For us at Michaela, knowledge is powerful: it empowers our pupils to achieve in their academic subjects, to understand the world and to live fulfilling lives. It is one of our highest priorities in our teaching at Michaela.
There are some who take umbrage with the implication that they don’t teach knowledge. ‘We already do all that,’ is the response I’ve heard from many teachers. Equally, some are under the impression that teaching knowledge is equivalent to exam drilling. This is a complete misconception. Teaching knowledge is absolutely not narrow teaching to an exam specification at all, but instead, teaching broad, deep subject expertise. Even so, there are many who think that knowledge is already taught extensively. It is not – at least, not the way I see it.
To those teachers, I’d ask the following questions [by you, I mean your school, in all departments]:
- Do you meticulously specify every concept that pupils will master in each year, along with precise definitions?
- Do you decide and organise every piece of knowledge in advance of every unit you teach?
- Do you sequence and revisit knowledge from previous units explicitly and systematically?
- Do you test pupils’ knowledge of all of these facts multiple times, even after a unit has ended?
- Do you assess whether pupils have remembered those facts even a year later?
- Do you know to what extent pupils have remembered or forgotten the precise definitions of those concepts?
- Do you revisit every fact you’ve taught with pupils several times over the following years?
- Do you use CPD and department meeting time to improve the teaching of facts?*
- Do you focus pupils on the facts and concepts that are vital to mastering the subject discipline?*
- Do you think you’ve identified the volume of knowledge required for the development of expertise?*
- Does your department collectively and continuously interrogate your sequence of knowledge, in order to improve it?
- Do you have feedback and critique from the wider community of subject experts on the knowledge in your curricula?*
*Thanks to Stuart Lock and Andy Tharby, who suggested these starred questions.
None of the schools that I’ve worked in and visited that have a curriculum and assessment model has coherently achieved all of these, let alone across all departments. A systematic approach to selecting, specifying, sequencing, testing and revisiting or remembering facts in schools in England is extremely rare. Few have systematic knowledge organisers for every unit, regular fact tests, or knowledge-only exams every year, across all departments (even art and music!).
There is an exciting opportunity here: designing subject curricula with foundational facts and concepts for long-term memory and expertise can bring revolutionary gains for teaching and academic achievement.
Once you have subject-specificity in mind, the opportunities for improvement become even more exciting. In English, for instance, these questions bring a new lens to the challenge of curriculum development:
- Which concepts should we select, sequence, test and revisit across year groups that all pupils will be required to memorise, know by heart and remember for years to come?
- Which literary, poetic, rhetorical and dramatic devices should we select, sequence, test and revisit across year groups that all pupils will be required to memorise, know by heart and remember for years to come?
- Which poems will we select, sequence, test and revisit across year groups that all pupils will be required to memorise, know by heart and remember for years to come?
- Which (Shakespeare) speeches should we select, sequence, test and revisit across year groups that all pupils will be required to memorise, know by heart and remember for years to come?
- Which contextual dates and events, characters, plot events and quotations should we select, sequence, test and revisit across year groups that all pupils will be required to memorise, know by heart and remember for years to come?
These are powerful questions for evaluating and improving what your pupils study in the subject. This knowledge lens is a dramatic paradigm shift from the knowledge-light status quo.
A meticulous focus on facts with audacious ambition for what pupils study is a powerful combination. For instance, by Year 9, our pupils have studied ten plays in three years in English: Sophocles’ Antigone, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Euripides’ Medea, Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. That’s just in theatre, without mentioning poems, speeches, autobiographies and novels. By contrast, in my last school, rated ‘outstanding’, they studied just three plays in three years, often only in extracts rather than the whole text. Knowledge does not narrow, it broadens. Here, for instance, is the depth and breadth of knowledge that we teach, test and revisit from just one of those ten plays. Imagine this multiplied by six or so units over three years and seven subjects. Far from narrow, the breadth is extensive; the rigour is high.
At Michaela, I interrogate our subject leaders continuously on their selection, sequencing, testing and revisiting of facts and concepts. I challenge their overview sequences, their text choices, their recap drills, their questions and extensions, their knowledge organisers, their knowledge exams – everything. It must feel relentless! But those candid, combative conversations are partly how we drive up the quality of instruction from teachers and the quality of memory retention from pupils.
It is high time we teachers cast off the tired old misconceptions that teaching knowledge is ‘spoonfeeding’, that memorising is ‘regurgitating.’ It is time to ditch these debilitating metaphors. They are nothing but a hindrance.
Teaching knowledge isn’t limiting; it is liberating. It liberates teachers to share their subject passion in its full breadth and depth; it liberates pupils to explore new worlds, from 16th century England and Venice, 14th century Verona, 11th century Scotland and 1st century BC Rome with Shakespeare, back to the ancient world of tragedy in Athens with Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, and much, much else besides – plays are just one part of one subject in ten or so! Telling pupils facts is a great way to teach; memorising facts is a great way to learn. Broad, deep knowledge is the best path to subject expertise for pupils.
Knowledge transmission should cause teachers great excitement, for it offers us the chance to improve the academic achievement and lifelong fulfillment of all our children, whilst reconnecting with the subjects we love – perhaps even inspiring our pupils to love our subjects, and for the rest of their lives.