Who says knowledge is pointless in English?

Part of the reason why knowledge gets neglected in English curricula and assessment is it gets marginalised in observations.

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I have argued before on this blog that skills are being detached from knowledge in English. From what I’ve seen, many English departments take this approach: even the great English departments I know still use the skills-based assessment system of Assessing Pupil Progress and national levels at Key Stage 3: abstract descriptors of skills that apply across content to any text.

Now, this blogpost of mine was criticised on two main fronts. Some denied that such a skills-centred approach existed at all, and that no teacher they knew advocated this approach; others denied that knowledge and content were valuable in the first place. 

“A lot of work to create the idea of a skills-centred ideology that just does not exist. Nowhere have I encountered the consensus you imply dominates our education system. I don’t know a single teacher ever who would argue against the acquisition of knowledge.”

David Didau kindly reblogged this post, and the following comment can be seen on his blog, The Learning Spy:

“I write as an ex-consultant, head of department, advanced skills teacher, current examiner and educational writer, with experience in four different educational systems.

“This is why we teach skills: because if we teach content, that content will be entirely different in 10 years or 20 years. Skills are portable. Content is not.

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“And as for me, I’m of the opinion that I teach whatever content fits the students, because the skills should always be the same. Whether I teach “Oliver Twist” or I teach “Holes”, I am teaching them to read more precisely, to infer meaning, to think about how the writer manipulates us, to develop theories, to support theories with evidence. The content is largely irrelevant as long as they can apply their skills to something different.

“I wholeheartedly disagree that possessing knowledge improves your ability to think. I’m afraid your criticisms would give way to a ‘filling of a pail’ approach rather than a ‘lighting of a fire’ approach.

“Learning facts: all it prepares them for is pub quizzes. If you had taught knowledge rather than skills, you’d see why I’m so dead set against it. The problem for me is that when you have taught in an environment where knowledge and content is equal to, or superior to, skills, then you understand why trying to plough through content seems so very pointless.”

What you’ll notice here is the idea that while skills are transferable, knowledge is not; ‘filling’ students with ‘irrelevant’ content and ‘pub quiz’ facts is ‘pointless’. This is not an isolated view. Daisy Christodolou has written an entire book filled with hundreds of concrete examples of exactly this kind of thinking. It is certainly not isolated thinking, but it is almost certainly mistaken. As cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham says,

“Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts. The very processes that teachers value most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory.”

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It turns out, skills aren’t very transferable without knowledge. I think the way these mistaken ideas permeate English departments is partly through inspections and observations.

This term, I was observed at part of the annual appraisal process. I was teaching a lesson on the Greek myth Theseus and the Minotaur to a bottom set year 7 class with 26 students, 20 of whom have a special educational need. Here is some of the written feedback I was given:

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“Lesson seemed mainly to be about consolidation of knowledge.”

“Students, when questioned, displayed good knowledge of myths and their heroes.”

“All students enjoyed their English lessons.”

“Students were engaged and interested in the topic.”

“Students effusive and enthusiastic about their English lessons.”

“Difficult to see any evidence of progress in lesson.”

“Progress was marked by students answering series of comprehension questions.”

“Comprehension questions were focused on information retrieval.”

“Difficult to assess whether progress had been made.”

“Students spent some periods passively listening or watching.”

“Students had good recall of content of myths but little evidence in books of analysis or other thinking.”

“Focus of lesson seemed to be consolidation of knowledge.”

“Little evidence of progress.”

 

Here is some of the verbal feedback I was given:

“You need to focus on skills, not on content.”

 “Knowledge isn’t important, especially to OFSTED.”

“There were missed opportunities for them to analyse.”

“If OFSTED come in, they need to see progress in skills in the lesson.”

“You need to be beyond knowledge.”

“Without the skills, the knowledge isn’t worth much.”

“It’s not enough: without personal response, it’s problematic.”

“Put a skill in the objective: analysing, not just understanding – that’s right at the bottom of the taxonomy.”

“Otherwise it’s impossible to give them a level- without that, we’re stuck.”

“OFSTED want proof.”

“It looks like all you spend your time doing is knowledge quizzes, which I know you’re not – if that’s it, then there’s a problem…”

“You’ve got to get them interrogating the text.”

“Your plan should have what the students are doing: OFTSED need to see that, not too teacher-led.”

Since I started teaching, the feedback I have been given in observations takes the same approach. “English is a skills-based subject”, I am told. I am advised to create skills-based rather than knowledge-based objectives; pressed to use empathic diary entries rather than teaching contextual facts explicitly; exhorted to use ‘higher-order’ questioning and higher-order skills instead of ‘lower-order’ recall questions and comprehensions.

If I’ve understood it, central to this feedback is the idea that analytical and critical thinking skills are more important for progress than knowledge, comprehension and recall. The idea is that in English, the content of the text and context doesn’t matter nearly as much as the skills students can transfer to any text. There are quite a few reasons given for this: firstly, we want students to be able to analyse a broad range of texts; secondly, Ofsted require progression in skills within observation lessons; thirdly, education theory in the form of Bloom’s taxonomy elevates analysis to the top and relegates knowledge to the bottom of the ladder.

To my mind, cultural capital is as important as critical thinking skills: indeed, cultural knowledge is vital for critical thinking skills and academic achievement. I’d challenge the reasons underlying this feedback in three ways.

OliverTwist   GreatExpectations

First, it does matter that our pupils remember the content of the text and context, so that they can compare new texts with their knowledge of texts they’ve read. For instance, if I’ve taught Oliver Twist, when they come to read Great Expectations or any other Victorian novel, it helps if they can remember the characters, plot, themes and context I’ve taught them; it’s no good if they forget it all.

Second, OFSTED shouldn’t drive what we do, and the snapshot graded observation that expects progress to be demonstrated within a single lesson is not reliable for assessing teaching or learning (Coe 2013). The new OFTSED guidance now expects progress to be demonstrated over time, rather than within a lesson, and explicitly mentions knowledge as well as skills.

Third, Bloom wrote his taxonomy in 1956. Interpreting knowledge as “lower” than skills is mistaken. Instead, in the 65 years since, we now know that shallow knowledge is a vital prerequisite foundation, moving up through surface to deep and enduring knowledge, and must be integrated with skills. In other words, Bloom’s is less like a league table with knowledge at the bottom and skills at the top, and more like a double helix where knowledge and skills go all the way up. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham amongst others has shown that knowledge is as important as skills for learning.

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The latest distortion of Bloom’s taxonomy is knowledge as the mere tip of an iceberg. Just like those who interpret Bloom’s as a rush beyond mere, basic, ‘lower-order’ recall to ‘higher-order’ skills, those who designed and share this take a similar approach: to teach knowledge is merely to ‘skim the surface’; ‘deep sea’ skills are far more important.

KnowledgeIceberg3     Image

Illusion and reality? 

But knowledge is far from just the tip of the iceberg. In the topsy-turvy world of English education, we’ve got the iceberg the wrong way up! Decades of cutting-edge research from cognitive science show that reading and critical thinking skills don’t transfer easily, but depend on a broad range of background and domain-specific knowledge (De Groot 1978, Kirschner Clark Swiller 2004, Willingham 2010, Hattie 2013). For instance, it’s hard to have a debate if you know nothing about it; if we had a debate about baseball players or Bornean headhunting, we’d struggle, just as kids without much cultural capital at home struggle to discuss ideas in literature. Richer kids get this cultural knowledge at home and in private schools; poorer kids don’t get this at home, so why not ensure they get it in school?

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So with this unit and lesson, the rationale was for my Year 7 class to remember the characters and plots of Greek myths, partly so that they can understand everyday references to a labyrinth, an Odyssey, Trojan horse, Achilles’ heel, chimera, Sisyphean task, Herculean labour, tantalising temptation, Midas touch or Pandora’s box; so that they can read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and know who Theseus and Hippolyta are; so that they can read Frankenstein and understand the sub-title ‘The Modern Prometheus’; so they get the hold on the Romantic, Victorian and modern imagination in poems like Prometheus by Byron, Ulysses and The Kraken by Tennyson, and Penelope, Demeter, Medusa, Mrs Midas and Mrs Icarus by Duffy. In their own right, the myths are exciting stories that both tell of the worldview of an ancient civilisation, and have endured and fascinated us for millennia. To teach their rich content is to give pupils access to their global cultural heritage.

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The influence of Greek myth on Western culture

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Mary and Percy Shelley: Prometheus Unbound and The Modern Prometheus

I do think analysis and critical thinking are the endgame; I teach my top set Year 8, 9 and 11s to analyse almost every day. But I disagree that downplaying knowledge is the best route to achieving this ultimate end. My standard set Year 7 are progressing fast in their knowledge, understanding and memory of characters and stories from mythology, and their literacy skills of writing accurately spelt, complete sentences – no trivial challenge. It’s a sound foundation, but not, of course, an end point.

To this end, my ideal Key Stage 3 curriculum and assessment system would be founded on combining broad knowledge, deep memory and extensive writing practice with analytical, creative and critical thinking skills. Why elevate skills over knowledge, when both are vital?

It strikes me that many, many English departments are beholden to this idea: that it matters little what content we teach; the important thing is to teach students skills they can transfer to any text.

It is my contention that this idea is shaky. But it is better to exemplify than to criticise. So over the next month on this blog, I’ll be exploring the alternative.

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Knowledge and skills rezipped

How would an English department teach if it based its curriculum and assessment not so much on transferable skills, and more on cultural capital? What if we replaced the outdated Bloom’s taxonomy with Willingham’s cutting-edge cognitive science, and ignored the OFTSED whisperers who say we must chase skills to get graded outstanding in our next inspection? What would an approach to English based on powerful knowledge, enduring memory and deliberate practice look like? And if we accept that there are some fundamental differences in skills-based and knowledge-based lessons and units, what are these differences? How do we design a mastery assessment system? How do you plan a knowledge-rich unit?

Hope springs eternal; many comments on this blog give me reason for hope, not least this one:

“You are making a skills evangelist rethink the what and the how”.

The time is right for us in English to rethink the what and the how.

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About Joe Kirby

English teacher, education blogger
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27 Responses to Who says knowledge is pointless in English?

  1. mrlock says:

    This is great stuff, and goes a level deeper (see what I did there) than my recent “which courses” blog. We have started this discussion/ argument in our school, aided by 5 copies of Willingham, Hirsch’s core curriculum (and comparison with the National Curriculum) and blogs like these. What is actually taught in the classroom is the most important thing to get right.

  2. louenstone says:

    Joe – thanks again for asking the question. As a fairly new teacher I often feel skills are too highly valued in education. In business skills have face value but deep knowledge that support the application those skills is valued more. Our skills only approach at KS3 and KS4 is a real kicker in KS5 when knowledge has so much more value.

    • cunningfox says:

      Not to mention at university. We hear so much from politicians and from teachers about the relative failure of UK comprehensives to send their kids to Oxbridge and other top universities.

      Well, this is why it happens. Whatever those universities might say about creating a level playing field and looking for potential, the one thing they value and need above all else is knowledge: in the case of English, knowledge of authors, knowledge of genres, knowledge of styles, knowledge of literary techniques.

      If you don’t give your pupils that knowledge, no amount of potential will get them through the exam or the interview. Even if it did, they would sink within the first fortnight of their first term, because they would not be able to cope with the vast amount of new knowledge that they would need to take in: on the one hand, learning that much would overwhelm them because they would not have been trained in acquiring and sorting it; on the other, they would not understand or retain most of it because they would not have the basic knowledge that underpins it.

      The examples of Greek myths and Dickens novels mentioned above are exactly the kind of basic knowledge that schools need to give their pupils to enable them to cope with higher-level knowledge later on. They are also exactly the kind of things that private schools teach all the time to all their pupils. If you really do believe that those schools are massively over-represented at the top end of higher education, and that that over-representation is a massive injustice, then you need to start ensuring that everybody else is given access to that knowledge too. Studying ‘Holes’ won’t give them a cat in hell’s chance.

  3. Hi Joe,

    I found your post a very thought provoking read. There’s a couple of points I’d welcome your thoughts on, as these are points I’m grappling with in my practice at the moment.

    1. I believe that using SOLO taxonomy helps me to get the right balance between knowledge and skills. I don’t think you can have skills without a firm foundation of knowledge; equally I don’t think any of my students’ essays that are A* lack the skill of analysing and evaluating. What I like about SOLO is it doesn’t have so much of a hierarchical structure in comparison to Blooms. The key with SOLO is to gain as much knowledge as possible and then be able to apply it in different contexts and understand the relationship and importance of these different blocks/pieces of knowledge. At my school we use SOLO to structure our SoWs. Going back to your post, you discuss – quite rightly- the importance of cultural capital and why students need to know a lot about classic texts to be able to understand other important texts and how they are part of a larger literary movement. In my opinion, this is the relational and extended abstract stage of SOLO taxonomy.

    2. You seem to not be a fan if the iceberg you display in your post. I was wondering if you think it’s useful or not to have a sort of framework to help students structure their essays in English. I favour David Didau’s Reading Ladder to help my GCSE students structure their responses. Do you consider this too limiting and/or downplaying the importance of knowledge in our study of English?

    As always, your posts get me thinking and questioning my practice – thank you sincerely for taking the time to write them!

    Debbie

  4. Kerry says:

    Totally agree with you. I think knowledge and skills are on a par. I would also hazard a guess that most English teachers deliver or ‘facilitate’ plenty of knowledge based lessons but choose not to do this in an observed lesson. I know I do this.
    We focus heavily on skills, but I’d like to think when it comes to texts my department is creating a sound knowledge for students around social, historical context and themes and ideas.
    Maybe Bloom’s taxonomy would work better as a circle- knowledge at the centre. Without knowledge at the heart of learning it is difficult to build on skills.
    I’m in process of coming up with ideas about how to make our students more knowledgeable about what is going on in the world, so they have a deeper understanding and awareness when it comes to analysing texts and writing their own pieces.
    I do think knowledge based learning is going on all the time though- when reading war poetry for example we focus on historical events. In our most recent piece of descrptive writing coursework for year 10s students are writing about the miners’ strikes. Students are researching what happened, looking at all political perspectives. They’re even learning about fashion and cars from the 1980s.

  5. David Didau says:

    Debbie

    If I may step in, I spent quite a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with SOLO before realising that it can do more harm than good because the multistructural stage of the taxonomy is viewed (maybe unintentionally) seen as something to move on from as soon as possible. All too often, getting students from multistructural to relational is used to prove pupils’ ‘progress’ and devalues the fact that a relational construct is only as useful as the quality of content knowledge. It really struck me that SOLO fits markschemes from KS2 to undergraduate levels – pupils are expected to see relationships and synthesise ideas at every stage of education – the difference is how much we know and how complex this knowledge is. That said, I find SOLO a useful way to think about progression but the language of it became a hindrance rather than a help.

    The reading ladder you refer to was an attempt to think about progression with a subject rather than outside of it. If, my thinking went, the language of progress was inseparable from the language of the subject, pupils would find it easier to understand where they were going and why.
    The problem with the iceberg, Bloom’s, SOLO and all these sort of things is that they marginalise the role of knowledge in thinking and understanding. Joe’s reversal of the iceberg is much more useful in that it’s much more honest to suggest that analysis depends on the quality of what we know.

    Does that help at all? Thanks, David

  6. Yes that does David. I’m going to continue with my use of SOLO and see how it develops. We use it to structure SoW so (hopefully) there is no rush to move past the multi-structural. At the recent #TLT13, Mel and I were talking about planning and I made it really clear to the audience that, at my school, there is no expectation that every lesson will have a relational or extended abstract outcome because it’s dependent on where you are in the overall SoW. Helene was there so she can vouch for us!!! Linked to this is why, in our plan, you can see that we use your stages of the independence cycle because we think it would be mad to expect any ‘deep’ relational work if we were still at the explaining stage of the cycle! I don’t use the SOLO terms with students; I just find it helpful for me to think about the knowledge I want students to learn, what I’ll start with first and, by the end of the topic, how they will piece it all together.

    I think I’m in a very lucky and privileged position as an AHT for T&L development that I can help dispel some of the myths about what I think you refer to as superficial performance vs real progress.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond 🙂

    Debbie

  7. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber and commented:

    It’s time for us in English to rethink the what and the how.

  8. Paul says:

    It’s not clear to me that you’ve made a case for any specific knowledge to be learned. You haven’t brought forward any evidence to support the assertion that “cultural capital” is important. Why is studying Great Expectations more important than studying Holes?

    The man you quote near the beginning does not say that knowledge is not important. “The content” he says “is largely irrelevant so long as [students] can apply their skill somewhere else”. On this view knowledge is important as a means not an end. Who cares if you know the characters in a novel? You and I are relatively well educated and we don’t know lots about a great deal of classics. Our lives are not much poorer for it (save for the intrinsic pleasure we might derive from reading them).

    Of course you need knowledge to develop skills and understanding but this implies nothing like the socially conservative view of “cultural capital” that you put forward.

    • cunningfox says:

      ‘You and I are relatively well educated and we don’t know lots about a great deal of classics.’

      And this is a good thing? It just shows the poverty of your ‘relatively good’ education, and shows precisely why we shouldn’t be perpetuating it or, heaven forbid, making it even worse.

      The laughable attempt to politicise cultural capital at the end of your post says it all, really. If you want the majority to remain ignorant, because of some petty personal agenda, then go ahead, but please don’t call yourself an educator.

  9. Abi King says:

    As a History teacher I have found this post incredibly interesting as we are always discussing how to achieve the balance of knowledge and skills. I think you are absolutely right in that the importance and quality of knowledge is sometimes compromised by the focus on skills and that a balance is essential for skills such as analysis leading to deep learning. I tend to focus my learning objectives on skills whilst my key question (lesson title) relates to the knowledge my students will acquire required to apply to the skills. Contextual knowledge is essential for application of skills in each subject and, like Willingham suggests, critical thinking but I do still think there can be a place for Blooms and maybe it does need a reshaping like Kerry suggested earlier to bring it up to date.

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  11. I think the key point is that knowledge is always presented within a conceptual framework. Critical thinking is not just about applying neutral skills: it is about applying other points of view. When students go on to read English at HE, they struggle to orient themselves within the cultural studies paradigm that frames most advanced study of English. So the problem is really epistemological. ‘Knowledge’ v ‘skills’ is a positivist approach that doesn’t take into account the linguistic turn in philosophy or the inluence of Foucault and post-structuralism in the social sciences and humanities.

  12. Joe, I’m interested in where you might take this in your professional life? What I mean is this: from the blog it would appear that you are not winning the argument in your current school, and (I assume you don’t blog anonymously) your current school are very aware of what you think (and that you are unlikely to change your approach to please them, or Ofsted). Doesn’t this cause you problems at work? Can you persevere, or will you need to look for a new school where your approach is more enthusiastically embraced? (I imagine that in such a place you would be nurtured and would progress to the point where you could emerge into the wider educational world on your own terms…..or perhaps I have misread the situation and you are already in that position…?).

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  14. Esther says:

    Thank you. I was beginning to feel the need to consider a change of career as I agree that the acquisition of knowledge is equally important but I have been told differently of recent as we now focus on skills. I had just begun to feel out if place. I am in agreement that the two should go hand in hand. Also in teaching, major parts of the lesson will be teacher led at times. Students need to be shown the way to go before we let them go off on their own.

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  17. cunningfox says:

    ‘What would an approach to English based on powerful knowledge, enduring memory and deliberate practice look like?’

    Like standard practice in the best independent schools:

    http://www.spgs.org/academic/departments/english/

    Not my school, by the way, but a powerful example for us all.

    • Miss Friday says:

      Hmmm, I’m not so sure. Here is an excerpt from their music department description [the italics are mine]:

      “We run an internally devised course, which allows pupils to study beyond the confines of a GCSE curriculum, developing their musical knowledge together with a range of highly desirable transferable skills such as critical thinking and intellectual curiosity.”

      • cunningfox says:

        Well, I was talking about English, not Music, but this still talks about ‘developing their musical _knowledge_’ (underlining mine).

        I agree, though, that it would be deeply worrying if the usual trendy nonsense infiltrated the most academic of our schools, as well as all the non-academic ones.

  18. Have you read any Michael Young? If not, start with his 2008 book, Bringing Knowledge Back In, and then move to some of his more recent articles where he elaborates the idea of “Futures 3” (would love to hear your views on that – another blog?). He makes the case for all pupils having knowledge of disciplines, the traditions that shaped them, the knowledge that they produced. He produces an interesting counter-argument to the view that teaching the classics, a canon or any disciplinary tradition is somehow oppressive or will lead to cultural bias that will exclude or alienate certain social or ethnic groups. Far from it. These knowledge reference points are emancipatory for those pupils, giving them the knowledge, the language and the discourse to understand those traditions, and, where they want to, to argue with them. He argues as a sociologist, but it chimes entirely with my experience as a classroom teacher of history who was determined to give pupils the intellectual confidence that comes from immersion in rich knowledge and the ability to participate in longstanding disciplinary conversations about that knowledge. Just watch how pupils can argue about the history of empire when they have rich, deep, broad, secure narratives about two or three major empires! Sure, they became ‘skilful’ in arguing, and sure, I helped them think about the shapes and patterns in particular types of distinctively historical argument (the big concepts that shape the discipline’s questions) but that would have been empty without substantive knowledge. As Martin Robinson says in Trivium21c, the creative mind ‘can’t diverge if it doesn’t know.’ (p.173).

    Keep winning the argument Joe.

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  23. Rufus says:

    bloody hell, this is good

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