of a wider problem which is situated in the conversation about the aims and purpose of the knowledge-rich curriculum.
First it is important to come back to the arguments that crop up when knowledge is mentioned. These seem over-visited and many argue that we should stop returning to this argument as it is simply navel-gazing. However, I fear that if we do not continue to examine and confront these arguments, we may become the caricatures which have been drawn by those who oppose the knowledge approach. I will explore each of these arguments and the way in which we might be in danger of making them true.
1. A knowledge curriculum is drilling of facts and it hinders creativity.
This argument comes from an idea of a knowledge curriculum (rather than knowledge-rich curriculum) that is entirely based on the drilling and recall of factual knowledge, which are unfairly seen as negative and potentially oppressive teaching approaches. It also relies on a false assumption that creativity is a generic skill that can be taught rather than something which arises from a bed of knowledge. However, there are some ways in which a knowledge-rich curriculum can be reduced to a drilling of unconnected facts which becomes excessively dry and not effectively organised. These are some examples of where we can go wrong:
(a) Knowledge Organisers
I’ve used knowledge organisers and have found them a really useful tool both for the pupils and for myself as a teacher, which I’ve written about previously. At the same time, I feel increasingly that knowledge organisers have become viewed by some as the entirety of the curriculum. Many schools which promote their knowledge curriculum explain this by saying that they have knowledge organisers in all their subjects. A knowledge organiser at its most effective is a distilling of precise factual knowledge which is the bare minimum of facts which pupils are expected to have retained in long term memory in order for them to succeed in that unit of work (and onwards in the curriculum, if the sequencing is meaningful). This needs to be an organiser built from a full understanding of the subject and the subject curriculum, it therefore requires far more thinking behind it than is at first apparent. It is also only the start of what we should be offering our pupils; if we think that all of our subject can be reduced to an A4 sheet of paper then we are severely lowering our academic expectations. Schools need to recognise that every department producing knowledge organisers without the necessary substantive and disciplinary knowledge or with no idea of the principles of curriculum design, is meaningless.
(b) A pub quiz curriculum
Part of the reason that knowledge organisers become mistaken for the curriculum is because of a curriculum which is designed in the style of ‘top ten facts’ rather than through the subject. This is not to say that facts do not have a crucial role in a knowledge-rich curriculum (more of that later) but that if we forget that a school subject comes from an academic discipline then we can create a reductive approach which will hinder creativity because it is missing the narrative and tradition of the subject. It also leads us into tricky situations where pupils may be able to recall facts but not able to apply these effectively, either because they have not achieved fluency (accuracy + speed) or they have not completed enough deliberate practice of applying knowledge. This can lead to some of the concerns about pupils being unable to demonstrate creativity, more of which I’ll consider when looking directly at writing in a knowledge-rich curriculum.
(c) Pedagogy as separate from subject
When we forget the importance of the subject, we can also fall into the trap of thinking that pedagogy can exist as a separate generic strand of teaching. Pedagogical strategies recommended by those who want knowledge-thorough teaching (including quizzing, deliberate practice and call and response) must be used when it makes sense for the subject. Thus whole school teaching and learning policies which require a certain amount of these strategies within lessons miss the point and add constraints to subject teaching which could make the curriculum dry and lacking. Even when leaders understand this, teachers can often take advice on pedagogy literally: spending whole lessons on quizzing or telling a story through call and response. In English it would be meaningful to expect pupils to repeat a quotation through call and response as part of memorising the quotation, but if in Geography a teacher was expecting pupils to regurgitate a few sentences from a text book in this form it would seem pretty illogical. It is the blend of pedagogy which comes by viewing teaching through the subject lens that is essential to a knowledge-rich curriculum.
2. A knowledge curriculum is solely focusing on preparing pupils for exams
This second argument often comes as surprise for advocates of a knowledge-rich curriculum as it is the antithesis of the original aims: building cultural capital; closing the disadvantage gap and teaching knowledge for its intrinsic value. However the school system with its relentless emphasis on exams means that there is always the peril of the short term overtaking the longer term. Why does this happen and how could it distort the knowledge-rich curriculum?
This is often the cause of the following two problems; a leadership team who lead on a knowledge-rich curriculum but do not really understand what this means and who continue to focus on generic skill approach to exam success is a disaster waiting to happen.
(b) Misconception that specification = curriculum
A common problem with understanding curriculum generally is that an exams-focused system has led to both teachers and leaders viewing the exam specification as the manifestation of the curriculum. A knowledge-rich curriculum can be at risk of becoming the new GCSE specifications pushed down into Year 7 meaning that pupils study the same content over and over again or that challenge is viewed as teaching through the use of GCSE questions. At the beginning of curriculum design I think I sometimes made poor text choices; studying texts at KS3 which were also to be found on the GCSE specification rather than looking to create more breadth. This problem exists because of a lack of meaningful conversations amongst subject communities about the what of teaching rather than the how. Avoiding this trap therefore requires us to understand that a knowledge-rich curriculum relies on a dynamic subject community including informed teachers and leaders.
(c) Intervention culture at KS4
When visiting a school which advocates a knowledge-rich curriculum, I’m always disheartened when I see that these curriculum approaches are thrown out of the window in KS4 and replaced by the usual intervention culture and exam factory. If a knowledge-rich curriculum gives pupils an in-depth knowledge of their subjects and knowledge-thorough teaching ensures that this knowledge is secured in long term memory, we should expect this to also lead to excellent exam results. Of course there should be some small amounts of practising of exam techniques and approaches to questions but this is only effective when a small component rather than the entirety of the teaching. A school which switches tact entirely in KS4 will never allow us to experience the full richness and impact of a well-designed knowledge-rich curriculum.
3. We already teach knowledge.
I actually argued this quite vehemently when I first came across the idea of a knowledge curriculum. What did anyone possibly think I was doing in my classroom, if I wasn’t teaching them stuff? Yet when I started to delve into the thinking and realities of a knowledge-rich curriculum, it became more and more apparent to me that I hadn’t considered (a) what stuff and (b) the importance of pupils remembering this stuff (drawing on Kirschner, Clark and Sweller’s argument that ‘If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned’) . Of course I wanted them to be able to remember things to put into exams but I hadn’t even contemplated the breadth of knowledge that a well-educated person has at their fingertips and how I could think about my curriculum in a way that would support my pupils to have this knowledge at their fingertips too. I also fundamentally misunderstood how great readers and writers were made; not weighing up the idea that complex skills were built up of chunks of precise knowledge. Of the three arguments against knowledge-rich curriculum this is the one which is most nuanced, even if it somewhat contradicts the others, because it brings to the fore arguments about the choice of knowledge and the role of memory. These are the ways in which we might miss that nuance:
In my title ‘pub quiz or published’ I deliberately make use of this dichotomy as a rhetorical flourish, but it does point out a key misunderstanding about why we might teach facts. Although the entirety of a curriculum should not be based around lists of facts, these lists do have a central role to a successful knowledge-rich curriculum and it is through memorising these that we provide a foundation for grasping the subject.
(b) Not focusing on the schema
The reason these facts are important is that they help us build schemas in our minds. Michael Fordham describes the idea as a ‘knowledge party’ in your head. In a recent discussion with a senior researcher at Ofsted, it became apparent that we had both thought of these schema through the analogy of Sherlock Holmes’ mind palace. However you think of them, schemas are essentially the maps of organised knowledge which an educated person can draw upon. We as the experts in our subject are trying to build this schema in the minds of our pupils, which relies on them having the multiple examples of precise knowledge which have been taught in a way that organises this knowledge effectively. This requires an understanding of how to select and sequence knowledge, as well as a working knowledge of strategies such as interleaving, deliberate and spaced practice.
(c) Not considering the subject tradition
Finally, this schema; the choice and sequencing of facts must be centred in an understanding of the subject tradition. When making a choice about what to study, we are not working as individuals making individual selections, we are responding to the tradition of our subject and inducting our pupils into this tradition. Therefore a subject curriculum must be a response to the academic discipline and our choices of what to teach and how to teach should be guided by this rather than personal preferences. An aim of a knowledge-rich curriculum, in my view, is to induct our pupils into the tradition of our subjects and therefore the great educated conversations. It is this which directly opposes the idea that previous curriculums already taught knowledge, as it is a fundamentally different idea of what teaching knowledge really means.
Writing and the aims of a knowledge-rich curriculum
Once we confront the different ways in which we could be in danger of losing our way in a knowledge-rich curriculum we come close to seeing what the aims of a knowledge-curriculum should be and how these are inextricably linked with the subject. Here we begin to delve into the work from Michael Young about the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ and the transformative element of pupils interaction with this knowledge that is mediated by academic communities. This feeds into the idea of knowledge as part of a tradition, which is revisited and renewed.
An example of this in English can be seen by looking closely at this piece of writing from Professor Jonathan Bate.
‘A very interesting article in today’s Guardian about poetry and plagiarism. When T. S. Eliot famously said that immature poets imitate but mature poets steal, he did not mean “Find someone else’s poem online, change a handful of words and pass it off as your own, trading not only on their words but even on their chosen crafted form.” But what did he mean? One way in which I start a discussion of this question with students is to suggest to them that when one says “I love you” one is at some level voicing a quotation, not an original thought. By “quoting” in this way, you are entering into a long tradition – of lovers. Eliot’s point was that it is by engaging with the tradition, “modifying the existing order,” that poets enter the “canon” (though, as I argue in my book English Literature: A Very Short Introduction, I much prefer the term “repertoire”). The individual talent is shaped by the tradition and the true talent in turn reshapes the tradition. That is one reason why Eliot’s own poetry is so peppered with allusion, quotation and free translation from the poets he admired.’ https://jonathanbate.com/2017/09/10/on-plagiarism-in-poetry/
Bate’s exploration of the way in which individuals are ‘shaped’ by tradition and in turn ‘reshape’ this tradition is key to understanding the aims of teaching English Literature and the way in which I want my pupils to view their interaction with writers: knowledge and tradition as foundations for creativity; literature as a form of dialogue with great voices and ideas. Bate’s way of writing is also how I want my pupils to be able to write, he certainly wasn’t using a PEE structure to create this paragraph but instead peppers his own work with the ‘allusion [and] quotation’ in the same way that he credits Eliot for doing in his poetry. Our pupils must know that this is what knowledge looks like in writing or rather that this is great knowledgeable writing. Of course, we are looking here at a number of different forms of knowledge brought together; there is the literary knowledge and allusion, (we can imagine Bate has a whole library in his mind from which he can draw this knowledge), but there is also the vocabulary, the rhetorical techniques, and the syntax. As Daisy Christodoulu emphasises in her work on assessment, if we are focusing on the final aim of a complex task such as writing we can either view this through the idea of writing as a generic skill that can be practised or we can view it as made up of several components of knowledge which need to be worked on separately and brought together in much the same way an athlete does not practise by endlessly running the full distance of their race but breaks this down into different areas for training.
In Part 2, I will explore what this looks like when we begin to break down the complex task of writing into its component parts and what this means for a knowledge-rich curriculum.