Change isn’t always as good as a rest

If there was a proverb that never quite won me over it was ‘a change is as good as a rest’. This is especially surprising given the frequency at which such aphorisms were pestled into my subconscious as a child: ‘little birds in their nest should agree’; ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander’ and – how could I forget – ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’. When Schott’s miscellany first came out and I saw the list of ‘contradictory proverbs’ it was a shock: one of those moments where, as an adolescent, the previously clear epistemological waters become suddenly much more murky.

My esteemed colleague Joe Kirby has blogged previously about variety for variety’s sake. He made the argument that ‘generic activities, fun, varied and engaging, are being given precedence over silent, focused subject-specific hard work.’ Here I want to make the case that if ‘what’ you teach is intrinsically captivating, the activity you employ – the ‘how’ – becomes much less important. It means that teachers in the humanities subjects can focus on the activities that have, rather than those which appear to have, the greatest impact.

This has two chief benefits:

  1. You can focus on a small number of activities that will have the greatest impact: recapping/retrieval, focused reading, comprehension questions, constructing paragraphs and essays.
  2. A limited number of activities reduces the time spent on instruction of the activity – the ‘how’ – so that more time can be spent on instruction of the content – the ‘what’.

This is the Pareto Principle: you can achieve much more with much less effort, time, and resources, simply by concentrating on the all-important 20 percent. 80:20

As a consequence, change is not always as good as a rest.

Recapping

Bodil Isaksen has written better than I can about what and how we can recap in our lessons. What she didn’t say, because she is too modest, is the sheer automaticity of this phase in her lessons. What strikes the observer is that it needs no, or very minimal, instruction.

We want our pupils to max out their cognitive load on the content being retrieved rather than the method of retrieval – the ‘what’ and not the ‘how’. Joe and I have tried to make the recapping episodes of our lessons consistent across English and the humanities. Most of the time we blank out one column of a knowledge organiser and get the pupils to complete it in the back of their books. Pupils come in. Pupils sit down. ‘Good morning, gang. You know the drill. 1-10. Go.’ In geography, we might be looking at South-East Asia, but I’ll be damned if they’ll forget about the British Isles.* The content changes but the activity doesn’t. It’s simple, predictable and effective.

Reading

If there’s one skill we should prize above all others it’s reading. To anyone who hasn’t taught in England’s comprehensive schools in the last decade this must come across as pretty trite. It’s like a surgeon saying that she tries to keep the patient alive, if she possibly can. But, actually, it’s remarkable how little reading practice pupils are given in the humanities. This is understandable: reading is best done slowly, intently and may involve no apparent engagement of any kind. It may even – dare I say it – be done in silence. It’s that moment in an Ofsted observation where, if you dare do it at all, you rush through quickly and hope the inspector isn’t looking.**

And this, clearly, is madness.

Whenever we introduce new material to pupils at Michaela we do it in exactly the same way: we read together as a class and each pupil has the text we’re reading from. No shared worksheets. Nothing stuck on the wall. There’s just the sheet of paper/booklet/textbook flat on each desk. All the lines are numbered. Pupils must track each line with their rulers. That way we can see if they’re following with the class or not. Pupils read out loud going around the class. If they’re too quiet, I ask them to project. If they mumble, I remind them to articulate. Because they do the same thing in every subject, every day, no instruction of the activity is necessary.

Writing

When I was doing my initial teacher training (God knows, I am still learning…) the idea of setting pupils comprehension questions at the end of a lesson was anathema. My tutor would have looked at me with the sort of pained expression that liberal metropolitans usually reserve for their recalcitrant relatives in the shire. I spent hours thinking of ways around this: unlike the duck I wanted it to look like a comprehension question, sound like a comprehension question but not actually be a comprehension question. In a moment of madness a colleague of mine suggested I go all ‘Winter Wonderland’, getting the pupils to write their answers on white paper, scrunch them up and then throw them to another corner of the room for ‘peer assessment’. You can imagine.

These days I keep it simple. If I want to know the pupils have read what they were meant to read, and correctly understood it, I give them comprehension questions. If I want the pupils to do some extended writing, I get them to write a paragraph. Sometimes we do summaries, tables or chronologies: a handful of effective activities that we practise again, and again, and again.

Schott’s miscellany does give the contradictory proverb for ‘change is as good as a rest’, and I’ve rather taken to it:

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’

*My bit for British Values.

**The only good argument I’ve ever come across for pretty wall displays.

Philosophy at KS3: avoiding a grubby tumble dryer of mutual ignorance

“If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” – David Hume

This was the quotation placed on the desk in front of me when I applied to read Theology at Cambridge now many years ago. Just one question accompanied this, and an intimidatingly thick stack of lined paper.

‘On the basis of Hume’s advice, should we burn the Divinity Faculty library?’

I’ve been told since that my response was anything but erudite. I cobbled together some sort of argument, threw in some Big Names and tried to sound a lot more knowledgeable than I actually was: the story of my life. In an ironic entry for Providence, it was Nietzsche who saved the day. I recognised the ‘unseen’ text given to me by my interviewer as a passage from The Genealogy of Morals. I pretended that I didn’t know who had written it, but suggested that it sounded pretty German.

I said in an earlier blog that I would try and tackle the topic of what, if any, philosophy there should be in the KS3 curriculum. This is a topic very close to my heart: I agonised hugely over whether to apply to read philosophy or theology at university. I eventually chose the latter because, although I had little or no belief in God, I seemed more interested than the philosophers were in playing the devil’s advocate.

  1. RS is different from philosophy.

RS begins by taking as self-evident that religion exists, even if God does not. As I understand it, the purpose of RS is to provide pupils with a knowledge and understanding of the world religions because a) their histories, beliefs and practices are inherently interesting and worthy of study and b) we can’t possibly be considered culturally literate without a basic religious literacy. I would add to this that I think that we’re also asking children to make informed judgements about truth and reality, if either exists at all. We should celebrate competing truth claims (religious and non-religious) and equip pupils with the knowledge and understanding to make critical judgements.

  1. Philosophy usually involves a different sort of enquiry and different subject content.

I think philosophy is a different sort of enquiry from the study of religion. It sees discussion about religion as nothing more than ‘sophistry and illusion’: religion contains no ‘experimental reasoning’, few (if any) ‘facts’ and no ‘existence’ – at least not the sort that philosophers like. It is a different sort of enquiry because philosophers are usually asking different questions than those of theologians, even if sometimes they’re asking those questions of the same material. I studied both Hume and Aquinas as an undergraduate theologian, but I was probably asking different questions of their work than the undergraduate philosophers.

1 and 2 both being true, why don’t I think it should be a totally separate subject at secondary school?

Knowledge

Political philosophy is not just the study of politics; it is the study of what we know about politics and how we wish to organise our societies. Aesthetics is not just the study of beauty; it is the study of what beauty might be. Epistemology is not just knowledge; it is the nature and quality of knowledge, and what we can know. It is no coincidence that at many universities, Oxford for one, it is not possible to study ‘philosophy’ as a single discipline. One studies ‘physics and philosophy’, ‘PPE’ or, indeed, ‘theology and philosophy’. It may be true, as the Oxford philosophy handbook says, that ‘the study of philosophy develops analytical rigour and the ability to criticize and reason logically.’ But I think it does so because such skills are the corollaries of analyzing something, and criticizing and reasoning logically about something. For children to ‘philosophize’, I think they need something to philosophize about. If you believe (and I think this does qualify as ‘belief’) that such thinking skills can be taught in isolation then I’m not going to even try and convert you; here I offer only heresy.

Opportunity cost

This being the case, I think there can be a huge opportunity cost in trying to teach philosophy when children do not have the knowledge to be able to make meaningful judgements. Having been trained in the so-called ‘Philosophy 4 Children’ programme, I have some experience of the sort of lessons which might charitably be described as a glorified speaking and listening exercise: pictures of women clothed in rainbow-coloured LGBT burqas used to provoke ‘engaging’ discussion about gender roles and/or sexuality. You can imagine the sort of insightful (and sensitive) comments these elicit from the average Year 7 class. At best, you get some provocative discussion supported by prior knowledge. But the pupils aren’t learning anything new. At worst, they’re just repeating and recycling unsupported opinions in a grubby tumble dryer of mutual ignorance. This is a massive opportunity cost when a) the knowledge deficit is so debilitating and b) curriculum time is at such a premium.

Priorities

I don’t think that all who argue for philosophy as a separate subject in secondary schools see this as philosophy proper. Unfortunately, many do. Either way, I do think we have to be careful about introducing philosophy too early, not least because I think it does genuine philosophy a huge disservice. I think it’s also unrealistic to fracture the school timetable anymore than we’ve done already. There are a myriad different academic disciplines chomping at the bit for a bit of lesson time (Psychology? Anthropology? Citizenship?), and I think there’s good reason to be conservative rather than adding yet another variable to the mosh pit that is school timetabling. I have considered whether I could introduce some philosophy of mind, aesthetics or epistemology at KS3, but I’ve always come to two conclusions:

  1. I would rather pupils knew and understood the three Abrahamic faiths than wrestle with a watered down version of Hume’s Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, Scruton’s Beauty or some John Searle.
  2. This knowledge base already embedded and assumed, philosophy of religion and philosophy of ethics is the right way to begin to introduce pupils to the discrete subject that is ‘philosophy’.

Next time, I’ll write about what this looks like in practice and my attempts at creating an overview that tracks the history of ancient and modern ideas: Christianity at the same time as the Reformation; Islam just before the Crusades and scepticism at the time of the French Revolution.