The Unexamined Life

One of the statements on this post about educational ideas to bin in 2015 piqued my interest.* The comments relate to the apparent tedium of on-going debates on social media about the merits of progressive and traditional philosophies of teaching. According to this post, debating teaching philosophies on social media is dull and along with lesson grading (yes, I agree) and textbooks (no, I don’t agree) should be consigned to the past.

This excellent piece by Horatio Speaks does a great job in challenging some of the issues with shutting down debates about the virtues of different teaching beliefs. My interest, however, is more in keeping with the content of this post by James Theobald. I am concerned about the detrimental consequences of closing off teachers’ understanding of the forces that shape their professional lives and, in turn, their ability to make informed pedagogical choices about how they teach.

Before I joined Twitter and started reading lots of blogs and lots of books, I had no real idea there were two very distinct philosophies of teaching. Obviously, I could see some teachers taught and managed their classrooms differently, but I put this down to different skill sets and personal preferences born out of experience. There was, however, a notable uniformity of approach amongst more recently qualified teachers, which looking back I would say reflected a more progressive ethos. I never knew then about the underlying philosophies that underpinned my ‘beliefs’ about teaching or that these were even in contention.

To be honest, like most new teachers, I just assumed there was a broad consensus about the best ways for teachers to teach and for students to learn. Why on earth would the national inspectorate evaluate schools on the quality of their teaching and learning if there wasn’t a clear understanding amongst those in the know about how teachers should be teaching – what we should aspire to do in our classrooms and across our schools? It turns that those in the know, knew very little and – as the likes of Daisy Christodoulou have so eloquently shown – in many cases were advocating activities and methods that reflected a more progressive teaching philosophy.

And so it was for the first 6 or 7 years of my teaching that many of the approaches and emphasises commonly associated with progressive ideals, such as group work, active learning, creativity, relevance and the discrete development of skills, were what was promoted and expected as the norm. Conversely, more traditional leanings, such as the centrality of the teacher, individual work and the acquisition of knowledge were discouraged. This may not have been everyone’s experience, but it was certainly mine.

It has only been in recent years – and social media has played a massive role in this – that many of the values and pedagogical practices that I was trained in and led to believe were the most effective means of teaching children have been called into question. It might be hard for recently qualified teachers to appreciate, but these implicit, often progressive, beliefs about teaching were widely held and little questioned. From the content of my ITT course, the design and application of my schools’ lesson and observation proformas, the focus of our INSET sessions and, of course, the Ofsted rubrics and exam criteria that drove school behaviours, all promoted similar messages about how teachers should teach and how young people should be educated.

Now, I am not seeking to promote one teaching philosophy over another. This is not really about that, and you can probably tell where my own biases lie anyway. What I am trying to argue for is the importance of keeping this debate alive and recognising how much good has come from the resultant disagreements in recent years. Not only has it helped me (and I suspect a great many others too) to understand my own teaching trajectory, but also to make sense of the wider educational landscape.

Like James, my teaching has improved considerably in recent years – partly because of the activities and approaches that I chosen, but mostly because I understand why I have chosen them and that I now make sure they are consistent with my pedagogical beliefs. In short, I have a teaching philosophy and I think my students benefit from a consistent and coherent approach built upon principles. This would not have been possible if I did not understand the wider terms of the debate or had been exposed to different voices representing those standpoints, who either introduced me to new ideas or forced me to challenge my existing assumptions.

In the post I am responding to, the writer explains that ‘both methods exist in my school and in individual classrooms.’ I’ve also seen other people make similar comments on Twitter along the lines ‘of one day I am traditionalist and another I am progressive’. Aside from the confusion between methods and philosophies pointed out by Horatio Speaks, I think these arguments miss a couple of points. Firstly, as I have tried to illustrate, busy teachers are not necessarily as discerning as you might think. Their agency is often shaped by the dominant ideology of the institution, which I have suggested can, in turn, be influenced by wider forces, such as Ofsted.

Such a mix and match approach to teaching also misunderstands the idea of a philosophy. If you have a philosophy, which is obviously helped by understanding its name, its history and its influential figures, then you are more likely to make choices and decisions that reflect it. I know that in my teaching I am increasingly making more congruent pedagogical decisions that reflect my philosophy. Take the example of teaching my students to analyse texts. I used to encourage students to make their own inferences far too early on before they had acquired sufficient knowledge and understanding. I have now adapted my sequencing and choice of activity to reflect my belief that a certain amount of foundational knowledge is needed before meaningful insight can occur.

Perhaps, though, the most damaging consequence of shutting down the debate between progressive and traditional philosophies is that it runs the risk of missing out on the insights that can emerge from holding two opposing ideas in tension. This, to me, is very much the point of Martin Robinson’s brilliant book Trivium. The creative insight and energy that springs from the conflict between two ideologies can help us towards new levels of understanding and improve the quality of all our teaching. This should help teachers to be make much more informed decisions in their classrooms and leaders much more informed decisions across their schools. As hard as it can be sometimes to adjust to change, as this rather good recent post attests, I would much rather that teachers acted from a position of knowledge and insight, rather than relying on the implicit values prescribed by others, whatever side of the divide they fall.

Ignorance is not necessariliy bliss.

* In many respects this post is a little too late. James Theobald has already expressed what I wanted to say, and as you would probably expect from him, he has done so in a typically stylish and entertaining manner. At the risk of producing a poor man’s imitation, I have decided to post anyway.


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

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

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

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


Teacher subject knowledge

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

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

Powerful knowledge

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

Future School 3

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

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

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

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

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

Paradise Regained

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

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

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