Prospero’s knowledge: magic or curse?

‘Real learning requires stepping into the unknown, which initiates a rupture in knowing’. Leslie Schwartzman

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The pursuit of knowledge

I have been thinking a lot about The Tempest recently. Preparing two A2 classes for their imminent exams means I have been immersed in the ideas and characters in this late Shakespeare play. At the same time I have been working on approaches to help teachers improve their subject knowledge as a part of our professional development programme, something I think is sadly lacking from much INSET which tends to focus more on generic aspects of pedagogy. A number of issues in the play, and more specifically tensions arising from my teaching of it, have made me reflect on the nature and efficacy of teacher subject knowledge. This post attempts to outline some of these issues and how I think I have resolved them.

Those familiar with The Tempest will know there is a speech near the end where the main protagonist Prospero renounces his ‘rough magic’ and symbolically drowns his books and breaks his staff. The scene is the moment in which the magician, the rightful Duke of Milan who was overthrown by his own brother and exiled to a faraway island, recognises the part his own selfish pursuit of magic played in his usurpation and rejects it in order to be restored to humanity and his previous courtly status. He has come to realise that for reconciliation to be possible, he must wave goodbye to the one of the sources of the initial disorder: the magic that is his ‘art’.

In constructing Prospero’s character Shakespeare drew upon contemporary concern for the danger of magic – embodied in the divisive figure of John Dee and Marlowe’s recasting of the Faustus myth – as well to fears about the underlying danger of knowledge acquisition itself, particularly of the supernatural kind. In an age of growing humanistic enquiry and learning, Shakespeare’s presentation of Prospero appears to be asking, is there a price to be paid for the pursuit of knowledge? Should we strive to know the secrets of nature, or should we make do with what is determined for us by others? Should we have the ambition to think like a god, or heed the lessons from over-reachers like Prospero and Faustus who venture beyond boundaries and suffer terribly as a result?

Rethinking CPD

I have always believed that strong, evolving subject knowledge is as just as important to excellence in the classroom as strong, evolving pedagogy. In many respects this belief drives my approach to teaching. Regardless of the topic or age group, I go to great lengths to ‘know’ as much as possible about what I am teaching – indeed as much as I do about how I am going to teach it. In the past this ethos has involved spending large chucks of holiday time reading and re-reading primary and secondary sources, taking copious notes, listening to online lectures and podcasts and even reviewing old university notes. I have never thought it acceptable to be on the next page or even the next chapter to the students; I want to be on the next book!

This desire to keep on top of the knowledge necessary to help my students thrive has become increasingly burdensome. Whilst I like to think that I have a rich seam of conceptual underpinning from my own studies, I have inevitably forgotten a great deal and much of what I have learnt (and remembered) is no longer relevant to the students, courses and texts I now teach. Every year I therefore have to replenish my knowledge and add to it. Each new text represents a mini programme of study and even though I adore reading, with increased responsibility at work and home, it is becoming more difficult to put in the hours to get to the level of understanding necessary required.

If I am feeling like this, then surely others are too, and if this is the case CPD must address the imbalance between time spent honing subject knowledge and time spent developing pedagogy. I have thought a lot about how to do this practically and meaningfully: devising ways to give teachers more time and resources to concentrate on developing their subject expertise. From distributing INSET more equitably to implementing subject audits that help teachers to identify priorities for future development, there is much that can be done. Within this re-articulation of CPD there is a need to raise the profile of subject expertise, particularly in relation to the development of Growth Mindset. I believe in embedding this philosophy from the outset through the recruitment process, along the lines Michael Fordham expertly delineates in his post on the ways schools can announce their commitment to strong subject knowledge to prospective staff.  

Overreaching?

But what if this is the wrong approach and that I am overstating the importance of deep mastery over subject content? What if, beyond the basic levels of understanding necessary to cover the core curriculum of each domain, there is no additional benefit accrued to students as a result of teachers knowing more? We all have colleagues who know their subjects inside and backwards, but cannot use what they know to inspire others. Similarly, we are familiar with those who can teach a variety of subjects outside their specialisms – often to good effect. Though caricatures, these extreme positions raise the possibility that maybe there is an optimum amount of knowledge a teacher needs to be effective: enough to get the job done, but not too much to get in the way of the learning. What if, like rarefied academics such as Prospero and Faustus, there is a consequence for teachers attempting to know (or to teach) too much?

Whilst I remain committed to the virtues of strong subject knowledge, every year things happen in my classes and with certain students in particular, that make me question my certainty. This year these instances have manifest in my teaching of The Tempest. Now in my third year of teaching the play, I feel I know it reasonably well, including background context, dramatic history and critical interpretation. I try to use this knowledge to explain, clarify, challenge and extend my students. For the most part this approach is successful (though only the results will tell!), and my students’ essays this year have been demonstrably better than the first time I taught the play. Yet there are occasions where I feel that what I know might have got in the way, and that as a result of wanting students to go beyond what is strictly necessary to do well in the exam, I have taken them from a position of certainty to a state of doubt.

One example where my subject knowledge appeared to hinder rather than help was my recent attempt to teach a psychoanalytical reading of Prospero’s character. I wanted my class to understand how Ariel and Caliban can be read as facets of Prospero’s psyche: Caliban the desirous ego that acts solely upon impulse, and Ariel the more ethereal representative of restraint and conscience, the id. Prospero is the superego, mediating between the two positions by way of the Reality Principle. I realised this would be tricky so I structured my approach carefully, introducing the ideas in a number of different ways, explaining them in detail and reinforcing them through retrieval activities. And yet, despite my planning the students still struggled to understand. Worse, their subsequent essays were weaker than previously. Had my own understanding of this complex interpretation led me to introduce something too difficult for my students, resulting in them losing confidence? Had I overreached in my ambitions as a teacher?

Mental models

In their excellent book Make it Stick Brown, Roediger and McDaniel offer a useful corollary to what I have been discussing. They consider how ‘the better you know something, the more difficult it becomes to teach it’. Drawing upon Jacoby, Bjork and Kelly’s ‘Illusions of Comprehension, Competence and Remembering’ and Eric Mazur’s paper ‘Confessions of a Converted Lecturer’ (available to view on Youtube), the authors describe how as an individual’s expertise grows the mental models that underpin their mastery start to get increasingly complex, at which point the ‘component steps that compose them fade into the background.’ It seems that despite my best efforts to carefully structure my teaching of complex theoretical material, I might be guilty of forgetting some of the steps that helped me achieve mastery and as result neglected to teach what was necessary for my less experienced learners. In other words, my subject knowledge might have got in the way of my students’ learning.

The premise that I might have forgotten some of the steps necessary to understand the concept of psychoanalytical interpretation makes perfect sense. As a teacher I must therefore continually guard against taking for granted complex mental models that have helped to give structure and coherence to my own understanding, but which my conscious mind has long since forgotten. And this is where I think knowledge about teaching complements knowledge about subject content. It provides insights into how to teach complex concepts like theoretical interpretation and facilitates the assimilation of new knowledge into old. Depth of subject knowledge remains central, but it is harnessed through appropriate pedagogy, which is unlikely to ever be absolute or definitive.

Learning for the future

In what appears to be a defining moment in education – where increased rigour and content is being brought to the fore – the successful alignment of subject knowledge with teaching expertise needs considered thought. Many schools (including ours) are introducing much more challenging texts at KS3. There is the temptation to think that simply moving towards harder content will automatically raise the rigour and in and of itself prepare students for more demanding examinations at GCSE and beyond. This is unlikely. In reality, many teachers (like me) will need as much support in understanding what they are teaching as how they are going to teach it. Subject specific training is absolutely necessary if challenging Classical texts like The Odyssey are to be taught and understood in a meaningful way.

As well the need to provide teachers with adequate support to develop their subject knowledge, I also think there needs to be greater recognition that this increased ambition has the potential to make learning fuzzier and to create doubt amongst students. The difficulties I have encountered in my teaching, for instance, are almost impossible to mitigate and so we must be equipped to deal with uncertainty when it arises. Next time round I will approach the way I teach psychoanalytical readings differently, but even then I may still get it wrong. Or rather, I may get it right and my students may still not understand. This should not mean I settle for second best, though. My students’ confusion was the result of poor execution, not misplaced ambition.

Prospero and his creator Shakespeare existed in restrictive and tightly bound worlds, where the scope of knowledge, whilst rapidly evolving, nevertheless had limitations and where fears to established order were rife. We live in intellectually freer times, and so we owe it to our students to ensure that we are armed with the tools necessary to fully challenge, develop and critique their learning. And this means spending as much time on what we know about our subjects as how to deliver them, and be prepared for doubt, confusion and sometimes failure – on our part and on the part of our students. Whilst it is eminently possible to teach students to a reasonable level without strong subject knowledge, I think that it is only with deep expertise that we are truly able to take learners through the threshold concepts of our domains – from positions of certainty to uncertainty (what Land et al refer to as ‘liminality’) and out the other end to a ‘transformed way of understanding.’

In The Tempest Prospero renounces his magic, not because he does not value the knowledge he gleaned from the volumes he ‘prized above his dukedom’, but because he recognises he put his learning to the wrong use. The Tempest may well have been Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play, but he certainly did not give up on the power of ‘art’ to transform lives; he embraced tension, championed uncertainty and in doing profoundly altered people’s understanding of themselves and the world around them for many years to come.

This is the magic of knowledge.

 

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Now is the time for English curriculum redesign

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This post is about the draft of our new KS3 English curriculum and the rationale behind its construction. My next post will explain how this curriculum fits in with the method of assessment we have devised to replace the largely ineffectual SATS levels. It will effectively form the third part of my series about the use of multiple-choice questions in English, and will describe how we intend to use the format within a holistic system of assessment.

Like others, for a long while I have wanted to make a step change to KS3, knowing that this represents the best way to raise attainment. Intervention work, early entry or the deployment of the most experienced teachers with exam classes are all very well and are often necessary means of helping students achieve, but they also often lead to artificial, short-term gains and in many cases are effectively papering over the underlying issues. Too often the continual and disproportionate demand of examination success leaves little resource to focus on the root cause of student underachievement. Until now, that is, where national changes to exam structure and assessment measures have made it wise for us to make the time to make our key stage three curricula fit for purpose.

Despite what sometimes feels like an overwhelming amount of change and uncertainty, now really does feel like an exciting and perhaps even defining moment for the future direction of the subject: a chance to shape, particularly at KS3, what we teach our students along with the freedom to assess that learning in the manner that we best see fit. In this regard, we can acts as professionals who understand our subject and the students that we teach. I intend to take advantage of this opportunity-cum-imperative to create an ambitious curriculum, one that will inspire our students and provide them with the knowledge, skills and cultural understanding necessary to achieve success in their lives – up to and beyond their examinations.

This is not simply about choosing a bunch of hard books – though as you will see below the texts chosen are considerably challenging – but more a matter of doing what is right for our students, raising expectations through the roof and, as much as humanly possible, creating a level playing field with those who enjoy more privilege. As I suspect is the case elsewhere, at our school the best English students – the ones who have a ‘natural’ ability to write fluently and who appreciate the underlying concepts and intentions in texts – are the ones who read most widely and deeply. Our most able students are thus the ones who have often got there in spite of their schooling, not because of it, and for who reading challenging books for pleasure is normalised within the home environment. This has to be the case for all our students.

I am clearly not alone in believing that now really is an exciting opportunity for curriculum redesign. Only this morning Alex Quigley brilliantly explained why 2014 holds many reasons to be educationally cheerful. Indeed, in recent weeks and months I have read and been inspired by number of posts exploring different organising principles for new English KS3 curricula, including Alex Quigley’s ‘universal language’ of the story, Joe Kirby’s model of interleaving and revisiting cultural texts, and David Didau’s thematic and sequential curriculum that stretches back and forward across time.  All of these (and more) have helped me to devise what I believe is an inspiring and rigorous curriculum.

Here, then, is the draft version of our new KS3 curriculum.

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Of course, designing a new curriculum is only part of what is needed to raise attainment. Making sure that the texts chosen are taught in an effective way, and that colleagues are well supported and feel confident enough to teach them well is equally, if not more, important. It would be naïve not to expect some considerable anxiety around teaching works like The Odyssey or with spending a term on sonnets with year 7. This is why we intend to invest heavily in providing supportive wider reading material and creating opportunities for joint planning sessions in a similar vein to the lesson study model. 

We have not arrived at this curriculum overnight. Neither do we expect to begin teaching all of these texts from next September. Over the coming weeks we will agree upon the best way forward, making sure that what we implement is manageable and that it really does lead to a step change. I should perhaps make it clear that a lot of the structures and systems that will facilitate the delivery of our curriculum are already in place from previous initiatives. It is also worth noting that we have a supportive headteacher and work in a school where creative and bold solutions to problems are encouraged. I realise that this is not the case for all.

To help make some of the nuances of the draft a little clearer, I have summarised some of the thinking behind the choices taken and provided further explanations of the supporting structures in place.

The Reading lounge

One of the main resources our department has at its disposal is a Reading Lounge, a bright, funky space solely for the purposes of English lessons.  Whilst we would prefer a vibrant library (space it at a premium), having the Reading Lounge at the bottom of the English corridor enables us to ensure time is dedicated to reading for pleasure. Once a cycle year 7 and year 8 pupils will read modern stories that are in some way in dialogue with the texts in the taught curriculum. This approach will enable our students to get the best of both worlds: exposure to important, brilliantly written texts of cultural value and access to exciting contemporary fiction from authors they will already be familiar with. The Reading Lounge texts are in bold italics, and these choices give way to books to take home to read in year 9.

Unitisation

It has become increasingly clear to me that the idea of having a new topic or focus each half term is flawed. For many years this had been our approach. We would try and cram a lot into each six or seven week block and then rush through an assessment in the last couple of days of term, the very time when students were not able to produce their best work. We would then dutifully mark and level these assessments and enter the results on a spreadsheet, where they would remain until report time. A monumental waste of time!

Since September we have been experimenting with termly units at year 7 and 8. Although in its infancy, this less is more approach appears to be helping deepen our students’ understanding, as well as providing teachers with the flexibility to respond to their students’ needs. Without the pressure of constantly having to move on to the next unit or getting the assessment done in time, teachers are better able to respond to the learning needs of their classes and reteach material if necessary.

This past year we have also placed a much heavier emphasis on the process of redrafting. Influenced by some of the ideas in Ron Berger’s excellent ‘Ethic of Excellence’ our curriculum will give our students the time and space necessary to produce their very best work and to be inspired by their own excellence. How redrafting fits in to our wider system of assessment will be addressed in my next post.

Setting

This year for the first time we have started to set from year 7. Whilst I understand the arguments around mixed ability and, in principle, subscribe to the idealism of its intentions, in practice it is no longer tenable with the growing chasm in the ability profile of our incoming year 6. We were finding that at KS3 the most able were not consistently being stretched and the least able were not being sufficiently supported. On the curriculum draft the different numbers in brackets signify our four new sets, which are spread across three bands. As you can see, in some cases we feel that is appropriate for students to study different texts, though we believe that all will be challenged by what we have chosen.

Cultural capital

Whilst this term is bandied around a lot, for me it perfectly captures what I have experienced in my time as a teacher. I really believe that a lack of cultural capital is one of the most significant reasons why our students do not excel in English, but they do more in Maths and Science. I also firmly believe that cultural capital has a value outside of economic terms (see the comments at the end of Joe Kirby’s recent post on how to plan a knowledge unit for a debate around this issue).

The texts and periods we have chosen will provide a solid understanding of the journey of English literature and the development of our present identity. It is far from exhaustive and we are painfully aware that in order to achieve other aims, such as redrafting and an emphasis on explicit grammar teaching, we have had to sacrifice a great deal. Some of this will resurface in year 10, like Frankenstein and American fiction. We have also tried to provide some balance in terms of race and gender. I’m sure for some it will still seem too elitist.

Whilst our students achieve very good English results, they are far from being expert writers and readers and they could do much better. They are well supported in year 10 and particularly year 11 and make very good progress because they work hard and the exam is relatively formulaic. Many would flounder if the exam asked the question in a different format, or if it relied upon responses to more challenging material. Many of our students also struggle to make the transition to A level and almost all find it incredibly difficult to deal with unseen material. Even our brightest students – those who apply for Oxford, Cambridge or medical degrees – are often let down in their applications by their inability to express themselves coherently in the written form.

Our new curriculum is therefore the first step towards developing more articulate, genuinely independent writers and thinkers. We want our students to not be disadvantaged by background and to enjoy as much chance of success as those who attend the very best schools in the country.

This will not happen overnight.