How and Why?
I will be going into my new school tomorrow for my first full day. I already know that one of the things I’ll be working on this term is redesigning the KS3 curriculum to help ensure that more students make better progress in English. I’m very excited to be offered up this blank canvas but there is also a natural anxiety about knowing where to start: Do I get some colour onto the canvas first in broad sweeping strokes? Do I pencil in my design and then start painting in the details? Or do I start, as the mood takes me, at one corner and then progress to filling in the rest of the picture when I’m ready?
I had to start somewhere. Whilst I am yet to set foot into my new school (as an employee) I thought it best to start redesigning the curriculum by first thinking very carefully, and in some depth, what my values were. How do I think the KS3 curriculum should be taught? Why? I guess, to extend the painting analogy, this is me thinking through my composition before I even touch the canvas. To help me with the thinking process, I put out a Twitter call. I had a range of responses (thank you all). I also discussed some ideas in my first #dojochateu about use of gain time on the 20th May. Here were some of the suggestions:
David Didau suggested that a good place to start was with his blog post, Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum. And so it was, not least because it sparked a whole breadth of reading that has enabled me to decide how I want English to be taught at KS3 and why. Didau’s underlying principles are outlined below and I’ve stolen them as the basis for my redesign because, frankly, I’ve been completely convinced by them.
Principle 1: Education should enrich students’ cultural capital
The English literary canon is made up of a wealth of great works from Austen to Auden; Blake to the Bronte sisters and Chaucer to Conrad. It is a sad indictment of the way English is taught in some schools that there are students out there who would not know who these authors were much less have read their work. And why haven’t they engaged with these great works? Perhaps because they aren’t considered engaging, accessible or relevant enough for our 11-14 year olds. It might be preferable (easier?) to teach year 9s Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ than explore the dystopia of Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.
Didau argues that, ‘There are those who claim it is elitist and the preserve of posh kids in private schools, and that ‘kids like these’ should be given a diet of transient but appealing modern texts because that is what is most relevant to their foreshortened little lives. This is unbelievably patronising, selfish and short-sighted. If we allow the canon to be the preserve of the elite we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.’ The short-term gain of teaching an ‘appealing modern text’ is to the long-term detriment of our students. They’ll be entering the world without the cultural capital of their more fortunate contemporaries. I can see why students might struggle with Hardy but that isn’t a bad thing (see more about desirable difficulties in another blog post by Didau here). Just because it’s Hard(y) doesn’t mean it isn’t right for ‘our’ kids. I don’t want to patronise my students.
In his blog post, How to Choose Study Texts in English: Part Two, James Theo says that we have the opportunity to, ‘Give pupils access to texts that will be referenced throughout their lives. Texts that have endured and seeped into public consciousness will offer us touchstones and reference points that help us contribute to and understand the conversation of mankind. They supply us with a shorthand to use and understand throughout every stage of our lives.’ As an example he demonstrates the referencing of Golding’s ‘The Lord of the Flies’ in films such as ‘Hook’ and ‘Anchorman’ to the TV series ‘Lost’. Yes students can still engage with popular culture without understanding these literary references but they’re clearly missing out on something. I don’t want my students to be engaging with the ‘conversation of mankind’ with ear plugs in their ears and cotton wool in their mouths.
And it’s not just about ‘getting’ literary references, in his blog post A New English Curriculum, Alex Quigley says that, ‘Knowledge of the literary canon is fundamentally empowering. Just as highly functional literacy is equally as empowering. Those adults among us who read texts, newspapers, social media threads, television documentaries, novels and non-fiction with the ease of an expert are all deploying their canonical knowledge instinctively. Of course, we should not deny this opportunity to any of our students.’ I want my students to be empowered.
Principle 2: Knowledge of grammar is foundational and transformative
Didau argues that having knowledge of grammar is powerful because it’s fundamental to our ability to think and communicate. I, like him, was not taught much explicitly at school with regards to knowledge about grammar. I could make a good judgement implicitly about if a sentence worked or not but I wasn’t informed about why. Thankfully, through teaching explicit grammar skills, I’ve learnt a lot and I agree that it is foundational and transformative.
Didau refers to Daisy Christodoulou’s argument that the best way to teach grammar is through decontextualised drill and his suggestion is that it would be worth having a discrete grammar lesson. This will definitely be something I explore. I’m not a new convert to the idea of decontextualised grammar teaching, I was lucky enough to work in Geoff Barton’s school for the first 5 years of my teaching career and also ‘happen’ to own a copy of his, ‘Grammar Survival: A Teacher’s Toolkit’. In it, Barton suggests using a series of starters, not linked to the main part of the lesson, to reinforce grammar knowledge and skills.
Principle 3: Study of English should be based on the ‘threshold concepts’ of the subject
Before reading Didau’s Principled curriculum blog post I had never heard of ‘threshold concepts’ but they are, it seems, a bit like stepping through the looking glass. Once you’ve passed through you can never see things quite the same way again. He gives an example, ‘Before you learn to decode writing is just funny squiggles. But once decoding is learned, you will only be able to see letters.’ In his blog post, Designing a New Curriculum – What Are Your ‘Big Ideas’?, Alex Quigley refers to Meyer and Land’s definition of a ‘threshold concept’ as: transformative, troublesome, irreversible and integrative and he gives some suggestions about ‘threshold concepts’ in English.
I, however, like Didau’s suggestion that, ‘Maybe there aren’t any real threshold concepts in English; maybe there are only ways of thinking and practising’ and he suggests the following for our subject: structure and coherence; spelling, punctuation and grammar; awareness of impact; understanding context; using evidence and analysing technique. He goes on to say that, ‘It makes little sense to divide these concepts into reading and writing – better, I think, to interleave their study so that pupils are unaware where reading blurs into writing and the twin strands of creativity and analysis are experienced holistically.’ In an earlier post, Redesigning a curriculum, Didau includes an image of a learning loop using these concepts to teach reading non-fiction, persuasive writing, analysing poetry and creative writing. It’s certainly given me a lot to think about for my re-design and I’m going to do some more reading about threshold concepts.
Principle 4: Knowledge of literature should be sequentially introduced
This was something I had never considered before. I’ve never questioned why I might teach ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ followed by a Shakespeare play followed by WW1 poetry. Why haven’t I questioned this?
Didau argues that, ‘If every text pupils study related back the text they’ve studied previously then they will be able to make strong relational links between the text and its context. They will have an understanding of what writers would have known and they will begin to be able to piece together the story of literature from its classical roots, through the medieval, renaissance, Victorian and modern periods.’
In his blog post, What makes a great school curriculum?, Joe Kirby asserts that, ‘Powerful chronological and contextual knowledge deepens understanding and accelerates students’ interpretations of texts’. He puts forward a convincing argument for the sequential teaching of texts and suggests students begin in year 7 by studying Epic Greek Myths / ‘The Odyssey’ and move on to study a Greek play, analyse Roman speeches, come back to England with ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and end the year with Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’. It’s clear to see how each subsequent text links back to the previous one and how that would deepen students’ understanding. His suggestions also clearly meet the cultural capital principle.
Principle 5: Sustained progress is preferable to rapid progress
A culture of assessment, accountability and fear of Ofsted has had the opposite effect to the one I presume was intended: it decreases the quality of learning. As teachers we are judged on our ability to ‘perform’ in a single lesson. But ‘perform’ is the right word. We all know teachers who can pull a good lesson out of the bag when they’re being observed but are they a ‘Good’ or better teacher all the time? We can see from this example that performance in a single lesson is not indicative of ability and the same is true for students. They might be able to perform and recall what you’ve just taught them but can they recall it the next lesson, week or month? Several of David Didau’s blog posts are dedicated to this subject – I would definitely suggest having a read of this, this and this – and I’m convinced that when I redesign the KS3 curriculum I need to prioritise long term learning.
With a half term filled with reading (alongside going to Radio One’s Big Weekend, visiting family, entertaining my boys and camping in the rain) I feel ready to go into my new school tomorrow with a good idea about how I want to approach this redesign and why. The next step will be putting pen to paper (or paintbrush to blank canvas) to start addressing the questions of what, when and who. I will let you know how I get on…
See how I got on with my post on Stage Two here.