To see, or not to see: that is the question


For much of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark skulks around Elsinore in a cloud of melancholy, questioning everything: whether he would be better off dead or alive, whether the ghost of his dead father really is the ghost of his dead father, and what, if anything, will happen to him when he shuffles of this ‘mortal coil’. These are big questions – some of the biggest we ask as human beings – so it’s unsurprising that despite its four-hour running time, the play fails to provide any definitive answers.

Such is the nature of drama, of course: to pose imponderables about existence, to set tensions and ambiguities in place that live on long after the curtain has fallen and the audience has departed. It’s a medium the genius of Shakespeare clearly understood: that the question is often far more revealing than the answer. His plays constantly question existence and show an appreciation for the absurdity of the human condition long before Camus wrote about the ‘fundamental disharmony between the individual’s search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe.’

Whilst there are a number of similarities between the theatre and the classroom – the performance, audience unpredictability and uncomfortable chairs – there is ultimately a world of difference between the questions posed by a playwright through the characters on a stage and the questions asked of students by a teacher in a lesson. The dramatist enquires away from the known order of things in search of new insight, whilst in the main the teacher starts from certainty to help construct that understanding for others – to teach the body of scientific and artistic thought that has been accumulated over time.

I have already written about how I used to waste lots of time asking silly questions. My orientation was too often skewed the wrong way; my questions tended to lean more towards the inductive like those of the artist, rather than deductive like those of the teacher. Too much speculation – why questions instead of what questions, or how questions instead of who or where questions. Too much; too soon. I was putting novice students in the difficult position of trying to grapple with ideas and methods that even Hamlet would have struggled to disentangle.

Andy Tharby has got the right idea when he argues we should focus more agreed interpretations first, as opposed to getting secondary school students to offer insights and judgements they are often ill equipped to make. I’m not advocating against developing thoughtful, enquiring minds; actually, quite the opposite. By focusing questions on building students’ understanding of what is already known (in this case about a text), it is more likely that in time, they will know enough to be able to ask about ‘the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’ themselves.

Emphasising the deductive has improved my questioning and, in turn, my practice. I don’t mean in the showy sense where style is valued over substance, where the emphasis is on the moves of the teacher, not the content the question is trying to get at. I mean in terms of precision. Carefully worded questions help isolate variables for students so they can see what gets threaded together to form the complexities of plot, character and theme, and the intricacies of rhythm, rhyme and staging. Well-honed questions reveal gaps in understanding, as well as providing the path towards achieving it.

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All this takes time, which means other things have to go – Powerpoint presentations, arty handouts, copious marking. All this becomes untenable. But that’s ok, because in the main, the questions are the lesson. The process also sharpens the subject knowledge, exposing strengths as well as weaknesses. When I’m struggling to phrase a question about Hamlet, Ophelia or Polonius, I realise I am probably not clear enough in my own mind about what specific aspect of their character I want to tease out. I read the passage again, perhaps around it too, until I know and then I have focus.

Almost all my lessons now consist of the text, a pen and a notebook, with all my scripted questions marked out for me in advance. I don’t always ask all of them, and they are still not as good as I would like them to be, but I think they make my lessons much more purposeful. There’s definitively still space to explore and, because that space has been created by the efficiency and precision of the questions and the speculations are stronger because they rest on a firmer base.

As Hamlet never said, ‘The question’s the thing that develops their understanding.’




Prospero’s knowledge: magic or curse?

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


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.  


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.