Miltonic Vision Part I: Trivium 21C, Threshold concepts and the power of ‘powerful knowledge’

night devil satan gustave dore paradise lost john milton_www.wall321.com_67

A few years ago, at my previous school, I taught Milton’s Paradise Lost for the first time. Whilst I had read some of the early books in my first year at university, I never managed to complete the poem and I certainly didn’t think I knew it. The thought of teaching such as challenging text to my A2 class was a little to daunting to the say the least. Faced with this vulnerability and my commitment to teach the best of my ability, I did what I always do to prepare: I hit the books.

As you can see from the picture below, getting the time to read what I should have learnt at university was not easy. Somehow, despite the clammerings of a small person, I managed to find the time to learn a lot about the poem – about Milton, his incredible life and his fascinating, yet extremely complex, religious beliefs. The more I read of and about Paradise Lost the more I understood the complexity of the poem, and the more I could enjoy and appreciate its beauty.


Teacher subject knowledge

Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my experiencing of teaching Paradise Lost. I suppose the hours I put in to learning the poem are an expression of my belief in the primacy of strong teacher subject knowledge as the key to great teaching – the deep understanding that helps a teacher to guide students to exam success and, perhaps more importantly, fosters a love of learning that remains after exams have been sat and results received. For me, strong teacher subject knowledge operates as both means and ends: ‘means’ as a way to inspire, challenge, provoke, articulate and clarify; ‘ends’ as promotion of the ideal that beauty and complexity are goals in and of themselves.

A lot has been written of late about the importance of strong subject knowledge. I have certainly seen it side-lined in teacher education and training programmes, which too often favour the generic at the expense of the domain specific. I have also seen the marginalisation of teacher subject knowledge in the national curriculum (and hence in the classroom), which has focused more on all encompassing themes and developing skills and less on exploring the intricate networks of knowledge that exist within and across disciplines. The dominant mood has seemed to be that teaching comes first, and knowledge of the subject comes second. It is encouraging to see this imbalance being readdressed, with excellent suggestions here, here, here and here on how to improve initial and ongoing teacher training, as well as curriculum design.

Powerful knowledge

So far I have been focusing on the knowledge of the teacher and how the relative strength of that knowledge can impact the relative strength of the learning within the classroom. Of course, the end point is obviously the learners themselves – and our job is surely to ensure that all students have the opportunity to access, engage and wrestle with the knowledge that is organised and accumulated within disciplines. I am particularly drawn to Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ in this regard. Unlike my use of the term ‘strong subject knowledge’ – though important, is ultimately more orientated towards the teacher rather than the student – the term ‘powerful knowledge’ distinguishes between ‘knowledge of the powerful’, the knowers of knowledge, and ‘powerful knowledge’ which is concerned with the intrinsic power of knowledge in itself. The entitlement for every young person in education.

Future School 3

‘Powerful knowledge’ lies at the heart of what Young and others describe in their excellent book Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. The Future School 3 curriculum model is one of three possible curriculum models open to us in the years to come. Young et al argue that Future School 3 is the best way to achieve a fair and equitable knowledge entitlement for all learners, regardless of background and context. Their model runs counter to what they see as the two curriculum ideologies that have dominated the educational system of the past – Future School 1 and Future School 2.

Future School 1 treats knowledge as largely fixed and the role of the teacher as the deliverer of static bodies of learning to future generations. Its model is ‘compliance’ and ‘transmission’ and is characterised by adherents of the Arnoldian belief in the ‘best which has been thought and said.’ Future School 2 reacts against this thesis on the basis that it is elitist and removed from the lives of young people today, particularly in the digital age. It believes knowledge is changeable and the curriculum should be constructed from and for the experiences of learners in the real world. This is the curriculum model, to a lesser or greater extent, that I have seen dominate my time in education.

Future School 3, however, rejects both these positions and for me offers an exciting way of aligning the way that teachers make use of strong subject knowledge within their subjects to the idea of powerful knowledge accumulating for students across their experience of the whole curriculum. The Future School 3 model emphasises ‘powerful knowledge’ – not as a ‘given’, as with Future 1 – but as ‘fallible and ‘always open to change through the debates and research of particular specialist groups.’ In the Future School 3 framework disciplines collaborate with their learned communities (university departments, subject associations, etc) to create ‘curriculum based on engagement’ not adherence. This model helps learners develop powerful knowledge by deliberately taking them away from their own experiences – defamiliarising their worlds in order to represent them with alternative realities filled with possibility and scope.

It seems to me that one of the most profound possibilities of a Future 3 curriculum is that students are likely to better equipped to ask meaningful questions about the worlds in which they inhabit both now and in the future. I think this is empowering and moral, and in many respects sits nicely alongside what I take to be the main thrust of Martin Robinson’s concept of Trivium 21C: that schools should teach students the facts or knowledge of a subject from the past (grammar), but also give them the necessary tools (rhetoric and dialectic) to be able to interrogate the validity of these truth claims so they can shape their futures. A synthesis of past and present – not from outside in, but from inside out.

Young’s delineation of ‘powerful knowledge’, which I have barely even sketched, also dovetails with another theoretical model I have been mulling over for some time now, Meyer and Land’s notion of Threshold Concepts. I particularly like the way that Powerful Knowledge and Threshold Concepts are both concerned with the underpinnings of disciplines, and how they focus on what is true to subjects in their purest form, not interpretations of them by exam boards, which have become increasingly detached from their learned communities. The way I see it ‘powerful knowledge’ effectively lays out the ideal of what we want our young people to be taught; the Trivium’s grammar, rhetoric and dialectic offer a means of making this simultaneously coherent whilst also open to the possibility of change through a combination of debate and synthesis. Threshold concepts can here become the overarching framework that recognises and identities the nature of progression within each of the disciplines as students inhabit the tension between knowledge of the past and experience of the present.

Paradise Regained

And this is where I return to Paradise Lost, and in particular to my experience of preparing to teach it for the first time. Whilst it would certainly have helped if I had learnt more about the poem during my time at university, the reality was that I was a first year undergraduate reading a incredibly complex text that I was not really equipped to read: my previous studies (which yielded an E at A level literature and a C and D in English language and Literature respectively in the age of 100% coursework!) had left me woefully unprepared for degree level study. I simply did not posses the requisite knowledge of Milton, of poetry, of Literature itself, to properly make sense of one of the finest works in the English Literary Heritage. I did not possess ‘powerful knowledge’.

Some years later as a teacher, through a combination of hard work and the support and kindness of number of inspiring, knowledgeable tutors, I returned to the poem again. By this time I had completed my degree as well as masters in literature. I could understand the poem much better – I understood much more how it worked, what Milton was up to and some of the ways in which he achieved his aims. Above all, I could appreciate the beauty of Paradise Lost, and why I thought it sill had considerable relevance to my life today. I had experienced the way that ‘powerful knowledge’ begets further ‘powerful knowledge’ – the oft quoted, and rather fittingly given the Christian context of the poem, Matthew Effect.

In the second part of this post I intend to look at the poem itself. In particular I want to look closely at Milton’s use of the epic simile as a way of exploring the inherent power of ‘powerful knowledge’ in a little more depth. In this post I wanted to tie together my thoughts about how I think schools can create the conditions where strong teacher subject knowledge meet powerful student knowledge. I hope I have at least partially achieved this aim. Maybe.

Mr Benn and the Anatomy of Extended Writing

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Me and Mr Benn

I was born in 1975, and the cult children’s animation Mr Benn was part of my childhood. I must have watched re-runs, since the only series made (which consisted of a paltry 13 episodes) was first aired in 1971. For the uninitiated, Mr Benn employed a recurring plot sequence. The bowler-hat-wearing protagonist would leave his home each morning and end up in a strange fancy dress shop, run by an even more mysterious shopkeeper. The nameless proprietor would show Mr Benn the delights of his shop and help him to choose a costume to wear for the rest of the episode. And here’s the rub: whatever outfit Mr Benn shimmied into out back, when he emerged was dressed appropriately for the adventure he was about to embark upon. Whether dressed as a cowboy, a spaceman or a knight, Mr Benn was always prepared.

In some respects Mr Benn’s costume-wearing shenanigans provides an interesting way of thinking about how many of our students approach academic writing. Like Mr Benn, they try and ready themselves for whatever adventure or challenge they are about to meet – they choose the most appropriate writing clothes for the written environment, or genre, they are about to inhabit. Yet perhaps this is where my metaphor breaks down, since what I think we want as teachers is for our students to dig much deeper than the superficiality of mere costume change. Wearing different clothes is essentially pretending, and what we surely wish for our students is for them to write in a more authentic, authoritative and genuinely academic fashion: to understand what it means to write like a historian, a scientist or a geographer.

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A way forward

I wonder if sometimes we might actually contribute towards this ultimately reductive approach to extended writing. I am thinking here of the pervasive use of wall displays of connectives, the over-reliance on crude acronyms for thinking about paragraph structures (PEE, PEED, PEAL, etc) and the use of snazzy laminated placemats for everything from proofreading prompts to convention cues. Whilst I am not entirely against some of these strategies – in the right context and used in the right manner – I am increasingly coming to believe that they are not fundamentally helping our students to write with more sophistication and precision.

What I believe is required is the explicit teaching of the deep structures that underpin academic discourse. Until address this more often and more systematically as part of our daily pedagogy through the interface of the teacher as the main resource in the room, I am not sure that our students’ extended writing will be demonstrably better. What we need to teach lies beneath the disguise of clothing and more within those anatomical structures that cannot be seen. If we get the teaching of these structures right students’ writing really will be able to meet the demands of writing with clarity and force.

The Anatomy of Extended Writing

Over the past few months I have attempted to provide the teachers in my school with a sense of what these structures might look like. This work has grown into what I am calling the Anatomy of Extended Writing. Drawing upon a wide range of different source material, and spending a disproportionate amount of my summer break pouring over a computer screen, I have devised an initial set of 18 modes of extended writing – functions or purposes of writing that I think are commonly used across subjects, such as Making Points, Evaluating the Significance of Data, Providing Definitions and Summarising Findings.

Within each of these modes I have identified a further set of specific sentence structures for each different facet of the overall function. So this might mean that for Reporting Results and Findings (coded 13.0), I have ‘commenting on specific visual data’ (coded 13.1), and ‘referring to the results from surveys’ (coded 13.6). As you can see, both the overarching mode and the specific sentence forms beneath them are numbered: the main modes are numbered 1-18, with each specific sentence type appended using a decimal point. I think this codification is crucial for helping to create a shared understanding of the different sentence functions. Over time, I see this coding system enabling teachers within and across departments to identify, teach and practise specific sentence constructions.

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Producing an Exemplar

The first step in turning these sentence forms into something tangible is for subjects to identify the specific genres they are trying to teach – the kinds of writing they are gearing their students towards producing. In most cases, there will only be one or two over-arching academic genres that operate within a discipline. In English Literature, I have identified three prevalent genres: the comparative study, the unseen analysis or appreciation and the critical opinion essay, where students have to engage in some form of opinion about a character, theme or relationship. There may well be others, but in the short term, these are going to be the ones for which we develop specific anatomies.

From the identification of genres, the next stage is to draw upon the sentence structures contained within each of the modes, and use them to produce exemplar writing – an excellent piece of work that provides teachers and students with a template for success within that academic genre. The important thing to remember here is that this exemplar piece of writing should be devised with the highest point at which the department teaches in mind. This model will effectively become the ultimate expression of excellence which can then, assuming that A level is the highest point the subject teaches, be worked backwards to produce exemplification of high standards at GCSE and Key Stage Three.

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Codifying Sentence Structures

These exemplar pieces of extended academic writing or anatomies will then be coded, through reference to the sentence structures identified in the modes of writing. It is my hope that over time my initial list of 18 functions will grow and that within these functions additional coded constructions can be established, effectively creating a continual on-going database. The point of codification is twofold. to establish a consistency of approach towards teaching extended writing both within departments and across subjects and key stages. It has always struck me as perverse that with one teacher a student learns to structure their writing using a hamburger metaphor, another with some derivation of PEE and another with something else entirely.

This term I have spent a bit of time teaching my A level students some of these sentence forms. For instance, we are currently preparing for a 3,000 word comparative essay, and to help better structure my students’ writing I have been relentlessly getting them to practise writing the opening manoeuvres of a paragraph. In the past I have been rather too guilty of focusing on deconstructing whole texts, when mine and my students’ time would probably have been better served in honing specific sentence forms. In many respects, this approach to developing extended writing through focusing on sentence construction is not a million miles away from Doug Lemov’s Golden Sentence, David Didau’s Slow Writing and some of the excellent work produced by the likes of Andy Tharby and Chris Curtis.

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‘One True Sentence’

It seems that developing students’ understanding of the sentence is currently where a number of educators are converging, which to me makes perfect sense. Two of my favourite writers of the Twentieth Century are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway: both writing around the same time and addressing similar Modernist concerns. Yet to read their writing you may well think they were poles apart – the one writes with an ornate flamboyance and overly decorative style, whilst the other strips everything back in the hope of finding the ‘one true sentence.’ Beneath this superficial difference seems to me a more striking similarity. Both writers were obsessed with the sentence: in finding out the optimum construction for conveying meaning or truth. Where Fitzgerald believed in more, Fitzgerald strove for less.

I am not suggesting that the Anatomies of Extended Writing are about finding the ‘one true sentence’. What I am suggesting is that the sentence is the unit of language we should pursue with our students to help them better understand and produce the real thing, rather than having to pretend through dressing up!

‘After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’ Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ F. Scott. Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Further Resources:

Here is a link to my Teaching and Learning Presentation

Here is a link to a PDF version of The Anatomy of Extended Writing

School Improvement – lessons from the Royal Belgian Football Association

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Perhaps the most common analogy used in recent years to describe school improvement is the marginal gains approach employed by Dave Brailsford to transform British cycling. Marginal gains works on the premise that considerable rises in overall performance levels can be achieved by aggregating multiple smaller improvements. It relies heavily on sophisticated data systems to identity what are often microscopic areas for development, and then uses well-informed coaches to work with individuals on realising these tweaks.

The analogy proved popular because of the perceived similarities between sport and education – both domains consist of learners striving to maximize performance working within complex environments increasingly driven by data to set and measure achievement. This synergy, coupled with the success of British riders in Team Sky and at the London Olympics, conspired to make marginal gains a useful metaphor for school leaders.

I wonder, however, whether another, different sporting comparison might provide a more accurate account of the work many schools are now undertaking to improve outcomes, particularly in relation to the Growth Mindset model articulated by Carol Dweck. The analogy I have in mind is the work of the Belgian Football Association in developing their national team to be amongst the best in the world. I can only apologise now to those who abhor football and who are still smarting from wall-to-wall coverage of the recent World Cup. All I can say is that the football is really secondary to the lessons learnt from the scope and vision of the reforms that have been taking place in Belgium.

La vision de formation de l’URBSFA

Despite a population of only 11m, with just 34 professional clubs competing across two leagues, Belgium has managed to produce something of a golden generation of footballers. The national team recently reached the World Cup quarter final, where, aside from Ghana, they had the youngest squad at Brazil with an average age of just over 25. Belgium has a host of talented players at Europe’s elite clubs, including Everton’s Romelu Lukaku and Chelsea’ Eden Hazard. Many of these players are nowhere near their prime. So how did such a tiny country with little tradition of footballing success (aside from a fourth placed finish in the1986 World Cup) manage to produce such a crop of exciting young footballers, and what lessons might schools learn from the successes they have achieved so far and hope to enjoy in the future?

A large part of the answer to this question comes in the form of Michel Sablon, the Belgium Football Association’s technical director. It was his vision for the radical overhaul of football in his country submitted to their executive body in 2006 that provided the blueprint for the team of 2014. Sablon’s vision is a remarkable example of root and branch reform, and key aspects of its philosophy correspond with a lot of the developmental work schools are currently engaged in. This 2012 presentation, focusing on the development of the youth system, provides some wonderful insights into how Belgium went from World Cup also-rans in 1998 to World Cup quarter finalists this year with an international ranking of 5.

What I particularly like about La vision de formation de l’URBSFA is its recognition that these things take time – that to really bring about change there are no short term fixes and you need a willingness to sacrifice immediate success for longer term achievement. Despite the immediate pressures that many schools are under, I think there is a lesson here for leaders to try to retain a sense of the bigger picture: of course, do what you can in the here and now, but recognise that real change takes time and patience. At some point, there has to be a commitment to the long term, which may sometimes come into conflict with short-term priorities.

Local contexts; global influences

The vision pitched to the Belgian F.A. by Sablon and other influential figures, such as the Youth team coach Bob Browaeys, was informed by some of the best examples of football development programmes from around the world. Influences included the philosophies and training methods of countries, such as The Netherlands, France and Germany, as well as of leading European clubs like Ajax and Barcelona. But the Belgium model did not just replicate the work of others; it looked at what was needed for footballers to flourish in Belgium, given their unique set of circumstances.

Eight football training colleges, known as Topsport schools, were set up across the country, where youngsters aiming to become professional footballers not only received the education they would need to achieve success off the field, but also the most talented individuals received extra training and opportunities like run outs with the first team. If you read through the presentation on the youth development plans, it is clear just how switched on the Belgian F.A. really are to the reality that the vast majority of youngsters wont make it to professional level. There are repeated references to the wholeness of the child, and to, dare I say, instilling a sense of fun into learning. Anderlect’s youth director Jean Kindermans is clear about the imperative of education beyond the football pitch and how ‘a degree at school will give you the opportunity to find a job, to be a human being with intellectual skills.’

Formation, formation, formation

One of the most striking aspects of the Belgian F.A.’s improvement model is the widespread adoption of one single playing formation across all the teams for which the governing body has responsibility as well as the youth teams of the top clubs in the country like Anderlecht and Standard Liege. Every youth team up to and including the national team plays a 4-3-3 system. A significant part of the training that the players go through between the ages of 7 and 17 is on tactics and how to function in a team that plays to this set formation. Belgium clearly has a plan for how they want to play and they set up all their teams throughout the country the same way to ensure a shared understanding.

When I first read about this approach I was taken by the similarities between what the Belgian F.A. have done to improve their national team and the plans that schools like ours are currently implementing to improve student learning. For example, in preparation for the new assessment model at KS3 a number of our departments have stripped back their curricula in the belief that less is more. P.E. is reducing the number of sports they teach because they do not think students get to experience or enjoy anything in any real depth, whilst English intend to teach only the essay and composition, eschewing other forms to master the main facets of literary expression.

‘The duel’

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As well as formation, there is a significant focus in Belgian youth football on developing a certain playing style. Unlike our poor, insipid F.A., the Belgian federation wants its footballers to have an identity. Central to cultivating this is the idea of ‘the duel’ – they want a new breed of footballers with excellent dribbling skills and the confidence to beat opponents in one on one situations. This is no pipedream: every aspect of coaching from individual work on the training ground to in game play is geared to instilling this level of technical prowess. Before youngsters learn anything about tactics or formations they spend two years getting comfortable with the ball, and they are always playing matches (in small teams so everyone has lots of contact with the ball). Tackling is frowned upon and there is no place in the national set up for this kind of thing.

To my mind, this is deliberate practice writ large across a nation of young aspiring footballers. By settling on what it is they want to achieve, the Belgium F.A. are able to direct their resources into breaking down the overall goal into manageable chunks that are practiced diligently with each different team (or department). I am currently in the midst of designing an INSET programme for teaching staff at our school on literacy. Because literacy, particularly writing, is the most important aspect of students’ learning that we need to develop, we are putting in place what is necessary to ensure that we are all confident users of language in the classroom. I will blog about these plans later, but suffice to say that, as with the Belgian notion of the duel and the 4-3-3 formation, we are looking to define an approach to teaching writing that is consistently applied and practised across the school so that students experience the same methodology and metalanguage.

Growth Mindset

Reading the Belgian vision it becomes clear how embedded Growth Mindset is throughout the organisation and national set up. In an interview for the Guardian newspaper Sablon explains how he asked the president of one club he was about to make a presentation to if they could remove the younger players’ rankings from the wall before he started. He explains how rankings are wrong and that ‘the development of your players is the first objective.’ The detailed plans make continual reference to learning being a ‘continuous process’ and the teaching of mental processes, such as motivation, self-control and discipline, are explicit.

Another aspect of Growth Mindset is the notion of failure. Despite recent refutation of the efficacy of Dweck’s findings, I remain convinced that failing and learning from it is an important aspect of becoming a successful learner. For the Belgium national team to get to a world ranking of 5 they have clearly had to endure and learn from their own fair share of disappointment. They failed to get out of the group stages of Euro 2000, an event for which they were co-hosts, and as Sablon explains they had to stick to the blueprint despite losing matches. He was told by one official, ‘you pay more attention to the playing system than to be qualified.’ But in both instances, failure seems to have helped contribute towards later success. The money from being co-hosts, for instance, enabled sizeable investment in youth infrastructure, and persevering with 4-3-3, despite losing some matches, eventually led to greater levels of mastery and in turn more wins.

Research based

I could go on. I have not yet touched upon the value the Belgium F.A. place on developing high-quality coaches, or the emphasis that they place on scientific research to underpin their ideas. I will leave you with the quotation below taken from one of the slides on the youth presentation of 2012. I have tried to source it, but have without success. Whilst I don’t know where it comes from, I do think it speaks volumes of an organisation that has thought long and hard about the best way to bring about continual improvement, one that understands the environment required to bring about success and that has the courage and strength of character to see it through. I think that in this mentality there are a lot of lessons for school leaders and educators in general.

“An acquired skill in the application of certain activities (training session) can only be transferred into a new condition (the match) when there exists a maximum of resemblances between the two situations.”

There is a place for multiple choice in English – Part II


In my last blog I laid out the background to my thinking around the use of multiple choice as an assessment tool in English. My focus is on its use as a formative vehicle, in particular its application to the teaching of reading. To this end I have been experimenting with setting regular multiple choice assessments with my GCSE English class, preparing them for an examination of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men next summer.

This post will outline the nitty gritty of my approach, explaining how I have been using these short assessments to inform my weekly planning. Whilst I will concentrate a great deal on the methodology, I will also look at the results and the manner in which I have been interpreting them in order to inform my subsequent instruction. What I am realising more than anything, is that this is still very much a work in progress – but one that I think has considerable scope for future development.

So, to the practicalities. My year 11 class are a challenging set 3 out of 5. All the students are predicted ether a B or a C, though many still have a great deal of ground to do to obtain these grades. And this is where I planned to take advantage of the multiple choice format: to help me target areas to focus on in order to maximise learning and the impact on progress. I have taught Of Mice and Men many times before, so I am familiar with what to expect from students and how to approach the teaching. This familiarity has proven to be very useful when it comes to designing the assessments, which are not only time consuming to produce, but also reliant on a thorough understanding of the text.

I decided to break up the unit into six weekly teaching cycles. Using the mark scheme I identified everything the students would need to know about the novel in order to obtain at least a grade B. This included a detailed knowledge of the characters, their relationships, the plot, the settings, the different contexts, a wide range of authorial methods and the overarching themes. Each week I set out to address a different focus, with the book’s six chapters nicely matching my intentions. I wanted the focus to build in complexity and consist of a cycle of learning that included reading and discussing, analysing one or two key passages and then writing in a structured way. I wanted the multiple choice questions to check the level of understanding for each focus and give me feedback that would inform my teaching for the following week.

The first week focused on chapter one, in particular the initial presentation of George and Lennie, and the role of the setting in establishing their friendship. Whilst students would obviously learn more as the book progressed, I wanted them to know the following after reading the first chapter:

–       what happens in chapter one and what we learn about past events

–       where and when the story is set

–       who George and Lennie are and the differences between them

–       the nature of their friendship and their shared dream

–       how Steinbeck uses adjectives and verbs to portray their characters

–       how Steinbeck uses animals to construct Lennie’s character

–       the symbolic importance of the setting

In the first three lessons we read and discussed chapter one, and the students completed activities designed to help them identify and explain the language used to construct the characters and how to write about these details analytically. At the beginning of the fourth lesson the students completed the first multiple choice assessment, which focused on testing their understanding of some of the areas identified above.

After reading a number of blog posts and research papers about the effective design of multiple choice questions, I realised that my questions would need to bear in mind the following if they were going to be successful:

–       they would need to assess understanding of a teaching sequence

–       they would need to be phrased in a clear and unambiguous way

–       they would need to have all options as plausible answers

 and most importantly: 

–       there would need to be clear cognitive reasoning behind each option, which would enable me to use the results diagnostically 

Here is a link to my first assessment on chapter one: 

On the whole students did quite well, with the average class mark just under 7 out of 10. Considering that I had made the questions quite challenging and had deliberately stayed away from explicitly discussing the chosen passages in advance, I felt this was a decent reflection of their learning. After looking through the results, a few things started to become apparent. Firstly, it was clear that I had phrased one or two questions rather poorly. In question two, for instance, it was clear that the word ‘morosely’ caused a problem. This reminded me of the importance of unpicking unfamiliar vocabulary and the need to be more mindful with my question phrasing.

Of much more interest, however, was the students’ poor showing on question three, which I had not considered to be terribly difficult. This question asked students to select the most fitting explanation for the ‘verb ‘exploded’ and the adverb ‘triumphantly’ in the quotation: “They run us outa Weed,” Lennie exploded triumphantly. Only a handful of students got what I had set as the right answer, which initially left me puzzled. Even though I thought had carefully rationaled the logic of each possible option, I realised that the conclusion I hoped students would reach – that Lennie did not fully understand the consequences of his actions and was therefore dangerous – required a far deeper level of deduction than I had initially anticipated. I had taken it for granted that students would arrive at the full, ominous significance of Lennie’s naïve explosion of joy.

The more I thought about it the more it became clear the level of deductive reasoning and inference that would be required to reach this depth of understanding, the kind of understanding I wanted the class to be able to demonstrate. I came up with the following chain of reasoning:

  1. Lennie remembers that they were run out of Weed.
  2. Lennie is excited that he has remembered.
  3. Lennie cannot control his excitement at remembering.
  4. Lennie likes to please George – they are friends.
  5. Lennie must have a childish nature if he is pleased by all this.
  6. Lennie has clearly forgotten the main reason why they were run out of Weed: his inappropriate actions.
  7. He does not recall, because he does not understand that he’s done anything wrong.

This therefore makes him potentially dangerous, as he does not understand what he did wrong, even though it had terrible consequences.

Despite having taught this novel for many years and helped students to gain very good grades for it in exams, I had never really thought about aspects of their understanding in this degree of detail. The multiple choice assessment, or rather the students’ responses to it, had forced me to reflect on the way that I taught the text and challenged some of my approach to the teaching of reading.

The next lesson I went through this example with the class, explaining to the students the sequence of inference and deduction that I thought they needed to go through in order to arrive at the most sophisticated response. Whilst I am fully aware that part of the joy of literature is the multiplicity of interpretation, I genuinely want my students to be able to read and understand to this level of sophistication. All the responses that I set may well be plausible and in that sense correct, but I believe the option that suggests it shows Lennie’s potential danger is ultimately the most sophisticated, requiring the greatest insight and evaluative skill and therefore worthy of the highest standards of academic excellence.

I have since conducted two more assessments, with three further tests to follow. In my third, and final, blog on this subject, I will analyse the salient points from my students’ responses to these questions, and start to arrive at some tentative conclusions for how I intend to use multiple choice in the future. I will also offer some reflections on broader applications of the format.

For now, I am still learning what it can do for me.

Language Across the Curriculum part II: what are the priorities?


In my last blog I tried to flesh out some of the reasons for many teachers’ lack of confidence with all things language – the ‘elephant in the room’ identified by @englishlulu here: I then tried to suggest how a persuasive argument could be constructed that encourages teachers and support staff to make a meaningful and sustained contribution to developing pupils’ language skills. Winning this argument is surely the first step in establishing a coherent, long-lasting approach to the teaching of language across the curriculum.

This post offers some further thoughts on how to train teachers once they are willing, and set up the culture and interactions necessary to realise a coherent longer term vision. I will briefly explain some of the things that I have tried to implement (in this regard) in my previous role as Head of English, and explore some of the ideas and approaches that I intend to implement this coming year. This blog is essentially the sum of my present thinking, and as much as my writing is really about helping me to better marshal my thoughts, I hope it also offers you a useful articulation of what a successful language across the curriculum policy might look like.

What is abundantly clear is the sheer scale of the task of getting all classroom teachers and supporting adults to take responsibility for developing pupils’ language, which is perhaps why so many schools have tried and failed with such initiatives in the past. It can become a running joke how every 2-3 years a school introduces a new cross curricula language development, usually on the back of an Ofsted inspection and usually to great fanfare to all staff. In 2009 Geoff Barton’s Re-Booting English – a Leading Edge National Programme review document for English teachers and senior teams – offered some sound advice to schools looking to implement a more coherent literacy programme. The advice was to adopt a ‘less is more approach’ and ‘focus relentlessly on the two of three key areas which will make an impact on students’ learning.’ See here:

These words seem as true today as they did then: to do a few things really well now, and then build later on. But developing a school culture where every adult takes responsibility for developing pupils’ reading, writing and oracy – willingly and with zeal, not coercion – takes time. Such a vision can be planned for, but any attempt to realise its entirety too soon is overwhelming and probably the reason why so many fall by the wayside, leading to wry smiles and the continuation of the long-running joke. It’s therefore sensible to focus resources and effort on one or two main priorities, depending on the context of the school.

This is certainly not to suggest that plans for language across the curriculum should not be bold and ambitious: they should.  We should aim for a situation where talking about language and its usage is so part of the fabric of pupils’ learning they consider it normal and expect it in their lessons. Pupils should be getting better at their reading in geography, improving their writing in Food Technology and developing their oral skills in Design Technology.

These improvements must be more than just tokenistic language references, one-off lessons or questionable bolted on tasks. This is why I don’t think many of the resources that we as teachers like to generate, such as literacy place mats, colourful classroom writing prompts or lists of key words, are not really the answer. Don’t get me wrong, these resources have their uses – I’ve certainly designed and used many of my own (see below) – but they are ultimately just tools and through their reductive nature can sometimes do more harm than good, particularly in the hands of someone who does not know how to use them properly. The greatest resource is always the teacher.

Toolkit ichecker copy

Depending on the context of the school, then, the best place to start is probably with developing levels of professional expertise. In the past I’ve tried to make sure my department has the strongest possible subject knowledge and that my English teachers have a shared understanding of how language works and how we will talk about it with our pupils, including the terminology we intend to use in our lessons. Whilst I think it is a mistake to place the responsibility for developing language across the curriculum solely on shoulders of the English department – the idea is really that everyone is a language teacher – it would be misguided not to make some use of those with the greater expertise and experience, at least in the short term.

This experience can be harnessed in a variety of different ways. In her blogpost @englishlulu mentioned how she intends to offer ‘fun, practical and edible’ cake and grammar sessions for teachers. This type of non-threatening training opportunity is great, particularly in conjunction with her other ideas, such as the language for learning tips in the school newsletter. It is important to stress, though, that any approach which places the responsibility for whole school language development on the English department, or still in some schools on the relatively inexperienced KS3 co-coordinator, should only be a short term measure. As long as the English department are seen driving whole school literacy, the more unlikely it will be that every teacher sees language development as being their responsibility. And this is why training sessions for teachers might be best served targeting those teachers in other subjects who have the greatest enthusiasm, willingness and/or expertise, which can then be develop in these sessions and applied in their own departments.

A further consideration when setting up any training is the need to establish a shared language for approaching literacy beforehand. I genuinely believe that one of the problems in schools – even within English departments – is the scattergun manner in which literacy is talked about with students. For example, from the students’ point of view, how helpful is it when one teacher tells them that adjectives are describing words (focusing on their definition) and the next teacher discusses them in terms of their formal properties and their role and function in sentences? It is confusing. Furthermore, the students in the class of the second teacher are getting a much better deal: they are learning about how language truly works in a given context – not some pre-defined definition of an adjective that is often not true in practice.

This goes back to my previous point about literacy place mats and writing tips: what does it really mean to have a laminated piece of card with an instruction to start a sentence with an ‘ed’ word if that student (or teacher) has no idea what type of clause this is referring to, or how it needs to be punctuated? Establishing a shared, common language in advance, which can then perhaps be prompted by these tools, is therefore paramount. In my experience, the tool too often comes first and it is assumed that the prompt will work and not create further issues as a result, such as technical inaccuracy. I have the same concern with the use of some literacy success criteria, such as that which states ‘use a variety of sentences’. Many students’ understanding of this target will be to use some sentences that are short, some that are longer and some that are somewhere in between. This is not genuine language development – unless this explicitly referring back to prior learning and terminology, it’s at best vague and tokenistic, at worse the cause of further problems.

In an ideal world any shared understanding of language would be communicated across the whole school community, so that all teachers, students and their parents understand how language is being talked about and taught in lessons. Obviously, this would means that parents would need to have access to the same grammar training and subsequent supportive resources as the teachers, but in this should not pose too much of a problem. The use of technology could clearly help in this regard, where training sessions could be recorded and made available as a bank of videos over the years.

For what it’s worth, my focus for whole school language development starting this September is pupils’ writing. I would love to take on oracy work and pupils’ reading too, but I recognise the benefits of the ‘less is more approach’ I advocated earlier. If you read my previous blog, you will remember that I extoled the virtues of the important work that Lee Donaghy was doing at his school on a genre-based pedagogy. See here: This is very much part of my long term thinking, but how I actually tackle the ideas and approaches he raises is probably the stuff of a post later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to properly get to grips with it.