The Elements of Language – Lessons learned


It has been interesting to read the recent online discussions between David Didau and Daisy Christodoulou about the merits and pitfalls of different assessment models. Many of the issues they raise are ones that anyone who has invested time in creating an alternative to National Curriculum Levels has almost certainly encountered for themselves. This is probably the case even more for those working in schools that have piloted these approaches and seen flaws emerge that were not necessarily apparent from the outset. It is easier to envisage an alternative to levels, but perhaps harder to make it work in practice.

This post is about my current thinking in relation to assessment at KS3. It reflects the specific context of my school and the types of challenges and opportunities that we face in the months and years ahead. I wrote the last of my two previous posts on our English assessment model, The Elements of Language, about a year ago and since then my thinking has moved forward quite a bit, partly as a result of our experiences to date, but more as a consequence of us moving towards a significantly enhanced CPD programme next year, which will include substantial and enshrined professional development every week. This significant investment of time should enable departments to collaborate on planning, share their understanding and interpretation of assessment data and get the chance to look closely at student work together – the actual results of what happens in the classroom.

The current beliefs that underpin my approach to assessment can be summed up as follows:

  • performance descriptors are often too vague and unreliable for drawing useful inferences
  • performance descriptors can often mask student underachievement and gaps in learning
  • specific statements of the learning to be mastered organised in a logical sequence are generally more useful
  • in some subjects it is hard to reduce certain aspects of achievement down to a manageable amount of specific statements about learning
  • in practice, a mastery approach to assessment can be time-consuming for teachers to implement and can detract from planning better lessons
  • threshold concepts are a useful way of mapping out transformational pathways to achievement for both students and teachers alike
  • most assessment should primarily aim to inform the next steps, whether in the classroom or more widely across a department or year group
  • any inferences drawn from assessment should be acted upon as quickly as possible
  • assessment can be a useful means of ensuring students learn and make necessary progress, with the caveat that learning takes time and progress does not look the same in every subject
  • looking at and discussing actual student work with colleagues is a powerful way of understanding the impact of classroom teaching and reaching a shared understanding of what success looks like and how to get there
  • assessment is more robust if its draws upon a range of different forms and provides multiple opportunities for that learning to be demonstrated e.g. MCQ, essay, short answers

If, as Dylan Wiliam suggests in the comments at the bottom of Daisy’s recent blog, ‘an assessment is nothing more, or less, than a procedure for making inferences’, then it is wise to make sure that whatever is used in place of levels, ensures these inferences are as reliable as possible and are acted upon as quickly as is necessary. I think that what I am proposing here achieves both these ambitions and, perhaps more importantly, provides a means through which subject professionals can engage in meaningful discussions about student learning, where gaps or misconceptions can be identified and appropriate action can be taken.

Learning from past mistakes

On reflection, I made several errors in my earlier iterations of the Elements of Language. My first mistake was to include knowledge acquisition within the overall assessment framework – knowledge and vocabulary were distinct thresholds of the reading and writing Elements respectively. Whilst I am still very much committed to the centrality of knowledge development, I can see that there are probably better, more robust ways of assessing students’ acquisition of it. Broadly, I am working on the idea that in English – and perhaps other humanities subjects such as history and religious studies – there should be a core knowledge component. This component would be assessed at strategic points throughout the year, using an efficient format such as multiple-choice that provides accurate formative data on whether students have learnt the requisite knowledge or not. I suppose this is a variation on the principle of knowledge organisers, though in my thinking the notion of core knowledge would probably be a bit more detailed as well as closely linked to a systematic programme of vocabulary instruction. There will be more on what I mean about this over the coming months.

My second error was to place the notion of mastery too much at the forefront of the assessment framework – the ‘rubric’ seen by parents, teachers and students articulated what was to be learned in a very explicit way. I now believe that it is probably better for any overarching framework to contain more generalised articulations of the different thresholds (see example below) so that it is clear what stages of transformational learning students need to pass through in order to achieve genuine mastery, say with regards to developing an ability to control writing or adopting an academic voice.  More specific items of learning to be mastered are, I think, better served sitting behind these threshold definitions, encoded as objectives but acting more as standards to be achieved by the end of each academic year. It is possible in my revised model to have different sets of standards depending on where students are at the beginning of the year, thus ensuring rigorous objectives are well matched to different starting points. I should stress that I really only see the notion of standards applying to maths and English at KS3, who have the time, resource and sense of urgency in terms of securing core competences.

From threshold concepts to classroom teaching

In my proposed assessment model specific to-be-learned items would be drawn from the threshold objectives (which, remember, are operating as standards) and these individual learning items would be pursued relentlessly by each teacher until an agreed level of mastery is achieved, in or around the 80% figure. In this model the threshold concepts have effectively been broken down into objectives which have then been mapped out across the units of work for the year. These objectives, or standards, would be assessed in a holistic way only once or twice every year – suitable periods of time in which inferences about long term learning are more likely to be valid.

On a day to day basis the standards across a unit of work would be reduced down yet further into specific learning items that would need to be mastered across a sequence of lessons. This sequence is a manifestation of our version of a teaching and learning cycle, one which we are introducing next year and that I will try and blog about in due course. Bodil Isaksen is right when she explains how the lesson is the wrong unit of learning. I think it is far better to see learning planned across longer periods of time, rather than in discrete one off lessons where there is insufficient time to properly introduce, deconstruct, revisit or assess in a meaningful way. For me, the notion of a sequence or teaching and learning cycle feeds directly into the collaborative subject-based CPD we are planning for next year. Departments will be able to regularly review the relative strengths and weaknesses of a teaching sequence and teachers will be able to get closer to understanding how their students learn.

Worked example:

Below is a copy of my revised Elements of Language for writing, where you will notice I have reduced the amount of threshold concepts from five to four and slightly reconfigured some of the others.


In the document below you will notice how the Year 7 standards (where as I suggested above, there might be some students who work to different standards in accordance to their starting point) has been drawn from the overarching threshold definition to coded objectives mapped out across the year’s units of work. Some of the information has obviously been simplified here for illustrative purposes.


The document below outlines how the codified objectives across units are then broken down even further into specific to-be-learned items across a teaching and learning cycle.


I think this model – where the unifying idea of threshold concepts is used to inform a mastery approach in the classroom – has the potential to be a very powerful driver of learning, particularly as it will be wedded to systematic and collaborative review by departments working collaboratively to better understand student learning.

In truth, there is a lot more to this assessment mode than I have explained, especially around its implementation and wider application in other subject areas. I am, however, minded about the length of this post, so if anyone wants to ask me a question in the comments below or tweet me a query, I would be more than happy to go into more detail.

Thanks for reading.

Miltonic Vision part 2: Satan, Swiss Tony and using Threshold Concepts to organise and teach powerful knowledge


‘Making a cup of coffee is like making love to a beautiful woman. It’s got to be hot. You’ve got to take your time. You’ve got to stir… gently and firmly. You’ve got to grind your beans until they squeak. And then you put in the milk.’ Swiss Tony

‘.… he stood and call’d

His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’

thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks

In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades

High overarch’t imbowr…’                                                          John Milton

What has a recurring sexual innuendo from the Fast Show got in common with a beautiful passage of poetry from Paradise Lost? On the one hand, the answer is clearly nothing – whilst The Fast Show, and in particular the character of Swiss Tony, may have provided some funny moments back in the 1990s, Milton’s epic work of literary genius will remain an epic work of literary genius for many years to come. Yet, despite this absurd juxtaposition of artistic genres, I think there is something that binds these two disparate works, a link I want to make the subject of this post – namely the way in which both texts use simile, albeit for different purposes: one to instigate laughter, the other to provoke wonder and contemplation about the nature of faith and knowing.

In this belated follow up to my previous post, I want to take the literary device of the simile – within the broader notion of figurative language – to exemplify how I see threshold concepts can lead to better organisation of curriculum content and assessment. It seems to me that the conceptualisation of disciplines into thresholds and domains creates a framework that forces teachers to reflect on the nature of their subject and how to teach it effectively. It offers a means for developing teacher subject knowledge by mapping out thresholds of understanding within and across domains that are directly linked to curriculum. Thinking hard about the thresholds and the liminal spaces that lie between deeper, transformational levels of understanding offers perhaps the best route to identifying the sequences required to achieve mastery,

Whilst we are quite happy with the English curriculum and assessment model we have developed, we know that it can be better. Our framework has elements of mastery to it, but it is not a mastery model in the truest form – in the sense that it lays out the content of the subject in sequential steps, which are each mastered in turn to a given level before progression. Designing a true mastery curriculum in English is hard. Whilst it might be relatively straightforward to identify a logical sequence for some of the written components, such as sentence structure and the use of punctuation, developing a mastery model for reading is understandably rather more difficult. What does a route to mastering reading look like, especially when so much depends upon a myriad of factors?

Threshold concepts and the Miltonic simile

Before the steps towards mastery towards can be identified and sequenced it is necessary to first lay bare the essence of the subject, and to identify the different transformational moves (or thresholds) that need to be negotiated. The domain that I want to strip back to understand more fully how it works is figurative language, and the example I want to draw upon to help is Paradise Lost. To me, Milton’s epic poem represents the apotheosis of figurative language, in particular his unique usage of the epic simile, which feature heavily in Book I which detail Satan’s fall from heaven and his subsequent building of pandemonium.

It strikes me that there four distinct phases or thresholds through which a novice learner must pass before they have understood the Miltonic simile. Even then, that understanding is probably still contingent, since new insights are likely to manifest in the future. I have attempted to map out these four thresholds in the table below. The first column is my attempt to define each of the distinct phases a learner needs to negotiate. I don’t think it would be possible to bypass any one of them, since each builds upon the foundations of the previous one. The second column provides some sense of indicative content, whilst the third offers up some literary examples of the kinds of texts that could act as exemplification.

Screenshot 2015-03-02 20.11.52

There are six main similes in Book I of Paradise Lost

  • Leviathan lines 197-209
  • Moon lines 287-291
  • Fallen Leaves lines 301-303
  • Red Sea lines 304-311
  • Locusts lines 338-343
  • Bees/Pygmies/elves lines 769-787

Here is the simile of the Fallen Leaves:

.… he stood and call’d

His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’

thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks

In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades

High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge

Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d

Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves o’erthrew

Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,

While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d

The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld

From the safe shore thir floating Carcasses

And broken Chariot Wheels; so thick bestrewn

Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,

Under amazement of thir hideous change.

  1. Threshold – Understanding literal and figurative language

On one level the function of the simile is to describe the number of fallen angels lying prostrate on the burning lake of hell. There are as many angels as ‘Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks / In Vallombrosa’. To understand this simile, the first thing a learner needs to appreciate is the way that one thing can be used to describe or define another i.e. the difference between literal and figurative language. It may not be immediately apparent as to why leaves would be a useful way to describe the volume of fallen angels. I have attempted to schematise what this understanding might look like as an equation. So, in this first level of engagement A = B, where A is the amount of fallen angels on the burning lake and B is the multitude of fallen leaves on the floor of Vallombrosa.

  1. Threshold – Understanding literal and figurative language

Of course, Milton’s simile is more complicated than a simple comparison between leaves and angels. A deeper appreciation necessitates some kind of framework to help the learner evaluate whether or not the simile is successful. This could be aided by introducing the idea of tenor, vehicle and field. Taken together these concepts provide a means to evaluate the simile and help the learner truly see why bestrewn leaves offer up such a powerful image of the state of the fallen angels – voluminous, haphazard and inglorious. Such an analytical framework, which I think would be hard to understand for a novice, would also help tease out additional layers of meaning. The structured interrogation of the comparison, by way of the vehicle of the leaves, reveals that along with the image there is also a hidden authorial comment, one that seems to imply that because the angels are strewn they can in no sense be considered heroic.

Shortly after the simile of the fallen leaves comes another– the simile of the Red Sea. As before, the simile begins with overt visual comparison, this time between floating sea sedge (A) and the number of fallen angels on the floor of hell (B). It is another attempt to define the sheer scale of the fallen angels in their state of ruin, which in itself is a kind of additional meaning – one simile is simply not enough to conjure the image: it requires multiple comparisons to convey the torrid sight. The Red Sea simile continues with 4 more additional layers of comparison, each one complicating and confusing the original link between sedge and fallen angels.

The simile suggests the angels on the floor of hell are something like:

  1. scatterd sedge Afloat, and
  2. when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d / Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, and
  3. whose waves o’erthrew Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry, and
  4. While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d The Sojourners of Goshen, and
  5. who beheld From the safe shore thir floating Carcasses /And broken Chariot Wheels;

A learner who has mastered the notion that one thing can be used to compare another figuratively must at this point confront the idea that multiple things can be used at the same time to make a comparison – in other words they must comprehend the idea of extended metaphor or epic simile. They must also learn how to make sense of these different elements and the way they cumulatively refine the original comparison. I see this understanding as something like A + B + C = D. The number of fallen angels are like scattered sedge (A), when God Orion parted the Red Sea (B), which drowned the Egyptians (C), while they pursued the Israelites (D), who themselves witnessed the events from the safety of the shore (E). But even this formula is not entirely accurate, since each of the additional conditions is so specific and predicated on a number of precise factors.

  1. Threshold – Figures of speech as objects of study within a tradition

This threshold is reliant on the introduction of considerable external knowledge, even more so than the previous ones. Milton’s epic simile contains echoes of Classical and Renaissance poets and their different uses of the image of fallen leaves, usually to describe the numberless dead. It would simply not be possible for a learner to understand or appreciate the simile at the level of aesthetic object unless they had encountered its literary precedents, or indeed understood the idea of tradition itself. Even if a gloss in the margin or a comment in the footnotes provided the necessary detail, it would still likely require additional comment in order to render the meaning of the secondary note. This is a clear example of the way knowledge begets further knowledge, and how students with high levels of schematic background knowledge have a distinct advantage in discerning meaning over those without. In this case knowledge of the literary precursors to the simile of the fallen leaves allows the reader to deepen their understanding of Milton’s use of it: namely to establish himself as the voice of God, and to place himself in some kind of literary hierarchy that predates and thus negates the Classical World.

Only someone with access to the knowledge of Virgil and Homer would be able to deepen their appreciation of the simile’s import. They would bring to their reading of Milton an awareness that Virgil uses the same image to describe the entrance of people to the underworld, whilst Homer uses it when the warrior Glaucus dismisses the importance of genealogy. A novice learner would have no way of arriving at these conclusions, or to appreciate how Milton is positioning himself via the simile amongst the pantheon of literary greats. The equation this time is thus something like this (A + B + C + D + E ) = F, where the totality of what is contained in the bracket is arguably of more value than the sum it generates – it sits outside of it, marking the simile itself as some kind of vehicle of meaning.

  1. Threshold – Conceptualisation of the failings of figurative language

If the last threshold was characterised by an appreciation of the ability to use tradition to build meaning in the present, then this next threshold transforms the learner into a position where the very notion of meaning itself is destabilised. This rejection of the power and certainty of knowledge, or rather knowledge of a certain, imperfect kind, is provided by the insights of criticism and theory. As we have seen, after the initial stages of the simile, which describe the number of fallen angels on the floor of hell, Milton deliberately obscures his comparison.

He likens Satan to Orion, a constellation represented by the figure of an armed man and believed to be attended by stormy weather. In Hebrew scripture the Red Sea is called sedgy sea, so ladened it is with thick weeds. So Milton appears to be suggesting that Orion – and the way he tosses aside the voluminous sedge with his mighty gusts – is like Satan, and the heroic manner in which he is rousing the multitude of the fallen host to fight on from a position of his own despair. Critic Geoffrey Hartman calls this overt kind of forward motion the plot of the simile.

Yet Milton soon blurs this pagan identification. He disrupts the forward motion of the plot, as indicated above, with a simultaneous backwards motion, which Hartman calls the counter plot. Whilst Satan may be like the wind Orion, he is also to be seen in his Christian manifestation, as the God whose intervention destroys the Egyptians, resulting in their carcasses washing up on the shores of the Red Sea. In the story of Exodus the waves part to allow the Israelites (The Sojourners of Goshen) to pass, before closing up again on the chasing Egyptian army (Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry).

Milton uses the Latin name Busiris to mean Pharaoh, and what is interesting to note is that biblical history associates Busiris with Satan. What this means in terms of the simile is that whilst Satan is Orion, blowing aside the waves of the Red Sea to allow the Egyptians to flee to safety, he is also at the same time Busiris, destroying himself just as he attempts to destroy God’s faithful. Using Hartman’s idea of the counter plot, it is thus possible to see how Milton uses the simile to show the true nature of his view of Satan: seemingly glorious and attractive but ultimately deluded by his own impartial understanding and so prone to self-destruction. The final equation might read something like this (A + B + C + D + E) + F = G, where the interpretation of Busiris (F) is added to the individual and cumulative elements of the simile to arrive at the final reading of Satan as G. Either that or it might read (A + B + C + D + E) < F, since the simile fails to reveal a full understanding of Satan.


Final comment

Obviously, I appreciate that much of the discussion above is the stuff of university undergraduate courses. But what I hope I have shown through the example of the Miltonic simile, is the way that Threshold Concepts can provide a valuable means of helping teachers to understand what they are going to need to teach students and in what sequence in order for students to achieve mastery. I also think that threshold concepts allow teachers to understand their subject or discipline better and work out what gaps they may have in their own understanding. The next move would be to show how it is possible to break down each of these thresholds into specific, practical items for day-to-day learning. I think, however, that requires another post of all its own.

Thank you for reading.