‘Instructional sequences have the capacity to make students smart or not.’
In teaching it seems the focus is often on what makes an outstanding lesson. I think we need to spend much more time thinking about what makes an excellent unit.
In this blogpost I want to explain how we might go about designing a unit of learning in English. What if we coherently sequenced knowledge for cultural capital and enduring memory? Much depends on the curriculum sequence, but I just want to focus on unit design for now.
This approach is a little bit like going through Lewis Caroll’s looking glass: once you go through, it’s hard to imagine going back. Such is the analogy used by David Didau to describe the shift from unit planning that starts from overarching skills, to unit planning that starts from underpinning knowledge.
Why would we design units with knowledge and memory as the starting points? For two main reasons:
Memory is complex: pupils need to remember lots of complex, confusing things.
Knowledge is vital: disadvantaged pupils lack the cultural capital of their wealthier peers, which inhibits their academic achievement.
In short, memorable knowledge is the best route to academic achievement. This simple insight gives us a very precise diagnosis: when pupils underachieve, it’s often because of insufficient knowledge, memory or practice. It also reveals very clear actions: ensure they know, can remember and practise using the key content and concepts in the subject.
Beyond the why, these questions drive knowledge-led unit design in English:
What is most useful for our pupils to know and remember about the text?
How can we best teach so that our pupils remember what they’re learning?
First, specify the most useful knowledge for the unit
There are four necessary elements you need to decide on in English units:
- Content (plot character themes)
These are the sinae quae non of your knowledge unit.
Next, sequence the unit for optimal instruction
The idea of touchpaper questions is a fascinating one. In unit design, I find focusing on the following questions is most helpful. What’s the best way of:
- … assessing?
- … interleaving?
- … recapping?
- … explaining concepts?
- … checking understanding?
- … questioning?
- … modelling exemplars?
- … practising?
- … using feedback?
- … setting homework?
- … remembering content?
The idea of ‘multiple working hypotheses’, from Thomas Chamberlain in 1890, is useful in thinking through the optimal answers to these questions. There are no perfect answers, but certainly some answers are more effective than others. So it’s worth keeping multiple competing options in mind and testing them out to find out which work best. So, what would be most useful to have decided up front in advance of teaching the unit? Here are some of the evolving options:
How then do we go about designing a unit in English with coherent knowledge and optimal instruction? I’d like to share evolving examples of two knowledge units, one on Greek myths, and one on Oliver Twist.
Step One: Specify the most useful knowledge for the unit
As I’ve said, the four vital ingredients to decide on are the texts, content (plot character themes), context and concepts. So, in Oliver Twist I need to select the extracts, as I can’t teach all 53 chapters. I settle on these as the 15 key episodes, one each lesson:
- The Workhouse
- The Undertaker
- The Artful Dodger
- Fagin’s Street Gang
- Mr Fang
- Mr Brownlow
- Bill Sikes
- The Fever
- The Lynch Mob
- The Trial
- The Condemned Cell
From hundreds of Greek myths, I can’t teach them all. How do I decide which ones to teach? I choose the myths that have best stood the test of time and endured down the ages. I choose The Odyssey to read in depth as the epic with the highest cultural capital.
- Prometheus and Pandora
- Perseus and Medusa
- Hercules and the Twelve Labours
- Theseus and The Minotaur
- Daedalus & Icarus
- Achilles and Hector
- Polyphemous The Cyclops
- Aeolus and The Bag of Winds
- Circe The Sorceress
- Hades and Teiresias
- The Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis
- The Sun God’s Cattle
- Calypso’s Captivity
- Poseidon’s Revenge
- Telemachus and Penelope
I now need to select the content: what about the plot, which of the characters (and what about them) and which themes do I want pupils to remember in a year’s time and beyond?
There are around ten characters in Oliver Twist that I most want pupils to know all about, in order of importance: Oliver, Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes, Nancy, Mr Brownlow, Mr Fang, Rose Maylie, Noah Claypole, Mr Grimwig, as well as a whole host of minor characters such as Mr Bumble the Beadle and the shadowy Monks. As a starting point for the themes I specify poverty & inequality, crime & punishment, law & injustice, childhood & adulthood, fortune & misfortune, family & friendship, courage & betrayal, murder & evil, death & prison.
Who the characters are (and what they did) is the vital element that I’d like pupils to remember in reading the Greek myths, and reminds me of how useful the Who’s Who books of Greek mythology are when it comes to reading English literature. The great thing about The Odyssey is that it folds in the heroes of the Trojan Wars in the Underworld episode, and secures pupils’ knowledge of Greek gods like Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Hades, Athena and Hermes. If pupils in years to come vividly remember who these are, it would help them succeed in English:
The themes as a starting point are the Wrath of the Gods; Heroes & Monsters; Death & The Underworld; Tricks & Transformations; Battles & Quests; Prophecy & Curses; Trust & Betrayal. Of course, the best pupils will go far beyond this; this is best thought of as a minimum entitlement.
I now need to decide the context. There is almost limitless knowledge of Victorian London and Dickens’ biography, and the Greek civilisation and gods to know about. They can’t know everything, nor is all of it vital; on the other hand, there’s no point limiting the amount they should know: so a baseline that everyone should understand and remember seems the right approach. Beyond that, it’s about their own independent study when it comes to context.
We then need to decide the subject-specific concepts that we want them to grasp. Much depends on when this unit is taught in the sequence of the curriculum: for instance, Year 7 might only be taught a handful of concepts, whereas Year 9 might consolidate far more. Assuming this is being taught to Year 7, the handful to focus on might include dialogue, narration and syntax in Oliver Twist and questions, imperatives and adjectives in Greek myths. The point is to decide a few that all must grasp, and teach others in a more ad hoc style.
Deciding on the extracts, the content, the context and the subject concepts is an iterative rather than linear process: it requires going back and forth between them and adapting each so the whole unit coheres. A useful tool to capture the context, content and concepts is a knowledge grid. Katie Ashford came up with this and it is a brilliant idea. On one slide you specify exactly which parts of the context, plot, characters and themes (in novels) all pupils have the entitlement to remember.
Whilst this is evolving, it is important to clarify three extra pieces of the puzzle: the aim of the unit; the assessment questions and rubric; and the sequence of lesson questions week-by-week. Far from being a step-by-step process, this is highly dynamic and iterative.
Frontloaded assessment (interim & end-of-unit questions and rubric)
Selected texts & extracts
Specified knowledge grid (context plot characters themes)
Sequenced lesson questions
If the grid above captures the knowledge, those three extra pieces of the puzzle are put together in the grid below: the aim, assessment and lesson questions.
Step Two: Sequence the unit for optimal instruction
Planning and resourcing a knowledge-led unit, with its careful specifying and sequencing of the tiny chunks of knowledge that make up deep understanding, is undoubtedly labour-intensive, although the upstream time invested actually saves time downstream.
For optimal instruction, numerous resources are pre-planned before teaching the unit:
- Multiple choice questions & options
- Comprehension questions
- Hinge questions & options
- Actionable feedback questions
- Planned homework tasks
- Worked exemplar models
- Essay structure of sub-questions
- Drill questions on context and content
Examples from the Oliver Twist Unit
1. Multiple Choice Questions
These questions diagnose who has misunderstood and what their exact misconception is.
What were the 1834 poor laws?
- a) Laws to create workhouses with terrible conditions to discourage poverty
- b) Laws to create a police service
- c) Laws to give welfare to poor people
- d) Laws to prevent murder with the death penalty
- e) Laws to prevent thievery with jail sentences
What does Mr Grimwig promise to do if Oliver doesn’t return?
- a) He promises to eat his own head – and Oliver’s
- b) He promises to eat his hat
- c) He promises to eat his hat – and Oliver’s
- d) He promises to pay Mr Brownlow ten pounds
- e) He promises to give Oliver ten pounds
2. Comprehension Questions
These questions can be asked verbally while reading the text as a class.
- What happened when Oliver was born (and how)?
- Who named Oliver Twist (and how?)
- What does Oliver ask for (and why)?
- What does the workhouse decide to with Oliver (and why)?
- What do the gentlemen think will happen to Oliver (and why)?
3. Hinge Questions
These questions check which pupils have understood what they need to grasp in each lesson.
What happened to Dickens as a child?
- a) His father was jailed for debt and he went to work in a factory
- b) His father was jailed for debt and he went to work in workhouse
- c) His father was hung for murder and he went to prison
- d) His father was jailed for street robbery and he became a chimney sweep
- e) His father was jailed for house burglary and he went to a workhouse
What is capital punishment?
- a) The death penalty of being executed, often by hanging, often for murder
- b) The punishment of being shipped to Australia, often for murder
- c) The punishment of being jailed for life, often for murder
- d) The punishment of hard labour, often for murder
- e) The punishment for being in charge of a workhouse, often for murder
4. Feedback Questions
These questions encourage connections between knowledge of for instance, character and theme, or plot and context.
- How does Mr Fang represent the law in England?
- How does kidnapping link to 1830s Victorian London?
- Why did Dickens decide this ending for Sikes?
5. Homework Questions
These questions encourage independent enquiry into the novel between lessons.
- How is Dickens presenting the character of Fagin in the novel so far?
- How has Dickens shown the theme of injustice in the novel so far?
- Create and answer your own enquiry question into a character or theme in the novel
6. Exemplar Models
These are designed (for Year 7) to show examples of clear, cogent analysis:
Mr Fang is a bullying, impatient and rude judge in charge of a London law court, who puts Oliver on trial. For example, he interrupts the old gentleman and says, ‘Hold your tongue sir! How dare you bully a judge!’ The way he speaks shows that he is sneering, snarling, growling and snapping. Dickens wanted to show how the law was not very just in 1830s Victorian London, as he had experienced his father being put in prison for debt in 1824, when he was 12 years old. The themes of poverty and injustice are shown through the character of Mr Fang, because he is cruel to Oliver, a poor orphan that he accuses of ‘shamming’, and sentences him to three months of hard labour.
7. Essay Sub-Questions
These (designed by Katie Ashford, as much of this unit was) help structure pupils’ introductions for the essay title: How does Dickens present the character of Oliver (or Fagin, or your own choice) in the novel?
- Who wrote the novel? When and where was it set?
- What is the novel about?
- What happens in the novel?
- What is Dickens trying to show through the character?
8. Drill Questions
These build pupils’ memory of the core content and context with increasing precision.
- What happened to Dickens’ father?
- What were the 1834 Poor Laws?
- What happened to Dickens’ sister-in-law?
- When was Dickens’ father imprisoned for debt?
- When were the poor laws brought in?
- When did Dickens’ sister in law die from a fever?
- What happened in 1825?
- What happened in 1834?
- What happened in 1837?
The complexity involved in this cohesive, sequential planning is not insignificant. All of these are just illustrative examples: multiply them by the 15 episodes to get an idea of how much work goes into planning a knowledge unit. Just as qualifying as a driver did not make me an engineer, nor did qualifying as a teacher make me a curriculum designer. This approach (and the choices I’ve made) are very much open to debate, and I’d welcome suggestions for improving these units. There remains a great deal of work to be done.
Most drivers don’t design their own cars
After all, what makes an excellent unit is highly dependent on the units that precede and succeed it – the cohesive sequencing of the curriculum across a whole year and key stage. If Engelmann is right, and the instructional sequence is what makes students smart or not, that sequence should be carefully planned not just across a unit, but across pupils’ entire school journey through our subjects. Their learning depends on it.
Two resources are below:
Oliver Twist abridged from 300+ to 20 pages (with context)
The Odyssey abridged from 200+ pages to 20