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In praise of a prosaic curriculum

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In case you’ve been living in an underground bunker for the last year or two, the curriculum is now a thing. More than that, it’s the next big thing in education. The new framework for inspection arriving in our schools from September 2019 will have the quality of the curriculum firmly in its sights. Intent, implementation and impact are set to become our new lodestar, possibly (fingers crossed) eclipsing sats and GCSE results at the centre of the school solar system.  Amanda Spielman has made it quite clear, mistaking ‘badges and stickers’ [the performance table success that comes with having great data] for learning and the substance of education, is a mistake, and one, presumably, that the new framework will seek to overcome. I do not under-estimate the massive culture shift involved, for both inspectors and schools. It’s nothing short of a revolution. (I wrote a blog about this a year ago; in terms of what actually happening in schools I don’t think much headway has been made in rearranging our priorities.)

Inevitably, in the build up to the new framework, various people, myself included, are offering training to schools about how to develop your curriculum. I’m seriously worried about some of the examples on offer.  For example, I heard about one school advertising that its amazing curriculum now had 60% of learning outside (and they weren’t talking about Early Years). Why is doing 60% of learning outside of itself a good thing, any more than doing 60% of learning indoors is a priori a good thing? Surely you decide this on a case by case basis? Pond dipping? Orienteering? That’ll be outside. How to use semi colons? Writing a paragraph about the Roman invasion of Britain? Probably inside. Learning does not become more durable or transferrable according to its location, though I would have thought for most learning having a regulated temperature and protection from the elements and flying insects, not to mention good acoustics, the facility to model ideas on a board of some sort and a surface upon which to write are all quite useful features.

I’ve heard of schools where ‘hooking’ the children into learning involved spending a whole day dressing up as Romans, and eating Roman food and so on. A whole day! Or another school where to build empathy with the homeless they spend the day (and possibly the night) camping on a field.  When reading and discussing Way Home would have achieved the same objective in 30 minutes. Personally I think the best hook is a teacher saying animatedly ‘You are going to love learning about the Romans!’ and then teaching it with passion, but if a school wants to spend 10 minutes on some sort of hook, so be it. But burning through whole day of precious curriculum time is just profligate! As if fitting everything into the limited time we have available to us was easy!

The mot du jour seems to be ‘exciting.’  All around me, schools are proclaiming how exciting their revised curriculum now is, as if ‘excitement’ were the substance of education. Alongside ‘exciting’, I also often hear that curriculums are ‘innovative’ and ‘engaging.’  Superficially, these sound like persuasive descriptions of great learning, especially if you contrast excitement with boredom, innovation with stagnation and engagement with distraction.[1] The problem with ‘excitement’ though, is that it’s not a great way to ensure the kind of learning that is durable in the longer term, or that transfers from one context to another. In other words, it might be fun at the time, but it is less likely to result in long term learning. In exciting lessons, you run the risk of remembering the excitement, rather than the learning. I’ve written before about the difference between episodic and semantic memory.  Let me recap the essential differences between the two.

Episodic memory is where we store the ‘episodes’ of our life, the narrative of our days. This is the autobiographical part of our memory that remembers the times, places and emotions that occur during events and experiences.  We don’t have to work hard or particularly concentrate to acquire episodic memories, they just happen whether we like it or not. When we talk about having fond memories or an event being memorable or exciting, we are talking about episodic memory. We are talking about something that happened, something where details of time, place and how we felt at the time are central.

Semantic memory, by contrast, is where we store information, facts, concepts.  These are stored ‘context-free’, that is, without the emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired.  These type of memories take effort; we have to work to make them happen.  That might sound a bit boring, compared with episodic memory.  Yet it is our amazing ability to store culturally acquired learning in our semantic memory that makes as so successful as a species. Semantic memory is how we know stuff. Without it, human culture would not exist.

The problem with episodic memories is that while they may be acquired effortlessly, they come with several drawbacks in terms of acquiring skills and knowledge. Episodic memories come tagged with context. In the episodic memory, the sensory data – what a child saw and heard during a lesson – alongside their emotions, become part of the learning. These emotional and sensory cues are triggered when they try and retrieve an episodic memory. The problem being that sometimes they remember the contextual tags but not the actual learning. Episodic memory is so tied up with context it is no good for remembering things once that context is no longer present. Because it is context-bound, it does not transfer well to different contexts. Luckily our brains also have semantic memory. Semantic memories have been liberated from the emotional and spatial/temporal context in which they were first acquired. And once a concept has been stored in the semantic memory, then it is more flexible and transferable between different contexts.

At this point, it is usual for people to say ‘but what about understanding? There’s no point having a load of facts if you don’t understand them.’  Which is of course true.  However, understanding happens in the semantic memory! Understanding is the word we use for when we have a well-developed schema for something – in other words, understanding is what happens when we have lots of well organised, connected knowledge, as opposed a handful of unconnected facts (or no facts). It’s the connections between facts that is understanding. When we misunderstand something, that is because we have made the wrong connections. For example we might have connected how the concept of value works in natural (counting) numbers with how value works in rational numbers such as fractions, and therefore think the bigger the denominator, the bigger the value of the fraction.  When we don’t understand something (as opposed to misunderstanding it), that is because we have not made enough connections yet. If we only know one or two facts about something, understanding is hard because the potential to make connections is so limited. Our two lonely facts may seem a bit meaningless. If however we know hundreds of different facts about a topic, that changes the nature of our thinking; we can now weave a rich web of understanding because there are so many connections that can be made.  Because of the wealth of connections, we can think deeply and creatively. Jo Facer has written an excellent blog expanding on this here.

This is why progression in a subject necessarily involves acquiring more knowledge. As more knowledge is acquired, more links are made; thinking is structured differently so more nuanced application is possible. Schools should be wary of curriculum packages that describe progression in terms of levels of learning (e.g. basic, advancing and deep) and spout nonsense such as progression involving ‘changing  the  nature  of  thinking  rather  than  just  acquiring  new  knowledge.’

Because understanding is literally made out of knowledge, it is possible to know something without understanding it, but you can’t understand it without knowing it. The onus on the teacher then is to carefully share their own schema step by step, explicitly describing/explaining/modelling the links and being alert for misconceptions. Indeed, assessment for learning – or responsive teaching as it is more appropriately called, involves checking for missing knowledge and misconceptions (wrongly connected knowledge) and remedying them when found.

This being the case, I would argue that the main substance  of education – the back bone of it, so to speak – is building strong semantic memory; the passing on and further development of the knowledge built up over centuries to the next generation; how to read and write, how stories work, how to use mathematical reasoning to solve problems, science with its amazing power to gives us to predict the future, how people in different times and places are so different and yet so similar, and the myriad of other concepts, ideas and practices.  We want children to understand concepts and facts rather than just remember events and experiences. Alongside this, we should also be building procedural memory (the memory of how to perform physical tasks and skills such as handwriting or riding a bike, or playing the piano).  Honing these skills – or procedural knowledge – comes down to regular practice, not to exciting, innovative experiences.

This building of semantic and procedural memory sounds terribly prosaic. What about critical thinking, problem solving and creativity I hear you ask? Why aren’t we teaching them? Surely this is what education is for – not just knowing stuff?

Again, I’d agree. Helping children grow into people who can think critically for themselves, who can solve problems and be creative is the ultimate goal of education.  However, we should not confuse the ends with the means. If we want children to be able to think critically and solve problems, then they need something to think critically with. For this they need knowledge, and the kind of flexible knowledge that is durable and transfers between contexts. This necessarily involves using semantic memories stored in the long term memory. If we want children to be creative and innovative, they need knowledge of the tradition upon which they are going to innovate.  You can’t really teach critical thinking as a detached skill; what you can do is teach various metacognitive strategies such as ‘consider both sides of an issue.’  Of course, this only helps if your students know what both sides are, so these metacognitive strategies need to be taught and applied within a specific context. In other words, teach someone about something and then give them opportunities to think critically about it. Don’t start off a programme of study with critical thinking or problem solving. Lay the ground work first, carefully and systematically building the requisite knowledge so that then students can apply their knowledge, using it to solve problems, possibly generating creative, novel solutions.

This building of semantic and procedural memory is not the only purpose of education, of course.  If it’s the backbone, then it will need further fleshing out. It’s just as important that we educate children to be emotionally literate and morally responsible and that will involve thinking about the kind of episodic memories we try and build for our children. We want some memories to come tagged with emotion. If we treat our children with kindness and respect, they will have episodic memories of what it was like to be treated kindly and respectfully, which makes it more likely they too will treat others with kindness and respect themselves.  If we want them to feel compassion for others, we will treat them with compassion.

Building of episodic memory is important for other reasons too.  Episodic memory encodes memories of our experiences, whatever they are. Another key purpose of education is to broaden the range of these everyday experiences so that we are lifted up out of our familiar and parochial context and gain the kind of perspective that comes from encountering new, different situations. Some children have very narrow life experiences, as this thoughtful blog by Debra Kidd testifies. Here’s an extract from it:

Hywel Roberts tells a story in his wonderful key notes about teaching in a school in Sheffield. The class are looking at town planning and urban developments, so as a way in, he asks them what they might find in a great city – if the city of Sheffield were to be redeveloped, what would they put there? One by one, the children list things the city should have – a Greggs, a BP Garage, a hairdressers called Streakers…they are describing their walk to school. For many of the children, their only experience of the city they live in is the walk to and from school. For those children and others like them, getting on a coach and going to a museum is about far, far more than remembering aspects of the curriculum. It can be literally life changing.

It is not only the most disadvantaged children who could benefit from experiencing wider horizons.  Plenty of children, particularly in they live in a city, might never have climbed a mountain or seen the sea, or even been to the local park. Rural children might never have been to a big city, let alone looked down on a cityscape from the top of a skyscraper or cathedral or castle turret.  Swathes of children might never have visited an art gallery or heard classical music or music from a different culture or been to the theatre or nature park or on a train or in a boat or even gone away on holiday, beyond visiting relatives.  This is why schools such as Hartford Manor have a curriculum pledge that builds in a range of experiences – dare I say, exciting experiences – into their curriculum as an entitlement. See this blog by Loic Menzies which articulates how life enhancing he found the rich opportunities he had for outdoor adventure as a child and why he believes all children should have such opportunities.

Other, superficially more advantaged children may also have limited life experiences. They might never have properly encountered people who live in different socio-economic circumstances, for example and so have no idea how challenging it is to live a life of grinding poverty. Or they might live within a mono-culture, never meeting people from different cultures or traditions. With adults increasing living in narrow social media bubbles, rarely encountering people who think differently from them, it is all the more important that education broadens out all children’s horizons and enriches all communities. In other words, curriculums need to be planned to foster spiritual, moral, social and cultural development as well as knowledge acquisition.  This will require attending to both episodic and semantic memory formation.  A carefully planned programme of experiences that compliments and reinforces the super abundance of SMSC inherent in a rounded study of history, literature, art, music, RE, geography, MFL, maths, science, PE, PHSE and so on should provide this.

So if I’m all in favour of building procedural learning, opportunities to apply knowledge in critical thinking and with creativity, to emotional literacy and moral responsibility, and experiences that broaden horizons as well as education that builds semantic memory, what exactly is my problem and why am I banging on about a prosaic curriculum?[2]

This is because there is a world of difference between planning a set of experiences that consciously address the specific kind of narrowness that a school’s particular context creates and believing that excitement per se is a good enough reason for inclusion on the curriculum.  Providing experiences just because children might find them exciting and enjoyable is not a great reason to allocate them precious curriculum time. (Which is not to say they can never happen, just that they should be the rare exception rather than the rule).  Nor is this to say lessons must be dull and uninspiring. That’s just as bad.  There is a middle ground between a curriculum that panders to a craving for ever more excitement and is preoccupied with novelty and gimmicks and a dismally boring, dry as dust snooze-fest. Something solid and prosaic, something with enough cognitive challenging to be absorbing. The engagement comes from the subject matter itself and the feeling of satisfaction one feels after a bit of struggle.  Easy success isn’t rewarding; earned success is motivating.

When I use the word prosaic, I am not using it to mean dull and boring, but to mean ordinary, everyday, usual, familiar, regular, customary, typical, bread-and-butter – stuff that isn’t ‘sexy’ or glamorous or flashy, but that forms the bedrock of what we do in schools. Some of this is the stuff that forms the foundation upon which more interesting stuff depends. Learning to read, to add and subtract, learning number facts and times tables, to use punctuation and spell correctly, handwriting; basic, humdrum everyday stuff, no bells and whistles, the stuff of learning, this should be at the heart of our curriculums because without it, nothing else is possible. Sometimes derided and sneered at, often looked down upon, let’s hear a cheer for the workaday workhorse of education.

I sometimes see on Twitter teachers moaning that phonics is tedious and the decodable early readers are boring. Which is to completely miss the point – they aren’t intended to be great works of literature, they are intended to teach children to read (so that they can go on to read great works of literature).  Teaching phonics is as tedious as you want it to be. Young children love learning to do ‘grown up’ things like reading, and if you show how excited and impressed you are that children can now blend p-i-n, then they will be excited and impressed with themselves too. That’s where the engagement comes in, with the success. The lesson isn’t meant to entertain the teacher after all, it’s meant to develop the child and some of them things that help a child develop, especially early on, are pretty prosaic. The sentence ‘Clap, clap, clap on the big, red bus,’ is not, of itself, desperately interesting. However, being able to turn all those squiggles into actual words that make up a sentence is amazing! Criticising a decodable reader because of its limited story line is like telling a babbling baby their conversation is boring. To the ‘phonics is boring’ brigade I say, ‘stop raining on the children’s parade!’ If you are not delighted and enthused by helping young children take their first steps on the reading journey, then you are in the wrong job. (Or wrong phase, perhaps).

Then there is also the content, the knowledge, the substance that we want to teach; knowing where countries are on a map of the world or what a force is or what the industrial revolution was or what the 5 pillars are or what irrigation means. Content that is taught and practised and revisited so that the learning is durable. So that it can be transferred in different contexts and used in critical thinking. If we want children to think critically about arguments around immigration, it helps to know where different countries are in relation to one another. If we want children to think critically about the engineering challenges inherent in a mission to Mars, it helps to know about force and gravity. If we want children to think critically about the advantages and disadvantages of industrialisation for an economically developing country, knowledge of the industrial revolution will provide a useful way in. If Britain developed in the 19th century by exploiting our resources and workers, are we right to condemn other countries for doing the same now in the 21st century? If we want to have an informed understanding of Islam rather than one tainted with ill-informed Islamaphobic histrionics, understanding the importance of the 5 pillars for Muslims is a necessary but not sufficient starting point. If we want children to think responsibly about natural resources, knowing about water use and the benefits and pitfalls of irrigation is vital.  The knowledge we teach forms the “teeth” in the gears of understanding. Without knowledge, understanding cannot gain any traction.   Such content is inherently interesting in the hands of a skilful teacher, it does not need sugar coating with gimmicks in order to make it palatable.

There is a misconception that this entails a ‘lecture’ form of lesson, with children meekly listening for long periods of time to their teacher. This is not at all what I am advocating. Rather, I am suggesting (courtesy of Greg Ashman) that the majority of lessons have four main features. They are planned and led by the teacher, who makes conscious choices about the sequence of learning, the content is broken down into small steps with children learning how to do each individual step well before the steps are brought together into task that require the sub steps to be integrated all at once, concepts are fully explained – children do not have to ‘discover’ it all by themselves and finally teaching is highly interactive with everybody required to participate throughout the lesson.[3] I’d also add in that they frequently revisit previous learning with regular retrieval practice so that memory of previously taught content is strengthened. Such lessons are usually calm rather than dull or whacky.

Towards the end of a sequence of such lessons, I’d advocate opportunities to apply what has been learnt.  At this stage, the child integrates the sub steps in some way with less explicit teacher direction. There are a myriad of ways this could be done, from writing an essay to goal free problem solving to pursuing one’s own line of inquiry to doing a test to making a model or creating some art work.[4]

However, anything can be done to death.   Having a template lesson structure is one thing, clinging to it come hell or high water is another. Occasionally mixing up the structure – for example – using a Mantle of the Expert approach once in a while or doing some sort of whizzy experiment or workshop provides variety and counterpoint.   Just don’t confuse this with the prosaic core.

 

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[1] Though you could also contrast over-excitement with calmness, gimmicky innovation with tried and tested methods and superficial engagement with the medium of the lesson as opposed to focused absorption on the core content.

[2] Yes, it’s beginning to sound a bit like the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ sketch from the life of Brian.

[3] This list comes from Greg Ashman’s excellent new book, chapter 5, The Truth about Teaching, sage Publications 2018

[4] Though I’d be wary if the final project ate into too much curriculum time. I’d go for an 80:20 or 90:10 balance. So making a claymation video about embalming mummies would not be a good use of time, unless you believed learning how to do claymation was as itself an important part of the art/computing curriculum. Great for an after school club though.

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