In my last post “Capiche?” I explored how there can often be a lack of clarity when we use the term understanding in education. This can lead to very different strategies with varying degrees of effectiveness being used with very different outcomes, all in the name of “deepening understanding.”
When I use the term understanding, I take it to mean the fractal links that we make between pieces of knowledge which are developed, strengthened, displayed and assessed through generating explanations, performances, products or creations.
In this sense, I’m inclined to agree with people like Michael Fordham, here, who question whether it’s worth using the word understanding at all, arguing that the term confuses the issue. Essentially, what understanding boils down to is knowing some bits of stuff, knowing that there are connections between those bits of stuff and knowing how to express these connections. The more connections you’re able to express which are relevant to the particular field of study in the way which is appropriate to that area , the more you are said to understand. Fordham argues that it’s all just knowing – “knowing that,” “knowing links between” and “knowing how to.”
At the end of my last post, having confessed to a very limited understanding of Lego, I explained that my older brother had a propensity to nab my kits before I could use them and learn from them properly. This meant:
- I had limited knowledge.
- There were few connections between the elements of knowledge which I did have.
- I wasn’t following any sets of instructions.
- I wasn’t using worked examples.
In this post, I’ll explore how we can support students with similar issues in English through:
- Key Stage 3 curriculum design
- Teaching practices
- Assessment methodologies.
“What do I do now?” The Key Stage 3 Curriculum
I suspect that, given the changes to national qualifications which have taken place this year, there are unlikely to be many English teachers who could confidently say that they have their curriculum nailed at the moment. Recent online discussions about English teaching have frequently focused on the substantial changes to GCSEs and A-Levels as well as the consequent amendments which people have made to their KS3 curricula.
In order to give you a flavour of the thinking behind our English curriculum, which I believe will be useful in the rest of this post, I’ve written previously on our school’s teaching and learning blog about what we mean by mastery and put together this booklet about overall mastery curriculum design. I’ve also written here about the process we used, with David Didau’s support, to generate our initial overview for the KS3 English curriculum which can be seen here:
A number of teachers, when I’ve showed this to them, questioned whether the pitch was too high – whether we were being overly ambitious. In planning and teaching the earlier units, we encountered a number of challenges with implementing a curriculum based on these texts, but pitch wasn’t one of them. In fact, these initial challenges actually related to us needing to more clearly define:
- What we want students to be able to do as a result of studying these texts
- What students need to know in order to be able to do these things
- How our assessment model enables us to see when students are successful in knowing what and knowing how so that we can do something in the classroom to support them
- The balance of time between studying such substantial and challenging literary texts and the other elements of an English curriculum
Hopefully, you can see how these link to my issues with Lego from earlier on.
In order to begin to resolve some of these issues, we started to think more clearly about planning with a set of end points in mind. The end point we had focused on originally, when planning with David, was that of exposing our students to the best literary fiction and non-fiction from our heritage and culture and this principle remains at the heart of the English curriculum we offer at all Key Stages. However, there are two other end points which we had not focused on as clearly as we might. The first of these is the long term end point of the terminal assessment of GCSE Language and Literature for all our students. The second is the medium term end point of each teaching cycle within a unit.
In terms of the former – the longer term end point – our curriculum, our teaching, our interventions need to prepare students to be successful in their lives and one of the gateways to that is their qualification in English. In exploring the new AQA GCSE specifications we realized that, although we’d plotted in a chronological sequence of inspiring texts, we hadn’t got the balance of exposure to non-fiction and opportunities for analysis of unseen texts right. We unpicked this through the production of this overview of the weightings of each element of the two specifications.
This kind of thinking led on to the creation of this second table (below) identifying the three overarching writing forms we want our students to be able to produce in the dark blue band, the knowledge students require in order to be able to produce them in the middle band and the kinds of high quality texts we need to expose them to in order for them to be successful in the lightest blue.
“Inbetweener” – Medium Term Planning
Just prior to the summer of 2015, we put in place a range of planning documents to support the medium term planning for our new scheme as well as knowledge organisers from a visit to Michaela Community School. The issue was that we ended up with too many different forms and, though we had the knowledge organisers, we’d designed them as an overview of knowledge from the whole of the text, rather than being more precise in identifying the specific knowledge which students need in the long term and for that unit. It was as if we were using instructions from five different Lego kits to build a model.
We have now stream-lined our medium term planning proformas and have a stronger model for the production of our knowledge organisers. I’ll be sharing some of these from the Rhetoric Unit in Year 7 on this page soon.
We also believe that designing or selecting model pieces of work for students will improve our planning process. To an extent, it will protect against teachers teaching to a set of assessment criteria . These models could also provide us with exemplars which make success more tangible to students and against which, ultimately, we can make comparative judgements of both the quality of their reading and writing combined.
“Today, Tomorrow, Sometime, Never” – The Problem of Time
The issue of time now arises. There are approximately 35 school weeks in the 2016-17 academic year. A number of these weeks are exam weeks at our school with limited teaching time. There will also be a number of other days with a collapsed timetable and therefore reduced teaching time. This leaves approximately 30 full teaching weeks. At Key Stage 3, this equates to approximately 150 lessons.
If you were to divide each year equally by the number of texts to study, it would allow approximately twenty eight lessons (just over five weeks) for each text. However, within this time students are not merely studying each text’s plot, character and themes. They also require time for some explicit teaching of related grammar, punctuation, spelling and vocabulary and opportunities to write texts about and inspired by the texts. Furthermore, there need to be opportunities for them to respond to unseen poetry and non-fiction as well as to write narratives, descriptions and rhetorical texts.
As a result of this, we are now looking to move from five core literature texts in each year to three, supplementing these with related and unrelated non-fiction texts. The intention here is to increase capacity for more and even better teaching of the knowledge elements of English and to enhance opportunities for writing at length.
“My Favourite Game” – A model for teaching and assessment
As with our master curriculum, I’ve written previously about how our Teaching and Learning Model has developed over time and been codified in this document:
Within English, we have taken this and have been thinking through how each of the elements of “knowing that,” “knowing the links” and “knowing how to” can be built into our teaching and assessment. This has led to the creation of this set of strategies which we have either already implemented or will be implementing over the course of the coming year. In future posts, I will expand in terms of detail on each of these, but I’d certainly welcome feedback as to further avenues we might explore. What do you think we’ve missed in terms of helping students:
- Encounter, develop and retain knowledge
- Make connections between the elements of knowledge which they do have
- Follow sets of instructions.
- Use worked examples.