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.

Which knowledge should you teach from the Bible?

In my last post I posed the question ‘Why should we teach about the Bible?’ I made the argument that:

  1. You need to have a basic knowledge of the Bible to be genuinely fluent in the English language;
  2. An understanding of Bible stories functions like keys that open doors in other subjects;
  3. These stories should be taught simply because they represent some of the best that has been thought and said: the thought-castles of antiquity.

In this blog, I’m going to go into a bit more detail about which knowledge I would choose to teach from the Bible and why deliberate cumulative sequencing is needed to prevent the Matthew Effect.

Which knowledge?

Teachers in the humanities often have to teach their subjects with only an hour a week (or less) in KS3. This is the elephant in the room: we can talk all we want about all the things we could do in our curricula, but if we only have an hour a week to deliver the best our subject has to offer then this obvious practical constraint must fundamentally shape our priorities.

In my last post I explained why I thought that Bible stories should be the first thing on any religion teacher’s scheme of work. The table below is what I would argue is the bare minimum of what a child should know about the Christian Bible.

Lesson (1hr) Old Testament New Testament
1 How to use a Bible Groups around at the time of Jesus
2 Creation Birth of Jesus
3 The Fall Parable of the Good Samaritan
4 Cain and Abel Parable of the Prodigal Son
5 Near Sacrifice of Isaac Jesus heals a paralysed man
6 Moses and the Burning Bush Jesus is sentenced and crucified
7 The Ten Commandments Jesus’ resurrection

There are some obvious omissions, but you can’t do everything. If you’re someone who looks at this list and thinks it’s just bleeding obvious (warning – it is) then you’re definitely someone who has benefitted from knowing it already. Like money, it’s easy to be complacent about knowledge when you have lots of it.

But shouldn’t they know this already? Surely they do this in primary school? This a bit like saying that children should know their timetables before coming up to secondary school: they should, but they don’t. You either: a) say that such knowledge is not worthy of study b) stick your head in the sand and hope that Ofsted isn’t interested in your curriculum (it isn’t), or c) teach it explicitly at KS3. As tempting as option B is, we have to choose the latter.

Part of the reason for this is not just because I think these are pleasant little stories to ease children into Year 7. It’s because I believe they need this knowledge to be able to make meaning out of new knowledge. If you want to teach religion at KS3 that is genuinely challenging, and not just the ‘colour in a mosque/twitter feed from the cross’ variety, then you have to give pupils a schema from which they can start to make meaningful judgements. Then you need to make sure they remember it. ‘Analysis’, ‘evaluation’ and the phantasmagoria of ‘higher order skills’ simply do not exist outside of it.

Deliberate cumulative sequencing 

This is one reason why the deliberate cumulative sequencing of a unit of work is so important: teachers often underestimate the wealth of knowledge needed for analysis.

‘For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.’ – Matthew 25:29 

How apt, then, that Stanovich, described the tendency for slow readers to increasingly fall behind their peers as the ‘Matthew Effect’. Stanovich suggests that slow reading ability inhibits the development of other cognitive skills and affects performance on other academic tasks. The opposite is also true: strong reading abilities allow the development of cognitive skills and enhance academic performance. In short, advantage begets advantage.

This is something I spoke to David Ashton (@thegoldencalfre) about when he came to watch me teach a lesson on the sentence, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. This is the textbook that I used for the lesson – Susan Grenfell’s ‘Religious Studies for Common Entrance’. Common Entrance is an exam taken by those leaving independent prep schools hoping to get into public (private) schools. If you have any doubts as to academic level of (some) privately educated 12 year-olds then have a look at this:

photo

The first thing you’ll notice is the level of vocabulary expected of the reader. Words like ‘blasphemy’, ‘atonement’, ‘sacrifice and ‘sin’ point to a pre-existing schema that is both rich and cumulative. There is a core body of knowledge that must be learnt before pupils can make any sense of the significance of Jesus’ death for Christians today. I’ve marked these in red on the picture.

  1. The Fall. Pupils need to understand that Christians believe Adam and Eve’s sin created a barrier in the relationship between God and humankind.
  1. Abraham and Near Sacrifice of Isaac. Pupils should have some understanding of the ritual of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament.
  1. Groups around at the time of Jesus. Pupils need to know that the Romans controlled Jerusalem and that the local administrator was Pontius Pilate. They also need to know about Jesus’ relationship with the Jewish authorities.
  1. Jesus heals a paralysed man. Pupils should know that Jesus claimed he was equal to God and had the power to forgive sins. This led to accusations of blasphemy from the Jewish authorities.

To teach in a way that challenges our pupils, a body of knowledge must be presupposed. It is what this story means for Christians that is worthy of study, not the order of events or who said what to whom. But the knowledge the pupils need to approach such analysis must be explicitly taught, sequenced and tested for recall. If we are to avoid the Matthew Effect in our classrooms then we cannot just hope that our pupils arrive at our lesson with this schema already place; we must know that it is. If we cannot, then we allow ourselves to become bite-size teachers teaching bite-size knowledge and getting bite-size thinking for our troubles.

Why would you teach about the Bible?

I posed this question on Twitter the other day: ‘Why would you start your religion curriculum with anything other than Bible stories?’ In this blog, I will make the argument that:

  1. A basic knowledge of the Christian Bible is needed to be genuinely fluent in the English language.
  2. Knowledge and understanding of these stories is necessary to access a range of other disciplines: English literature, history, art and music, to name the most obvious.
  3. Together, they represent some of the most powerful stories ever written.

Literacy

‘No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible’ – E. D. Hirsch

One of the lesser-known appendices to Hirsch’s tome ‘The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy’ is ‘Appendix B: Supplement on Biblical Literacy’. That Hirsch did not include biblical literacy in the body of his work can in part be explained by the complicated relationship between religion and the State in American public life. I’m not going to delve into that philosophical bear pit right now. What is important here is that Hirsh does not see teaching about the Bible as an apologetic activity: for him, and for me, teaching about the Bible is something that we do because it produces ‘literate and historically informed citizens.’ I think there is more to it than that, but I’ll explain more about that further on.

exodusnw For the moment, stop to consider the number of allusions made to biblical stories in newspapers, books or in casual conversation. You’ll see the extent to which knowledge and understanding of such references dramatically affects our comprehension – a point that Daisy Christodoulou and others have made much more effectively than I can. Consider, for example, this cover of ‘Newsweek’ last year.

Add to this some of the phrases that we use in our everyday speech. Consider, for example, what it means, literally and figuratively, to cite ‘chapter and verse’. Or what it means to say someone is a Good Samaritan? Or – as Colonel Tim Collins warned his troops before the Second Gulf War – to take care not to take life needlessly for fear of the ‘Mark of Cain’? In each case, a basic knowledge of a biblical story dramatically empowers the listener. When I read Tim Collins’ speech for the first time (and I’d thoroughly recommend you do) I couldn’t help wonder whether all of his soldiers would have understood this reference, and how damaging their ignorance of this might have been.

Knowledge

I also think that Bible stories make the teaching of other subjects more enriching. I am very fortunate to be at a school where we think very hard about curriculum design and how we can dovetail subjects that are too often considered to be totally discrete. You can read more about this in Joe Kirby’s blog here. I’m not going to spend the next 20,000 words writing a thesis on the myriad ways in which a basic knowledge of Bible stories supports teaching in other subjects. But here is one example:

Katie Ashford is currently teaching ‘Tyger, Tyger’ by William Blake to her Year 7 groups. This is a challenging poem to do with Year 7s. But it’s even more challenging if pupils’ knowledge of the Bible and Christian theology is so poor that they have no purchase on the poem. It’s for exactly this reason that many English teachers would shy away (I think understandably) from teaching it. This in turn impoverishes our curriculum, which in turn impoverishes their learning. In Katie’s case, the discussion was that much more enriching because of the knowledge the pupils brought into the lesson: they understood that the ‘Lamb’ was a metaphor for Jesus and why it is a symbol of innocence. What could have been a totally impenetrable poem was made that little bit easier because of the knowledge they had to bring to it.

Power

Most importantly, though, you should teach Bible stories because they are some of the most powerful stories that have ever been written.

Hirsch is right to say that children should learn about Bible stories because it makes them ‘literate and historically informed citizens’. But to justify their inclusion in the curriculum simply on these grounds is to neglect the intentions of their authors and power of their message. You do not have to believe in God to find the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac one of the most arresting in the whole of the human story. Such was Abraham’s devotion to God that he was prepared to sacrifice his only son. Now that’s something for the pupils to chew on. And if you can’t make a lesson on that interesting, frankly, you’re in the wrong job. Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about it – Fear and Trembling – in which, among other things, he seems to argue that Abraham was right to suspend the normal ethical rules because of his absolute devotion to God – what Kierkegaard calls the ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’. It is a terrifying argument: as powerful and pertinent now as it was when Kierkegaard first wrote it.

Next time, I’ll be discussing curriculum design in religion, how important this is, and suggesting some possible ways forward. I’ll be looking at the teaching of religions outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition and what ‘philosophy’ might look like at Key Stage 3.