Children need to know things. The knowledge rich curriculum has been a sensible and noble aspiration for many schools over the last few years. Knowledge is not a snobbish, ugly thing. It is not the enemy of creativity (in fact, you cannot be creative in any field without expansive knowledge of what has already been created by others). Teachers who call themselves progressive are wrong to envision of rows of Victorian children regurgitating barren arid facts to satisfy Gradgrindian didacts. That’s not what a knowledge rich curriculum looks like when it is enacted properly. When it is enacted badly though, the progressives do have a point.
I find the metaphor of building a wall useful in describing the role of knowledge in extended writing tasks, for example. Good essays are held together by a vast number of transferable writing skills – the mortar between the bricks. This mortar is a mixture of discourse markers, topic sentences, paragraphing skills, tier 2 vocabulary and control over grammatical clauses. The transferable skill of academic writing (and all the procedural knowledge that constitutes that skill) is indispensable in building the essay. Without the mortar, nothing holds the bricks together.
But a wall made of mortar won’t stand strong. When students are good writers, but they know nothing about the content, they hand in sophistry. They hand in beautifully written and seemingly well-argued… baseless, complicated, unsubstantiated nonsense. The essay without knowledge is the wall without bricks. Every teacher of an essay-based subject has encountered this kind of written work. In some ways, it is a positive thing that students who are gifted writers can fail in this way. It means all students must work hard to acquire the knowledge necessary for success. Rewarding students for the subject knowledge they have gained and then applied is meritocratic. Rewarding their inherent writing ability, arguably, is not.
However important knowledge is, knowledge in a vacuum is useless. As teachers, we are not training armies of pub quizzers. We don’t want students who can only draw on their vast reserves of facts in response to the simple and predictable stimulus of a question-and-answer format. Students must be given numerous opportunities to apply their knowledge. It should be easy to identify useful ways to apply the knowledge in the curriculum. Any knowledge without utility has no place in your curriculum in the first place.
The teaching of knowledge can be quite straightforward, especially where the knowledge being taught is considered objectively true. The inner angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. Chlorophyll is green in pigment. Macbeth is a tragic hero. Those declarative sentences can be easily translated into closed questions (What colour is chlorophyll?) and then the knowledge can be tested. It’s pretty simple really, and many teachers have started to use knowledge organisers as a key resource that supplies the basis for this kind of simple direct testing. Students memorise the information on the knowledge organisers and then they are quizzed on that declarative knowledge. This is a good thing. Knowing the most valuable information about a given topic is infinitely better than not knowing the most valuable information about a given topic.
There is a danger in the simplicity of teaching and testing knowledge. It is an easy thing for teachers to do. It is an easy routine for students to follow. It can be very formulaic. The students are taught several items of knowledge from their knowledge organiser. The students are tested on this knowledge using retrieval practice techniques, perhaps straight away and then again as a Do Now activity at the start of the next lesson. The first problem with this is that the lack of novelty in the procedures is disengaging. Routine is important, but that truism has its limits. The second problem is that teachers can fall into a comfortable habit of delivering knowledge and testing it, all whilst reliant on a centrally prepared knowledge rich curriculum. Some teachers are lazy. Some teachers won’t read ahead and will simply be one step ahead of their students as they deliver the scheme of work, reading the resources for the first time with the class. Some PowerPoints and booklets are centrally designed with the ignorant or unprepared teacher in mind. The process becomes robotic and slavish, and the teacher is no longer the expert in the room – the booklet is the expert in the room instead.
An added consequence of a too enthusiastic switch to a knowledge rich curriculum is that skilful and detailed application tasks become increasingly alien and intimidating, for both the students and the teacher. The unidimensional application of knowledge in a typical retrieval practice activity is really a simple memory test. The application of knowledge in a more complex task (such as an essay or detailed diagram) requires much more mental effort, sustained attention and classroom time. I think that the transition from simple recall to complex application is one that teachers and students have started to avoid in lessons. It is more comfortable to stick with retrieval. Extended application is messy. From the teacher, it requires expert explanation, intelligently commentated live modelling, exhaustive subject knowledge and the ability to predict misconceptions. From the student, it requires sustained focus and attention, the ability to ignore distractions, and the resilience to engage in a task that will require a mental struggle. They probably won’t get it right first time, and every repeated effort will diminish resilience and mental stamina. Essentially, application requires teachers and students to think hard about connections and applications, and to verbalise these thoughts in spoken or written sentences. Brute force memorisation of facts does not require the same mental dexterity. In a lesson where students’ attention is wavering, where teachers and students are tired, the easy choice may be to stick to declarative knowledge and retrieval practice. Application gets too messy.
To take this a little further, testing knowledge in only one way, through a predictable format of question-and-answer retrieval practice, does not develop true knowledge. With enough repetition, it certainly creates inflexible knowledge: knowledge that learners are only trained to apply in a single context, or in response to a given stimulus. The value of a single item of knowledge is therefore restricted. Its utility has a value of 1. Hypothetically, if we can show students how to apply that same single unit of knowledge in three different ways, in three different contexts, its utility increases to a value of 3. We can get more bang for our buck. More application from our knowledge. This must be the way forward because application of knowledge is the goal. What else is knowledge for, if not to applied in creative and intelligent ways to a variety of questions, challenges and problems? Students need to build a body of knowledge and place that declarative knowledge in long term memory. Without this, any attempts at academic work simply become naïve guesswork. However, having all this knowledge is analogous to having a toolbox full of tools that you don’t know how to use. To quote an old scaffolding friend of mine, to have “all the gear and no idea”.
So, students must apply their knowledge. Okay. What does that look like? How do we decide what kinds of tasks they should undertake to apply their knowledge in a meaningful way?
Well, the first answer is the most obvious one. They need to practise applying their knowledge in a way that emulates the final assessment conditions. They need exam practice. In most academic subjects, this allows for a great deal of consistency across the disciplines. The environment will be very much the same whether students are completing exam practice in English, biology or psychology. The classroom will be silent, the desks will be formally set up for an exam, no notes will be allowed and there will be a clear time limit. I can almost hear the progressive teachers groaning as they read this. “My school is not an exam factory!” many will declare (a predictable hyperbole and derogatory metaphor). “We teach students so much more about good character and empathy and…” they will continue to expound. And that’s commendable. Schools should do that. But they must also fulfil their core purpose: to educate. Students must not be let down in their preparation for examination success by well intentioned ideologies that put character education before academic success.
This is especially true in underprivileged schools. If these students are going to have a fair chance, they need to be hyper-prepared for exams. I speak from personal experience here. I wish my teachers had emphasised exam practice. Hell, I wish I saw an exam paper before the exam! Your ideological and subjective notions about what constitutes good character pale into irrelevance if students don’t achieve academically. Character can continue to change over a lifetime of experience; exam grades are forever.
The first kind of practice to build into the curriculum, therefore, is practice that emulates exam conditions. It will be much the same from subject to subject, except students will of course answer in different ways in different subjects: equations, calculations, drawing graphs, interpreting data tables, multiple choice questions, translation, extended essays and short answer questions, to name a few. Knowing how to apply knowledge to exam questions is an essential part of your students’ curriculum. You do have to teach to the test.
Though many teachers object to too much exam practice or ‘teaching to the test’, it’s worth asking why you would object to such a thing. Some teachers talk about exam preparation as if it is a snivelling and cowardly act of conformity: submitting to the oppressive demands of the Department for Education and the various exam boards. I think this is a really silly way of thinking about examinations.
When you teach students to ‘pass exams’, the ultimate and extrinsic target of a strong examination result is causally linked to students’ successfully learning and applying the knowledge and skills that tested in said exam. Their exam result is a proxy for their successful learning. Given the obvious fact that it’s not possible to teach and test the entire domain of any school subject, we must accept that a representative selection has to be made by subject experts: that representative selection takes the form of an exam specification. The specification specifies what the students should learn, demarcating the bounds of our GCSE or A level courses. To my mind, that’s logical and reasonable. In fact, we would be pretty lost without such guidance. I think that complaining about ‘teaching to the test’ or working in an ‘exam factory’ is wrongheaded, and possibly lazy. After all, the process of explaining, modelling, supporting and then assessing exam style work is intensive. It demands a lot from the teacher and the students. I can see why both would seek to avoid this hard work, but this is tantamount to sticking one’s head in the sand. Failure to apply is failure to prepare.
Knowledge can be applied in other ways in the classroom and some variety of activity is undoubtedly essential in keeping students motivated throughout their studies. Exam practice every lesson would be the surest way to turn your students off your subject. Questioning and classroom discussion, when managed properly, are both excellent ways of allowing students to apply what they have learnt. The best teachers do this regularly, and they insist that their students use the vocabulary of the subject in their responses – they insist that tier 3 vocabulary is recycled aloud by the students. It’s an excellent opportunity for public praise and modelling when students get it right, and it’s an excellent and instant opportunity for corrective coaching when students reveal a misconception through their spoken contributions. Such public correction, delivered sensitively, may disabuse other students of the same error. The beauty of spoken interactions in class is their fluidity. Questions can lead to other questions. Students can become fascinated and intrigued. The teacher can share some interesting item of hinterland knowledge – perhaps some exciting contemporary development in psychology, or economics, or sociology. Conversation is a chance to apply subject knowledge and bring the subject to life.
Leave a Reply