The trauma of learning – a personal journey through liminality

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An  awful lot of fiction is immensely autobiographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined.  We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day.  “Fiction”/”nonfiction” is an utterly useless distinction. David Shields Reality Hunger

As an English teacher with a degree and masters in literature, I have a terrible confession to make. I don’t actually read that much.

Perhaps I should qualify that statement a little. I don’t read that much fiction, in particular that most amorphous of things, literary fiction. I do still read other genres, whenever I get the chance that is, which with two small children and working long hours isn’t always easy. During term time I read about education and, of course, books related to what I am teaching. In the holidays I generally go for a mixture of biography, history and all manner of things in between.

Not much fiction, though.

I’ve been aware of this state of affairs for a while, noticing with an increasing sense of sadness that I am reading less and less of what I once loved so very, very much and what I also insist on telling my students is incredibly important and empowering. Does the fact that I don’t read much literary fiction make me a bit of a hypocrite, a sham of an English teacher who undermines his profession through his own private reading habits? I don’t know. Maybe.

I wonder about this disconnect between my words and my deeds each Friday, when I share a gate duty with a history colleague, and the conversation turns to what books we are reading. He finds it perverse that whilst he reads literary texts vociferously, I tend to go for things like memoir, books on psychology and even history! Our short conversations leave me unsettled and make me reflect on why it is I read so little literary fiction.

A possible answer came to me recently. Whilst putting together a CPD session on threshold concepts, it occurred to me that what I might be experiencing is the deep sense of loss that Land et al suggest accompanies a shift in ontology – the troubling aspect of troublesome knowledge. Perhaps I have a passed through a threshold in the way that I think and feel about the novel and its attendant truth claims, which means I can no longer read and appreciate books in the same way.

I think I can trace this shift in attitude to the third year of my undergraduate studies and then to the later masters in twentieth century literature I pursed in the early years of teaching. Whilst my degree introduced me to ideas about the death of the author and the instability of language, my masters took things much further, destabilising all notions of truth, objectivity and intentionality and unmooring me from previous ideas about the centrality of narrative craft.

It wasn’t until some years later, though, when I came across the American writer David Shields, that I found someone who was able articulate reasons for my gradual disquietude towards literature. It would be fair to say that Shield’s short 2011 book Reality Hunger – a kind of manifesto for a new kind of genre-blurring 21st-century prose – left a significant impression on me, one that, over time, has contributed to a significant change in my reading.

Reality Hunger stitches together aphorisms, asides and quotations, from high and low culture, alongside the writer’s own reflections. It is almost impossible to locate any kind of authentic voice, and it would have been completely so had Shields got his way and had all attributions expunged. Despite its patchwork structure, one message remains consistent – that the boundaries used to distinguish between genres don’t really exist. What we think of as non-fiction, contains as much fiction as what we consider literature, and what we think of as beautiful, or poetically true has as much chance of appearing in journalism as in poetry.

The line between fact and fiction is fuzzier than most people find it convenient to admit. There is the commonsensical assertion that while the novelist is engaged on a work of the creative imagination, the duty of the journalist is to tell what really happened, as it happened. That distinction is easy to voice but hard to sustain in logic. For imagination and memory are Siamese twins, and you cannot cut them so cleanly apart.                                                                                               Reality Hunger, David Shields

Reading Shields’ book, and his 2013 follow up, the ironically titled How Literature Saved My Life, made me profoundly question the authenticity of literary fiction, particularly recently-published works that I feel too often try to do what novels have done before but can no longer pull off. Many a book I start but find myself unable to buy-in to the worlds and characters it tries to create. Sadly, I no longer submit to the power of literature to cast a spell; it can be too easy to see the spell being cast and the artifice being exposed. I still read some older fiction, but only as a form of nostalgia for authenticity and the stability of character and plot – a time when things were different, or had the appearance of being so.

I could write more about all this, and about how my love and belief in literature has been slowly undermined through a combination of high theory and the thoughts of an obscure American, who has grown disillusioned by contemporary meaning making, but what I am really interested in is the experience of loss itself. What fascinates me is how learning more, in this case about books and the way they work and can be read, has meant a letting go of many of the things that I knew and once loved – things that attracted me to a degree in the first place. I am left wondering whether the trauma involved with learning certain things, is necessarily always worth the pain that might go with it.

James Atherton, in his excellent website about teaching and learning, provides a useful frame of reference for explaining the process of loss that accompanies the learning of something new. Atherton suggests loss is one of the unseen or hidden explanations for why some students do not learn challenging new material. Using a comparison with evolutionary survival, he explains how the struggle to learn new things – perhaps something as troublesome and undermining as that which I have been experiencing with my own developing thoughts about the novel – might lead the students we teach to reject new ways of seeing the world in favour of preserving the security of their existing ontology.

In Atherton’s model, species survive and grow, but only (counter-intuitively) by becoming less fit, at least in the first instance. His account works on the premise that the effort required to move on – whether physically or intellectually – requires a significant expenditure of initial effort, which in evolutionary terms equates to a loss of fitness. Rather than thinking of dominant species occupying higher plains of existence, he sees them residing in lower pools or troughs. In this model, it is thus an effort, or a loss of fitness, that is required to provide the impetus to move from one pool to another. Survival and growth is about adapting and making sacrifices – but only through letting go of current ways of thinking and knowing in order to find better ways of thinking and knowing.

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Now, I am not for one moment suggesting that the way I have come to think about literature– and what it can and can’t do – is necessarily superior, or even more truthful per se. It might be for me, but it probably isn’t for you. This post is intended as a personal account of how I have come to understand truth, and the best ways of capturing it in written form. One of the central tenants of threshold concepts, in particular the state of liminality, is that given the myriad intersections of knowledge possible, every journey or ontological change will be different. In time there may well be a dominant cultural understanding about the role of the novel; for now, I think we are far from a settled belief in its status in relation to truth claims.

As hard as it has been to let go of my previous feelings towards literary fiction, I cannot really see how things could be any other way. Whilst I enjoyed once thinking the novel one of the best ways to understand our nature, I can now see that other genres – particularly those that collapse the distinction between high and low culture, between fiction and non-fiction and between poetry and prose – may well have as much, if not more to offer. It is no coincidence the majority of books I read occupy this space in between: the part biography, popular science of Oliver Sacks; Patti Smith’s mix of poetry and life in M Train; the combination of grammar and vignette that is Mary Norris’s Confessions of a Comma Queen. Even education books, like John Tomsett’s wonderful Hope Over Fear, defies its notional educational category, framing, as it does, insights into effective leadership with touching true-life accounts.

Learning can certainly be a long and painful experience, but one that is quite clearly necessary for our individual and collective growth.

Ignorance may well be bliss, but who’d want to be a sheep?

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The Elements of Progression: threshold concepts meet mastery learning

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Last Saturday I was lucky to present at the first ResearchEd Literacy event in Swindon, organised by David Didau at the fantastic Swindon Academy. It was an exceptional day with some brilliant talks and a fabulous keynote by Ray Land on threshold concepts, sadly lost to posterity due to a technical problem. You will have to trust me, it was an exceptional introduction to the day!

I have been meaning to write my session up all week, but have not had the time to do so. Next week looks just as busy, so instead of waiting a couple more weeks, I am going to take the easy route and post my slides and a link to a recording of my session instead.

My accompanying slides

In many ways the content of my session was not entirely new: I have blogged here, here and here about our KS3 assessment model, and have also written two posts addressing the issue of threshold concepts in English here and here. Despite being relatively proud of these two posts, they are by far the least read efforts I have written. I guess, Miltonic Vision Part I: Trivium 21C, Threshold concepts and the power of ‘powerful knowledge’ was never going to really capture the imagination!

In the main my presentation summarised where we are with assessment as a department and indeed as a school, where the English model has been adopted by other subjects. It is certainly not a perfect model, and I am aware of some of the issues that will need to be amended in the future in order to increase both reliability and validity. What I do think, however, it that it is a much better, more purposeful means of assessing progress and driving up achievement than was ever the case with national curriculum levels.

A big, belated thank you to David Didau and Tom Bennett for putting together such a brilliant event, and to Ruth Robinson and Nick Wells for being so welcoming and well organised. It was a magnificent day.

The Elements of Language – Lessons learned

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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.