Monthly Archives: April 2017

The ones that got away.

Sometimes, often in the long night, we think back over things we’ve done. After a good day, these are often cinematic valedictions of the brilliance of our achievements, the goal scored, the child saved, the answer to the quiz question about the Battle of Crecy that seemed to so impress that beautiful student-dentist all those years ago.

After a bad day two ghosts haunt me in the milky darkness of our bedroom. Both are students. One is a year 7 who left our school, the other a year 11 with whom I could not make the necessary connection.

The year 7 came on a wing and a prayer. On ‘senior staff call-out’ (the real senior staff were in a meeting) I picked him up several times in the space of a week. I was stressed, tired and pulled away from something really important when I was told to collect him from MFL. After some defiance in the classroom I’m afraid I lost my temper and shouted good and loud at him until he left the room and sidled off to the internal exclusion room. He stopped in the doorway of the classroom just long enough to shout ‘FUCK OFFFFFF’ in my face (this was the second of the two times this happened to me in 13 years of teaching there).

There followed a temporary and then permanent exclusion. He was, I console myself, already well on the way towards this. But, I can’t help feeling that I pushed him over the edge, and that had I continued to ‘be the adult’, in the way that I expect of myself and the people I work with, that some other conclusion might have been reached. Exclusion has a terrible impact on pupils, I wish that I had handled myself differently – each interaction is a chance to change the future.

The year 11 had started off well in year 7, but became angry as her schooling went on. I had no idea why, and if anyone else did they neither found a way of explaining to me, or dealing with it well in school. She had achieved very well in school until year 9, and then fell off an emotional cliff.

I count myself as a good teacher of GCSE, at all levels of past attainment. I pride myself on not giving up on a student, on never telling a class that ‘this is dull, but we’ve got to learn it’, on helping them to see that I love teaching them, and that I love what I’m teaching them, and that together we’re going to do really well.

None of this worked with this child. She challenged, everything, and each re-statement of the rules was greeted with an escalation of challenge. Removal to other teachers was the only way to get the rest of the class the attention from me that was needed. The only way around her attitude was to ignore, or to acquiesce. I tried a bit of tactical ignoring, of lowering the stakes of the confrontations by keeping them calm and low key. Praising when she did well (which she could easily do) was quickly abandoned as it resulted in a backlash of dreadful proportion. These short term tactics led to longer term problems. She spent the last 8 weeks of the course doing history with a TA in another room.

Again, I console myself with the knowledge that other teachers had the same problem, but my lack of answers, my lack of purchase on her learning left her with poor qualifications, and me with a second regret to reflect upon in my long nights.

Why am I telling you this? I’m not sure really – possibly I’m just getting it off my chest. I worry that all the talk of schools being ‘engines of social mobility’ and our ambitions for our students and ourselves can leave us exposed to dangerous feelings of failure when things don’t go well. Doctors’ patients sometimes die. Students sometimes don’t learn, despite our best efforts, and sometimes because of our mistakes. We have to learn to live with this.

Project Halpin: ‘Cultural Literacy’ (2) – Hirsch, Knowledge and the Learner

This is part of a series of posts that I’ve been writing over a much longer period than I originally planned.  The idea came from a lecture given by David Halpin, in which he discussed the need for us to approach and listen ideas that seemed antithetical to our own.   On the back of that experience and of a growing awareness of the ‘attitudinal bubble’ that I live in, I’ve been reading books which, on the face of it, I might not agree with.

The latest book is E.D. Hirsh’s ‘Cultural Literacy’. In my last post I discussed some of the things I liked about the book, and my concern with the foundations of Hirsch’s theory – that faster reading is a cure-all for educational ills and problems of learning.  In this post I’m starting to discuss the most obvious problem, Hirsch’s somewhat limited conception of what it means to learn, and his curiously passive learner, which I’ll follow up in my next post.

For Hirsch, the underlying assumption of learning is one way. Rather than transaction we have transmission. Rather than active construction we have accretion. Knowledge must come first, communication second. This also renders the world as a passive place, to which we can only apply pre-learned knowledge, which was itself received as a transmission from a more knowledgeable other.

Hirsch’s model of learning is one of assimilation – making things fit in with what we already know.  This is directly related to his focus on reading fluency;  ‘slowness of reading beyond a certain point makes assimilation of complex meaning impossible’ (P.57).  So forming complex meaning is only possible through assimilation and only when this assimilation is achieved through fluent reading. This, in turn, can only occur when reading things, in respect of which the reader is already knowledgeable, or which are culturally familiar to them.   This logically leads us to the conclusion that facts, knowledge must be learned before they can be applied. Assimilation of material here is overlaying confirmation of what is already learned, what is pre-assimilated.

For Hirsch this assimilation is natural – and one dimensional, relying as it does on memorisation and rote-learning. Hirsch objects to the ‘pious rather than realistic’ rejection of this method of learning that he detects in contemporary educationalists. Without supporting evidence beyond the anecdotal Hirsch asserts that children at an early age have an ‘almost instinctive urge to learn specific tribal tradition […] and are eager to master the materials that authenticate their membership in adult society’ (30). He points to the eagerness with which children hoover up the rules of their favourite sport as an example of how ‘memorisation’ should be re-examined as a way of helping children to learn.

This is probably not the time or place to rehearse arguments about rote-learning -v- strategies and ‘which works best’.  Suffice to say that for me, using ‘memorisation’ as a way of learning things seems to be something of a tautology – “We memorise to remember things”.  It also sets up something of a dichotomy which I would argue doesn’t really exist in most classrooms.  It’d be hard to find even the most traditional teacher ‘just telling them’, or relying only on memorisation of facts.  Similarly, it would be hard to find a ‘progressive’ teacher who deals only in subjective opinion, or who facilitates learning only through discovery.  In practice most teachers will tell some things, encourage memorisation of some things, facilitate exploration of some issues, and use discovery and suspense in relation to others.

Willingham suggests that the kind of knowledge that we might pick up only through rote-learning is going to be shallow.  Hirsch can just about make the claim that rote-learning could be a useful method of assimilating new knowledge only because he has set a low bar on the depth of that knowledge.  Hirsh directs us to teach a broad and shallow set of knowledge.  I would argue that by not encouraging students to see the deep structures of problems, shying away from analogies and exploration, and by failing to point out that there are problems with some (not all!) items or types of knowledge, we risk restricting the extent to which knowledge can be transferred to new problems.

We might also missing a trick or two as educators.   There will be key pieces of information that we all want students to know, and to be able to recall.  Repetitive rote learning will play a part in learning these facts.  However, we’ve got to make sure that these are the right kind of facts to be learned in this way, that these facts are correct, and that we give students a chance to see the deeper relations and structures between them.

As an example of the way that the ‘knowledge turn’ in pedagogy risks cutting off learning opportunities from our students, let’s take a look at the idea of ‘knowledge organisers’ in history.  I’ve used these – though I called them ‘glossaries’, and often I took the idea of ‘advance’ organisers as a model (for more on this see Ausubel’s ideas, set out in  Their most recent popularity stems from a post by Joe Kirby on his brilliantly helpful website ‘pragmatic reform’.

There are some really great things about this – the careful thinking that has gone into deciding which items of knowledge the students will need, the focus on common spelling errors, key quotes to add compelling context and colour to students’ knowledge.  This is Hirsch in practice, in that brief, and shallow descriptions in the manner of vocabulary definitions are given.  However, in dealing with some, more complicated, concepts in a shallow way important misconceptions are introduced.

For instance, if we take a closer look at the section on ‘political vocabulary’ we can see that ‘government’ is defined as ‘the political party with the most MPs in parliament’, and ‘political party’ as ‘a group organising to win an election’.  These are obviously problematic when studying Apartheid – the government was much more than the National party, and the ANC, whilst definitely being a political party, as a banned political party was unable to organise to win an election.

Multi-faceted historical contexts are also flattened. Democracy is not defined here, it seems to be taken for granted that students will understand perhaps a platonic model of democracy.  The very point about Apartheid era South Africa is that there were two competing models of democracy. Supporters of the regime would have denied that their country was un-democratic.   Often we can give helpful definitions, but that is not always true, and often we need to do much more. I’m not suggesting for a minute that Joe Kirby doesn’t do just that, but I worry that the impression is that all the knowledge needed can be fitted on one side of A4, and delivered to passively waiting students.

Of course, many people use KOs, and other similar techniques in lots of ways, but these all seem to be much more than ‘memorisation’, and in ways that build much deeper knowledge structures.  Toby French has a great post ( which puts his use of KOs in the context of his wider practice, for instance.  I would go further, however.  Students need time to assimilate, accommodate, test and refine their understanding of concepts about a historical context.  We might start by exploring what democracy, what a political party means to them today, before comparing that with the views and experiences of those living in South Africa during Apartheid.   We might then ask them to fill in a few knowledge organisers (or to explain some concepts) so that we can assess the development of their understanding, and refine our own planning for future learning.

In other words, teachers also need to listen to their students’ ideas, not only to correct their students, but so that they as teachers can refine and perhaps improve their own understanding.  In fact this final point is the thing that people have been trying to teach me for years – from my PGCE tutor, Anna Pendry who gently suggested that I read some more history books, to the parent who rightly complained when I mistakenly told his son that Sefton Delmer wrote for the Daily Mail. The wonderful students who have asked me hard questions that forced me back to my books, and the wonderful teachers who have made me look again at source materials or asked me to think about how I approach what I thought was a familiar topic have, over the years helped me to see that I am also learning.  Unlike Hirsch, I recognise that as teachers we also need to approach ‘truth’ afresh, and sometimes through the eyes of others.  Attempting the delivery of a chunked up world does not help me, or my students, to do that.


Project Halpin: ‘Cultural Literacy’ (1) – Hirsch and the Reader

This is part of a series of posts that I’ve been writing over a much longer period than I originally planned.  The idea came from a lecture given by David Halpin, in which he discussed the need for us to approach and listen ideas that seemed antithetical to our own.   On the back of that experience and of a growing awareness of the ‘attitudinal bubble’ that I live in, I’ve been reading books which, on the face of it, I might not agree with.

The latest book is E.D. Hirsh’s ‘Cultural Literacy’.  Hirsch started to impinge on my consciousness in a serious way in 2010 when it became apparent that Michael Gove and Nick Gibb would be using insights gleaned from their reading of his work in their reform of the National Curriculum.   At that time I possessed only a slight and prejudiced view of Hirsch’s ideas.  I am sure that this view was coloured almost entirely by the fact that he had been embraced by the incoming Conservative education leadership.

Reading the work has therefore been a real education – not the least because of the message of hope that one can read into it – that knowledge offers a (the only) route out of educational and, by implication, social disadvantage.   This has also been an important re-education for me.  I have re-focused in turn on the importance of the knowledge that my students have, not just the knowledge that I have as a teacher.   I’ve always seen my job as to teach students knowledge that they don’t have, but it took me some years to consciously focus on the fact that I’d therefore need to consider the things that they already knew (or didn’t know).

Hirsch also makes some important points about the way we have constructed curricula over the last twenty years, which resonate with my experiences as a history teacher. In our concern to choose a history curriculum that is not oppressive or irrelevant to those that we’re teaching we have instead shifted our focus onto formal skills in history – rather than make hard choices about what to teach and what not to teach.  As we’ll see in a later post, I think that Hirsch also ducks these hard choices.

I don’t think this abdication was ever as complete here in England as Hirsch suggests has been the case in American public schools.  This is especially the case in history classrooms.  We have always been concerned in history to teach an overview, a framework.  This is apparent even in the structure of most KS3 curricula in the schools I visit, which remain chronological and which touch on the big features of the chronological landscape – the Romans in Britain, Medieval Britain, Early Modern Tudor and Stuart Britain, Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions and which finish with a bloody flourish in the 20th Century.

I disagree too with Hirsch attempt to place all the blame for this on Rousseau, Dewey and romanticism. It’s hard to remain romantic when actually teaching in a school – pragmatic pressures such as the struggle to spark interest, to justify one’s practice (and indeed existence) in the face of absurd and arbitrary accountability regimes and resultant managerialism.  There has no doubt been an easy re-course to a crude form of constructivism in schools, but one could argue that the move towards a formalist curriculum is actually an entirely rational response to the situation in which teachers have found themselves.  Performativity and formalism go hand in hand. Performance management trickles down through students’ targets and into pupil friendly mark-schemes, flight paths and ‘exam technique’ interventions.

Hirsch is also convincing that knowledge has an impact on the fluency of reading. Early in the book, before looking at his own research, Hirsch describes a study which found that two groups of readers, one American, and one Indian each found it easier to read articles which were about weddings from their own cultures.    Hirsch’s own work on the impact of knowledge on reading fluency and other research is used to show that background knowledge makes reading more fluent.

However, the extent of the improvements in fluency, and the impact of this improvement on learning are not made clear.  In describing the eureka moment that has informed his work on knowledge in the school curriculum, it is interesting that Hirsch takes the decision not to directly compare the fluency of readers ‘with’ and ‘without’ knowledge on the same graph.  The difference is not as great as it appears when one makes the direct comparison – around 4-16% increase in the words per minute rate for each quintile (estimated from the graphs in the book) between readers familiar and un-familiar with the content of a text.

Hirsch makes a convincing argument for the role of a basic level of fluency in discussion of the mechanics of short term memory and the clogging of this system if too much new or confusing information is presented, but there is nothing here to suggest whether this acts as a  floor level or whether learning  improves or increases the more fluent one’s reading is.  The implication is that there are two states – ‘fluent’ or ‘clogged’, and no middle ground, but there is nothing to suggest what the level of ‘clogged’ is.

Hirsch was originally looking at the effect of style on reading rates, by comparing the rates of people reading original pieces of text that were also stylistically degraded by the researchers.  The effect of prior knowledge on reading fluency seems to be removed altogether if we compare the rates of those reading degraded texts on topics that they’re familiar with, and those they’re un-familiar with.  In comparing college and university students reading about Grant and Lee, both reading stylistically degraded text Hirsch found similar rates of reading.

If the impact of knowledge on fluency was as great as suggested, might we expect instead that prior knowledge should make up for the poor writing in the stylistically degraded texts, or even to enable informed readers to leap over the barrier presented by the degradation in the text?   If we want to improve the fluency of our readers Hirsch’s graphs suggest that we should be doing more than teaching them more knowledge – that there are other factors that might affect the way we approach text, or which might limit how fluent our reading of a text can be.  One of the most important would, from this evidence, seem to be the quality of the writing of the text that one is reading.  The implication for teachers is that we should choose our texts carefully, and work hard to make our written communications accessible.

I realise I’m at risk of being condemned as a ‘knowledge denier’, so I should be clear that I think we should want our students to know more.  What I am pointing out, and this is a theme I will return to in a later post, is that in focusing only on the role of knowledge and on reading fluency, in the face of his own contrary evidence, Hirsch is placing all the deficit in the minds of the learner.  For Hirsch, the message is that there is nothing else we can do as teachers other than give more knowledge, nothing as writers that we can do to make reading more accessible, nothing else that we can do to equip students who find themselves reading material with content that they don’t already know.  It’s a one-way street.