English teaching and the problem with knowledge


Tharby-knowledge-v-skillsWEBImage: @jasonramasami

At #tlt14 last weekend I had the pleasure of chatting with blogger and all-round nice chap Phil Stock about the role of knowledge in English teaching. Phil argues that student-generated interpretations of literary texts almost always lack depth and sophistication. Instead, textual interpretations are often better taught as discreet knowledge, rather than relying solely on the  flimsy attempts of our students. In other words, we owe it to them to teach interpretations of texts as explicit knowledge rather than hoping that we can teach them the skill of interpretation. Because an interpretation is formed in the context of what is already known, only children whose upbringings have been steeped in a wealth of cultural references have any chance of generating a genuinely sophisticated one.

Teaching for knowledge is not a simple concept in English. This is because we have to work out which and whose knowledge to teach. For traditionalists, this is where the Matthew Arnold argument comes into play: the ‘best that has been thought or said’ school of thought. But even if we took the Arnold line as gospel, the substance of taught knowledge would remain very different depending on which school, or even classroom, the child attends. In fact, two students steeped in traditional knowledge-based teaching might finish a GCSE course with completely different textual knowledge – Hamlet and Great Expectations rather than Othello and Jane Eyre, for instance. If we eschew the canon and teach a more eclectic range of texts, the problem becomes more extreme. I wonder if this confusion is partly the reason why the skills-based model of English teaching has become such a seductive alternative.

Indeed, for many years I have taken it as axiomatic that English is a skills-only subject. As such, texts and topics are useful only as reference points for developing nebulous skills – be it ‘making inferences’ or ‘charting the development of a character’ – with limited value in and of themselves. I am now realising that the problem is not that the skills should be considered unimportant, but that the resultant teaching approaches can inhibit learning.

Skills-based teaching lacks specificity. It encourages us to share abstractions, often in the form of learning objectives, success criteria or written and verbal feedback targets. A statement that I have used on many an occasion is ‘you need to use a broad range of vocabulary‘. It might seem straightforward to put into action, but it is not. Students can be left confused by which words to use and where to use them.

If we adopt a knowledge-based approach to teaching vocabulary, things become simpler and a hell of a lot clearer. We can decide on a set of words we would like them to use, ensure that they practise them accurately in a range of contexts, and then reasonably expect the new vocabulary to be put to use in extended writing and remembered in the long-term. Just ten interesting words explicitly taught over a half term – or three-hundred words over the five years of secondary school – is eminently more manageable and  more sensible than dropping students into the bottomless deep blue of The Oxford English Dictionary so that they can flounder time and time again. (This idea is brilliantly illustrated in Jason Ramasami‘s image at the top of this page.) Many other words will naturally be picked up in that time too, let’s not forget. However, the irony is that by focussing on the mastery of small, discreet items knowledge in the short term, we could accumulatively achieve so much more in the long term.

This approach, however, might rub against some deeply-held beliefs about what English teaching should constitute. We want our students to be free and individual, to produce work of flair and originality, so why deny this by encouraging uniformity? When we direct students towards specific vocabulary it is inevitable that there will be less diversity in the final written product produced within the class. This can leave us feeling cheap, like we have cheated our students out of the chance to be creative. But does it matter?

It is highly unlikely that a maths teacher would feel similarly. If every student achieves one-hundred percent in a maths test, and every student uses exactly the same working-out method, I imagine a teacher will feel that they have done a pretty good job. Now in English, work will never be identical, nor should it be. But does it really matter if the final product is similar because students are all practising the same concrete knowledge? In our quest for student divergence have we neglected to consider that all our students – even our brightest – need a secure base to start from?

Vocabulary is just one example where a focus on concrete knowledge, taught with the expectation that students will remember it and use it correctly in context, might reap benefits. Another example comes in the teaching of literature. To achieve between a B and an A* for the AQA English literature controlled assessment – which makes up 25% of the final grade – a student must develop ‘interpretations’. But as Phil explained, how well can novice readers, who in many cases have had little prior exposure to literary texts, make valid interpretations?

Inferences about a text are based on knowledge. We read that a character sits on a wall with their head in their hands and we infer that she is unhappy and dejected. The inference comes mainly from our knowledge of the world – that when someone puts their head in their hands it usually indicates a negative emotion. I would argue that most inferences made by students at KS3 and KS4 are drawn from their general knowledge of the world, not their knowledge of literary devices, conventions or other literary texts. Take the opening of Of Mice and Men. Almost all students will miss the biblical allusion in the description of the clearing ‘down by the river’ (used by Steinbeck to amplify the simple purity of George and Lennie’s companionship) because they do not securely know the Garden of Eden story and they do not realise that such allusions are a literary convention.

To teach ‘interpretation’ I have often expected students to do the work for themselves. Pedagogically, this has taken the form of in-depth questioning with the hope that I can elicit something that is hiding away in the deepest recesses of their minds. This has often, but not always, proven unsuccessful and I have had to backtrack and override the unfocussed ideas I have elicited. There is a critical question that cuts to the core of English teaching. At what point do we stop telling a student the answer and start asking questions? I think that, for many years, I have been asking the questions before securing the knowledge needed to answer them.

The solution might be to teach interpretations of a text as discreet knowledge. In this case, to talk through the Garden of Eden story – some will know it well, others will not – and how and why Steinbeck has alluded to it. So that they are involved in cognitive work, students can search for the textual details that support the theory. Teaching interpretations as concrete knowledge will be anathema to some teachers, but it is through this approach that we model how to make an interpretation. When students have grasped new ideas and can write about them with some fluency, they have achieved something valid. To accuse them of ‘idea plagiarism’ because they have taken ownership of an idea we have given them, or to misappropriate teaching as ‘spoon-feeding’, is very unfair. It is worth considering, too, that most teachers will actively research a range of interpretations to share with their students before teaching a new text. If teachers are intuitively aware that forming an interpretation is no easy feat, why do we expect it from our novice charges? I think interpretation is better thought of as an end rather than a means.

So, my key point is that in our desire to engender creativity in our students, might we be denying them the chance to learn English in a concrete knowledge-based way, in a way that will eventually guide them towards the independence we so desire from them? Since I have taken a more convergent approach and tightened my parameters, two things have occurred. One, student work has become more similar. Two, student work has become better.

Please do not take this as an argument against imagination. I think it is fair to say that some students are better at using what they already know to make interesting inferences and interpretations and to devise compelling written pieces than others, and that this should be actively encouraged. Knowledge teaching can sit side-by-side a celebration of the imagination; the two do not have to work solely in opposition. However, it is our responsibility to teach children new things, not to simply rely on what they already know. By teaching new knowledge in a simple and explicit way, we reduce cognitive load and probably increase the potential for creativity in the long-term.

Often this will mean changing the ratio between what we tell them to do and think and what we expect them to do and think individually.

Related posts:

The unheralded beauty of repetition

A simple classroom in a complex world

Analogy: the trusty servant of teacher talk

The dangers of differentiation…and what to do about them


Image: @jasonramasami

Differentiation seems to revolve around a dilemma. It is evidently clear that all students have different needs and areas of weakness; yet it is also true – or so it seems to me – that if we obsess about what they cannot do now, or do not know now, we risk losing sight of the direction we could be taking them in. Valiant attempts to ‘differentiate’ often prove counterproductive because, cumulatively, they decrease challenge in the long-term.

A few things about differentiation that seem true to me are:

1. That long-term outcomes – in terms of hard results and quality of work – are the true measure of successful differentiation. If outcomes are improving over time across a range of UDGs, the teacher’s differentiation is almost certainly effective.

2. That classroom differentiation revolves around a mix of anticipation and agility. When planning we need to predict when and where students will require support or stretching, but also we must respond in real time to unexpected needs in the unscripted social dynamic that is a lesson.

3. That over time good teachers should aim to develop, adjust and refine their delivery with such finesse that differentiation melts into their practice. At this stage, it could be said that it ceases to remain a thing.

4. That it is our job to challenge students to go beyond what they can do now, not to keep them rooted to their current spot.

What follows is my ‘Differentiation Hall of Shame’ – mistakes I have made myself and how I have sought to rectify them.

1. Differentiation because you think you should. This is more about guilt than it is student needs, but unfortunately it manifests as a patronising assumption – I would feel terrible if I did not do something special for poor little Freddy. Some topics and tasks require very careful consideration of the spectrum of entry points; others, especially when introducing new knowledge that does not rely so much on prior knowledge, do not. The trick? Ignore the guilt and think strategically about where and when to exert the finite time that you have.

2. Differentiation to meet an outsider’s expectations. Only the subject teacher has a handle on the needs, working habits and requirements of her students. This understanding is built up over time; it is a rich and complex data-set. Observation rubrics that contain a box saying ‘evidence of differentiation’ can lead to the Kafkaesque scenario where a teacher under-challenges a student to keep a member of SLT with a clipboard happy. Madness. The solution for schools in this case is to measure the effectiveness of differentiation through long-term data – only when a weakness is uncovered should classroom practice be investigated as a cause.

3. Differentiation according to prior-attainment grade or target grade. This looks something like...level 4s you will learn to spell these simple words, level 5s you will spell these medium level words and level 6s you will look at these hard ones. Such tasks give assessment data too much credit and ignore, once again, the richer qualitative data that we tacitly accumulate about our students. Every English teacher knows that technical writing skills – in terms of strengths and weaknesses – are unique to the individual. Only this week, a very advanced year 10 writer got into a good-natured argument with me.

“It is spelt ‘prehaps’, I know it is!” she protested earnestly.

The solution is to bring in strategies like DIRT, proofreading and redrafting. This way we can have students work not on our crude assumptions about their ability, but on their genuine errors and misconceptions.

4. Differentiation that takes time away from planning subject content. James Theobald has written wonderfully about opportunity cost this weekend. The cost of planning, say, a host of differentiated worksheets can lead to a deficit in time spent researching subject content, developing questions to test and stretch students’ thinking, considering different explanation strategies – such as stories, analogies and a range of multi-modal examples – or planning for the careful modelling and deconstruction of the target product. If these are not given due priority, we are likely to be left with unclear and confused students. Often, we will be left having to patch up our lessons with individualised help because we did not introduce the material to students as clearly and succinctly as we should have.

5. Differentiation according to all/most/some. A healthy dose of self-delusion is important in teaching. We need to partly erase the assumptions we make about a student’s capacity to learn, yet also prepare for the support that might still be required. All/most/some tells some students that it is okay to opt-out, and, more dangerously, creates an opportunity for us to subconsciously lower our expectations for some. Stick to ‘All of you will…’ and then intervene with those who need it.

6. Differentiation that does the thinking for them. Dweck stresses the importance of ‘struggle’; Willingham how students should be thinking hard about subject content; psychology in general, from my limited understanding, about the importance of thinking about semantic meaning for long-term retention. It is very tempting to give children easy work to keep them happy and maintain the illusion that they are sufficiently learning, yet how will they make any progress if they are only working on things they already know? At times, yes, strategic repetition is necessary for long-term retention and automaticity, but this must be tempered by healthy ‘struggle’. A very simple trick is to withhold any supportive scaffolding until all students have had a decent attempt at a task. So for a few minutes stand back. Don’t hand-out support sheets, or assign a TA to a student or intervene yourself. Stand back and watch for a while and intervene a little later with those who require it. You will now be working now with genuine need and not misplaced assumption.

7. Differentiation as a life sentence. One day I might write a modern morality tale entitled The Tragic Tale of Evie Smith. Evie has little support coming from her home life and she arrives at secondary school at a significant academic disadvantage to her peers. She moves from lesson to lesson always given the differentiated worksheet, always sat next to the TA, always congratulated on putting her pen to paper. I am not sure what the answer is here. Nature and nurture have conspired against her but that does not mean that we should join the conspiracy. If we never challenge students, or give them the chance to get hard stuff right, they will comfortably meet this expectation.

8. Differentiation as a list of rules! The more experienced we become, the more tools we acquire with which to help our students. Yet sometimes we are well and truly stumped. Sometimes our well-honed strategies fall short. Often the reasons are obvious: a severe or profound learning difficulty, for instance. At other times the reasons are murky: this student is capable of responding well but for some reason they are not. Why? At this stage, it is best to seek advice from their form tutor, their other subject teachers or their parents. Is this a problem with the way I am teaching him or is there something I am unaware of interfering with his reception of my teaching? Usually, the latter is the cause. We know that human minds learn in a remarkably similar way but we also know that the knowledge that every mind is shaped by is hugely different and complex, as are the individual conditions through which they experience our instruction. As a teacher, it is wise to keep searching for ways to help these complex ‘outlier’ students, as well as to continue to hone those strategies that work well with the majority.


So, the nub of this post is this. Differentiation should be informed not by assumptions of need, but by a leap of faith. This is the place we imagine the students can get to in the future, however hard this might be for them.

This post has been in preparation for my #TLT14 talk on differentiation and challenge later in the month. I hope to see you at the event.

Related posts:

Differentiating the responsive way
Differentiation: making possible the impossible
Just how easy is ‘high expectations for all’?