How knowledge is being detached from skills in English

Joe Kirby /   June 29, 2015 at 8:35 PM 1,647 views

A cornerstone of teacher training is Bloom’s taxonomy, where knowledge is placed firmly at the bottom. The advice for teachers is, move beyond low-level facts, up to higher-order skills like synthesis. But what if this advice misses the point? My experience as an English teacher in London has helped me realise a few simple ideas: 1. In English education, skills are being detached from knowledge. 2. Teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work. 3. Instead, they must be integrated, like twin strands of a double helix. So this is the first in a series of three blog posts in three days to explain what I mean.

1. Skills are being detached from knowledge in English.

The education system has reduced the amount of knowledge taught in schools, especially, from what I’ve seen, in English departments. Take, for example, the English national secondary curriculum in the six years since 2007. There’s not one text that is named. Nor is there one grammatical concept that is specified. There’s not a single fact sequenced. There’s just one paragraph of suggested authors for tens of pages of skills specifications. At only a few pages, the new draft English curriculum in 2013 is slimmer, and it specifies even fewer authors: only Shakespeare is named, and not a single novel, play or poem is mentioned. This is what the national curriculum has been reduced to in England, even one that is supposedly knowledge-based: a curriculum devoid of any specific literary texts. Our last specified author It’s not only in the curriculum that knowledge is restricted, for assessment has also played its part. National levels, the numerical system of APP (Assessing Pupil Progress) still used in many schools, are generic skills descriptors that inadequately account for knowledge of the text. Kids could achieve a level 7 for analysing the film Jaws but fall down to a level 4 when analysing Macbeth, because of the complexity of the content. Assessment questions require prior knowledge of precious little content or context, but rather the application of analytical skills to various generic non-fiction texts on topics like football, celebrity chefs, and the food enjoyed by rappers. One study showed it was possible to achieve an A grade in GCSE English without reading a single book in its entirety (Civitas 2007). GCSE topics range from TV to Twitter, requiring little or no content to be learned. Teacher training as I experienced it also limited the amount of knowledge English teachers taught. Both ITT and CPD constantly set trainees targets around moving tasks up the supposed hierarchy from basic factual recall to superior creative synthesis. ‘Don’t ask so many closed factual questions; ask open higher-order questions’ was a piece of advice I was often given. The idea of training teachers what content to teach, and how to sequence concepts, seemed not to have occurred to the trainers. Securing an enduring understanding of texts and their contexts was off the agenda. As soon as I started teaching English, I was told categorically that ‘English is a skills-based subject’. It was stated in no uncertain terms that students ‘don’t need to know the text, they need to be able to apply their skills to any text’. Knowledge of the rules of grammar didn’t matter as much as transferable skills like writing for purpose and audience. What they read and the content they wrote about wasn’t, apparently, very important. So in many English departments, Cirque du Freak was much more likely to be taught than Oliver Twist. When I started being observed, I was offered feedback that tried to get me to move away from teaching too much content. ‘Your role is not to impart content, but to train their skills,’ I was told. It was important not to ‘spoon-feed them knowledge’ and instead, ‘get them evaluating higher up Bloom’s taxonomy.’ It seemed almost universally acknowledged that learning facts was passive, dull and unhelpful. As English teachers, we don’t seem to specify coherently the content, concepts and context that pupils should know by the end of the units we teach. Neither do we systematically test whether pupils have learned what core concepts like metaphors mean, what happened in the context of the author’s life and times, or sometimes even the basic events and order of the plot in texts. In any secondary English teacher’s experience, there are plenty of examples of this content-light curriculum and skills-only assessment in practice. English GCSE is amongst the most striking illustration of this. For instance, a standard English Language GCSE controlled assessment title I taught was to ‘write a newspaper article for young people about a TV program you love or loathe’. Very little knowledge is required or assessed. The criteria are instead on style and structure. Another English Language GSCE unit is on spoken language, and the controlled assessment task bank includes for instance the title: ‘explore the similarities and differences between speaking and web-based messaging sites such as Twitter’. TV and Twitter together took up 20% of these pupils’ English Language GCSE. Even units on literature require little knowledge of the text and context. The English Language GCSE assessment on the novel, usually Of Mice and Men, is not marked on context at all, and focuses instead on spotting language techniques rather than requiring deep understanding of the text and its era. English at Key Stage 3 suffers from a similar lack of teaching and assessing knowledge. This comes down frequently to the texts selected. The themes, plot, characters, language and context are much shallower in Cirque du Freak, published in 2010, than in Oliver Twist, published in 1837. One is transiently popular, the other has enthralled for over a century, yet it is the former that is much more likely to be taught to 11 year olds in English departments. I have had to teach it to Year 7 two years in a row, but I could have told you the first time that there is very little valuable knowledge that comes with reading transient vampire novels. In my classroom practice, all this restricted the amount of knowledge I taught. When teaching a text, I didn’t set out a coherent sequence of concepts for pupils to learn and be tested on. When teaching writing, I didn’t specify the underpinning concepts of grammar in a logical way. When teaching speaking and listening, I thought harder about how to improve their debating skills than how to increase their understanding of the topic’s content. When teaching non-fiction, I was thinking less about persuasive and powerful examples of language that have endured over time, such as Churchill’s and John Bright’s war and anti-war speeches, and more about was directly relevant to my pupils’ immediate concerns, letting them choose their own Great British heroes, and ending up hearing about Ed Sheeran and Wayne Rooney.

National amnesia?

I was then shocked when, for instance, I asked pupils about World War II poetry, and was in return asked: ‘Sir, does that mean that there was a first world war?’ It wasn’t that they didn’t know when it was, or between which nations it was fought; it was that they didn’t know that it happened at all. Most pupils had no idea who Churchill was; some had the faint idea that he was that dog off the TV. This was a pervasive rather than isolated experience, including in top sets I taught. Nor is this unrepresentative of other schools in poor communities without as much cultural capital as leafier suburbs. A colleague of mine teaching English in a disadvantaged school found that pupils were under the illusion that the English language was invented in the 1960s and that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Here’s an anecdote from another English teacher: When I started teaching, brainstorming seemed like a brilliant plan. I would ask them to brainstorm Shakespeare, they would write down the names of a couple of his plays, perhaps the century he lived in, I’d use this as a launchpad to say a few things about Romeo and Juliet, and the context would be established.  In reality it went like this: PUPIL: But I don’t know anything about Shake – shake – whatever his name is. ME: But you must know something? Anything at all, anything you think is relevant. PUPIL B: I know! He was gay! PUPIL A: Oh yeah! And didn’t he write that film? That one with the man with the big nose? OLIVER! ME: Well, he was a writer… So the pupils knew was that Shakespeare was gay and he wrote Oliver the musical. I would stand at the board, desperately trying to convert what they had said into something approaching the truth, desperately not trying to tell them at any point that they were wrong, desperately trying to avoid imposing my one version of who Shakespeare was and unfairly and undemocratically denying their version of him as a gay musical film writer who wrote about 19th century workhouses. Now, this isn’t a problem exclusive to English, but it certainly is a problem that impacts terrifyingly on these pupils’ literacy. Examples from across the humanities abound. One teacher found her pupils confused over whether Iran and Iraq were the same country; whether Sydney was in California; and whether Henry VIII is the Queen’s son. Another teacher mentions here that 16 year olds couldn’t place their city on a map of Britain, list the four countries that make up the UK, tell the difference between England and Great Britain, or name the date of one significant historical event. Still another teacher and education blogger I know told me that her pupils thought Manchester was in Scotland, Wales was an island and the Romans came from Portugal. Many couldn’t spot the UK, the US, or China on a map, even ‘the top set Year 10 superstars.’ Political knowledge seems particularly impoverished: in another teacher’s school, many pupils couldn’t name the Prime Minister. Some had a hazy idea it was Obama. Some said ‘Gordon Blair’. No one could name all three main political parties, or even any other than Labour. Maths seems to suffer from similar knowledge deficit in some schools in disadvantaged communities. A Maths teacher I know in the West Midlands told me his pupils thought you might measure the distance between Liverpool and London in centimetres; one pupil in a Year 10 top set asked him what ‘square it’ meant; another from another set, one day before a GCSE exam, a Year 11 student asked what a percentage was. Even History undergraduates know little: when surveyed by one University professor, around 90% of them could not name one British 19th century Prime Minister. The point of all these examples isn’t to laugh. It’s the opposite: it’s deeply, deeply troubling for a democratic society that so few graduates seem to know its past well, and so many school children in tough circumstances seem to know so little about politics and the country’s geography. But perhaps it isn’t so shocking. Many teachers were simply doing what I was doing: teaching and assessing skills, neglecting content, and then wondering why so few of our pupils seemed to know very much. Given such a content-light curriculum, assessment and training regime, who can doubt that our education system has elevated skills over knowledge? My next post tomorrow explains why teaching skills without knowledge in English doesn’t work. Courtesy of Joe Kirby at Pragmatic Education

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