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Three Steps to Learning Heaven (Curriculum Content)

posted on October 30th 2018 in Headmaster's Blog

Everyone acknowledges that in many UK schools, teachers are dangerously overworked yet as a country we are out performed educationally by far too many other nations. This points to one obvious conclusion, that more of the same in terms of teacher workload is not the way forward and that, instead, we need to take a long hard look at what learning is, how it works and what we are doing wrong.

As a School, we have acknowledged the fact that, despite teachers working themselves into the ground, too often pupils do not seem to be building profound cumulative knowledge or building up their technique and confidence with regard to exams. This being the case, radical changes are obviously necessary. At the heart of this re-think is a higher expectation of what pupils can achieve, given the right environment, and a more realistic assessment of what teachers should be expected to spend their time doing.

Rethinking how you approach common aspects of teaching is not always easy and can meet resistance from teachers, pupils and parents, but if pursued bravely and rigorously it can greatly increase pupil progress and liberate teachers from pointless tasks. Research clearly shows that the three most important areas to re-think are as follows:

  1. Curriculum content (i.e. what pupils spend their time learning)
  2. Assessment (i.e. how we measure pupil progress and feedback to pupils and parents).
  3. Behaviour (i.e. what we expect from pupils in terms of politeness, resilience and self-discipline)

Effectively addressing each of these three areas provides you with the ‘three steps to learning heaven’ which can, over time, considerably improve learning outcomes in your school while also having positive knock-on effects on mental health and wellbeing for everyone in the school. Over the next three weeks I will use my blog to briefly outline how, at Loughborough Amherst School, we are addressing each of these three areas. I will start with the curriculum itself.

The fundamental problem with the curriculum in most schools can be summed up in three statements:

  1. It is not demanding enough, particularly in the younger years
  2. It places a confusing emphasis on skills at the expense of knowledge
  3. Curriculum delivery tends to focus on passing the next test and not on the cumulative building up and embedding of a body of knowledge

At Loughborough Amherst School, we are addressing these issues through the following actions:

1) Redesigning the curriculum, within and across subjects, right from Year 3 through to A Level, to focus much more on embedding and recalling cumulative knowledge over the long term. Moving away from a muddle-headed emphasis on skills and instead focusing first on the acquisition of knowledge. Some modern educationalists have come to emphasise skills over knowledge, arguing that we forget most of what we actually learn at school but that the skills we learn stay with us for life. This viewpoint is not completely without foundation, but it ignores two facts. Firstly, we don’t actually forget most of our basic educational knowledge, we simply forget that we ever had to earn it in the first place. How many of us moan that we learned nothing at school but forget the fact that we are numerate, literate and have a good solid grasp of geography and history. One of the side effects of having deeply embedded knowledge is to forget that it ever had to be learned in the first place. Secondly, trying to debate, evaluate or apply anything you have learned is largely a dispiriting, and potentially dangerous, waste of time until you have actually built up enough knowledge about something in the first place. As Sherlock Holmes cries out in the Adventure of the Copper Beeches, “Data! Data! Data! I can’t make bricks without clay.” In my experience as an RE teacher, pupils are usually perfectly capable of using reasoning to evaluate and critique religious ideas without much help from a teacher, the problem is that their actual knowledge of the religious ideas themselves is very poor.

2) Making the curriculum more demanding in terms of the knowledge to be embedded in the long-term memory, and the synoptic understanding to be developed. We work on the principle that every pupil should, by the time they face public exams, possess a great deal more embedded subject knowledge than the exam itself requires. The principle here is simple: Do not patronise young people and do not make the mistake of pitching your expectations of them too low.

3) Introducing knowledge organisers for every year group in every subject, thereby making the knowledge they need to master explicit to pupils in an easily digestible format. The importance of this cannot be overstated. In our jobs we expect, rightly, to understand why we are doing what we are doing and what is expected of us over time. If we did not have this information we would rightly complain that it would seriously undermine our ability to work effectively. What applies to adult workers applies equally to school pupils. Yet it is amazing how often teachers launch into courses without doing pupils the courtesy of outlining exactly what they will be doing together over the year ahead and what goals they are expected to achieve.

4) Introducing much more frequent low stakes testing (both written and verbal), spacing such tests out so that they come not just at the end of studying a unit of work but two, three or five months later, and moving pupils away from the idea that every test has to result in high scores or something is very wrong. This serves the dual purpose of building pupils’ resilience in the face of the experience of tests, and provides frequent opportunities for retrieval practice that helps to build knowledge in the long-term memory.

Most of this, I hope, is common sense. We are not seeking to return to some Victorian world of serried ranks of terrified school-children having lists of facts rammed into their heads by overbearing schoolmasters. We are, however, seeking to reconnect with a sensible and perennial concept of what effective learning is. None of this means that the classroom cannot be a fun environment. By introducing elements of game playing to the classroom, you create a happy and enthused atmosphere and help prevent the boredom that affects anyone, of any age, if they are required to do nothing more than listen and take notes for long periods of time. For example, something as simple as using a random name generator or throwing a ball around during a Q&A session injects some fun into a lesson, promotes inclusion and can provide the teacher with lots of valuable information.

However, important as such fun elements are to a pacey and happy learning environment, effective learning must also include a strong core of quiet individual application on genuinely challenging tasks and the aim of learning is always to embed knowledge where it did not previously exist. The proliferation of new technologies, and social media in particular, increasingly militates against the discipline of quiet and sustained concentration – but that is no reason for educationalists to buy into the absurd pretence that individual quiet hard graft is somehow dispensable. At the end of the day, real thought can only occur in an atmosphere of concentration and application and without such real thought nothing is actually learned. As Dan Willingham states, ‘memory is the residue of thought.’