On valuing knowledge AND engagement

Disclaimer: The inclusion of this image will become clear – bear with me…

I’ve been spending a bit more time on Twitter since having my appendix removed on New Year’s Day and have enjoyed reading a wealth of blogs. It’s always fascinating to see which posts have the biggest ripples and Sue Cowley’s post Bigger Than Yours, about memory and the use of knowledge organisers in primary, caused quite a Twitter wave. Unusually for me I was pulled into the waters too – I couldn’t help getting my feet wet (and not just because I was stuck on the sofa feeling sorry for myself). My main contention was with the idea that knowing the context of a literary text could be merely ‘interesting’ but I also felt that Knowledge Organisers or those that use Knowledge Organisers were misrepresented.

A confession: in the past I would probably have agreed with Sue because I used to under-value the teaching of context of texts. I struggle, now, to understand my thinking as a new teacher on this except to say that oftentimes ‘teaching’ context appeared to involve packing students off to research. For example, at the start of any Shakespeare unit there would invariably be a research lesson on The Globe which seemed to have very little impact on students’ understanding of the play. Of course, taught well, understanding The Globe and Shakespeare’s stagecraft DOES lead to a better understanding of his plays but those FOFO* lessons were, in my opinion, a time filler/waste of time. I also accept Sue Cowley’s argument that some students struggle with writing about context and might therefore shoehorn some boring autobiographical details into their introductions (I ban my students from doing this) rather than using their knowledge of context to inform their interpretations. However, it seems to me to be setting a pretty low bar for whether we should be teaching something to make a determination based on the poor teaching or the poor application of that knowledge. We need to do better.

Doing better involves pinning down which knowledge informs our understanding of texts. It’s the difference between knowing that The Globe was built, for the first time, in 1599 and knowing the limitations on stagecraft of that building which leads to a better understanding of scenes like this from Hamlet (Act 1 Scene 5):


Hamlet’s reverence for his late father is replaced by quips and insults such as ‘boy’ and ‘old mole’. If we knew nothing of the context of production we might misinterpret this as Hamlet disrespecting Old Hamlet but if we understand something of The Globe we understand Shakespeare’s inability to suspend his audience’s disbelief that the shouting is coming from a hellish ghost. Shakespeare’s joking with his audience – a comedic nod to the fact that the best he can do is have an actor shouting from beneath the floorboards. Here is just one example, the one that came quickest to my mind, of where understanding the context is not just ‘interesting’ but absolutely vital to understanding what’s happening. Context is a vital lens through which we understand a text; to reduce the idea of teaching context to the memorisation of dates is to entirely miss the point. If we really know our stuff as teachers then we know which knowledge will unlock students’ understanding of a text.

Doing better involves defining what we really want students to know about any given topic or text and doing this before we start developing our medium term or individual lesson plans. Taking the time to really think this through has had a profound effect on what I’m doing in the classroom (and, by extension now, my department); it has made the knowledge that students learn central, not incidental. My thinking on knowledge has been influenced primarily by the posts of Joe Kirby (a couple here and here) and my understanding of Knowledge Organisers is that they set out the essential knowledge of any given topic; they are explicit about what students need to know.

Some of the challenges made whilst debating the subject of Knowledge Organisers were about who decides what goes on them. Well, we do. As teachers we are selecting and refining and repackaging knowledge as lesson content all the time. The knowledge I choose, or am able, to impart about a text in my lesson will undoubtedly differ to some extent to another English teacher in my team let alone an English teacher elsewhere in the country (and that’s certainly the case if we haven’t agreed what we all want students to know). And, unless I became a literary expert on all of the authors that I teach it is unlikely I’ll ever be able (ignore willing) to cover everything and therefore I have to be selective. So Knowledge Organisers are just an example of something we do every day – it’s our job to be selective for our students. What that doesn’t mean, however, is that what’s on a Knowledge Organiser is ALL I want students to learn about a topic.

Doing better does not mean setting limits to student knowledge and I don’t think Knowledge Organisers are limiting. Imagine, if you will, that game where somebody wears a Velcro hat and you throw balls at their head. Now imagine that all of your students are wearing one of those ridiculous bonnets (I think I need to make this happen…). On those hats is written the contents of your Knowledge Organiser because you’ve determined that knowledge to be essential to unlocking understanding – students wear it every lesson because you’ll keep coming back to it e.g. through spaced retrieval. Now imagine that in any given lesson you’ll continue to throw knowledge balls at the students and some of them will stick – assuming they’ve got their head in the right place. Some of the balls might even remain stuck when students come back in a following lesson; others may have fallen astray with some vigorous head movements (but can be retrieved with a reminder). These bonus balls are great – and worth even more if stuck right in the middle of their head – but if all knowledge was delivered in this way we’d run the risk of having an even bigger gap between the knowledge rich (and thirsty because knowledge begets knowledge) and the knowledge poor.

Doing better does not mean endless dry lessons in which I merely thrust the Knowledge Organiser in front of my students and quiz them relentlessly. Whilst my thinking about knowledge and what learning really is (thanks to seeing David Didau at #TMIslington) has evolved over the past couple of years, I haven’t wavered in my desire to have students engaged and enjoying their learning. To see Knowledge Organisers as indicative of dry teaching is reductive. I still want to hook my students into lessons, engage and challenge them. I don’t see knowledge and engagement as dichotomous but harmonious; having more knowledge leads to greater engagement and engagement leads to greater knowledge. I’ve even spent time this past week defending Marketplace activities – I just won’t be pigeonholed…

Now how much for a class set of Butt Head?

* Picked up from Geoff Barton and too rude to define here.





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