The importance of a ‘content repertoire’

I am rather hoping that you might, for this blog post, permit me a slightly extended analogy.I have spent a lot of my free time in the last fifteen years in mountains. I suspect I’m around the 10,000 hour mark. My knowledge of the mountains of the U.K is very good. The Lake District, in particular, I know intimately well. I’ve climbed all 214 of the Wainwrights, quite a few of them multiple times, and I’ve walked across those fells in every season of the year. I’ve done Tryfan, the Glyders and the Snowdon horseshoe countless times. In Scotland, I’ve been up 188 of the 282 Munros, and in the Alps I have done a lot of walking and mountaineering in the Swiss Valais. There are some obvious holes in my mountain CV: perhaps the most obvious is that I’ve never been to the summit of Ben Nevis (I have thoughts about making this my last Munro).

What this fairly substantial experience allows me to do is to take part in some great conversations. I will happily sit down with you and talk about various routes one might take through the western Lakes or around Glen Affric. My experience gives me the confidence to push myself. I am happy being out on my own in a white-out in winter conditions in the Cairngorms as I know that I know what I need to know to look after myself, for I’ve been in such conditions many times before. I can make informed judgements about risk because I have encountered risky situations before and I’ve had to think through the decision process many times. I am aware of common errors and cognitive biases in this domain and, although I often make small errors, I only rarely make a large error. The experience that lets me do this is a repertoire of content: in my long-term memory I have a large bank of knowledge created from prior experience that opens up a wide range of opportunities. This knowledge is my content repertoire (I am grateful to Christine Counsell for this phrase).

My content repertoire is unique to me, though it overlaps significantly with other experienced hillwalkers. I have a good circle of mountain friends with whom I have made my many excursions. Some of them have many more hours of experience than I, and some fewer. Not one of them has exactly the same repertoire in their experience. There are some routes which nearly all experienced hillwalkers will have done in the UK: Snowdon, Great Gable, Scafell Pike, Ingleborough. It would be noteworthy for an experienced hillwalkers to have never been up these hills. But take my Ben Nevis gap: there is no one hill that it is necessary for someone to have climbed to be an experienced hillwalker. What matters is that each of us has a sufficiently large content repertoire, an undefinable critical mass of knowledge, that puts us in the same world.

And this is what brings me to the school curriculum. This idea of ‘content repertoire’ is vital. In each subject what one needs to master is a repertoire of content. It might not matter if that varies from one person to another. In one school pupils might learn about Henry II and Thomas Becket as an example of the crisis of church and state; in another they might do Henry IV and Gregory VII. The more examples one has in one’s content repertoire, the better placed someone will be to have a meaningful conversation about a subject. Even in subjects where one might expect a more standardised content repertoire (e.g maths or languages), it is nevertheless the case that each person has a content repertoire that is unique to them. This is the problem of curriculum: there is no overall body of knowledge that is a priori necessary, but it is necessary to have a body of knowledge, and this of course is in some ways going to be arbitrary. 

But the arbitrariness of some aspects of curriculum design is not a rationale for having no design at all. For starters, every subject has some basics without which learning anything else becomes harder. The challenge of curriculum design, however, is often not teaching the basics (which if they exist are usually fairly obvious). The challenge is on determining the types of content that need to be included in an individual’s repertoire. I would not take a novice hillwalker only to the southern fells of the Lakes: I would ensure that over time different types of route in different places have been covered. The novice might have some vague ideas about what this content might be (she might have gazed at pictures or heard stories from friends) but it would be my job as her teacher to say “let’s take this route this time as it’d be good for you to do a scramble”. 

So when planning a curriculum, this is what we are planning for our pupils. We want them to have a ‘content repertoire’. We want to design this repertoire in a way that gives some breadth in a subject, even if some of the choices we have to make are arbitrary. This is how we introduce our pupils to a new world of experience, perhaps one that they could not even imagine before they came under our tuition. 

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4 Comments on The importance of a ‘content repertoire’

  1. chrismwparsons // 12 April 2016 at 18:40 // Reply

    Brilliant

  2. Fascinating blog, Michael, thank you. It’s interesting to note that you’ve (a) chosen the content about which to develop a wide repertoire yourself and (b) learned your repertoire of hill knowledge through direct experience and what sounds to me like group work (i.e. walking with fellow hill fans). I wonder if you have any thoughts about what this might imply for children’s learning? Should it only be adults who get to learn in this way, or should children have an element of choice, follow their interests, work in groups, and gain at least some of their knowledge through direct experience?

    • Very interesting comment, not least because, in reality, I learnt about hillwalking in a very traditional, teacher-led way.

      The first point to make here is that, unlike in reading, maths or history, if people go and do hillwalking without the basics in place, people can die. This isn’t just the case in mountainous regions: I’ve watched DofE groups plan to walk along a river (“I think you’ll find that’s the M11”) and to climb across a ‘fence’ (“so that’d be the East Coast Main Line”).

      So, with these risks in place, how was I taught about hillwalking?

      When I was about 16 I signed up for something called Ten Tors on Dartmoor. They put teams of 6 out on the moor for two days and ask you to navigate a 35-, 45- or 55-mile route. For several months I had to attend lunchtime and after-school classes where we were taught how to read a map, how to use a compass, how to dress, what we needed to carry, how to put up a tent, how to cook on a camp stove, emergency first aid and rescue procedures. We did this over the winter, and each session essentially involved a talk by our teacher, who was a qualified Mountain Leader and a member of a Mountain Rescue team. This was very much an expert giving explicit instruction to novices.

      When the spring came about he took us away each weekend, initially for a day, then for the whole weekend. At first an experienced adult walked with us, reminding us of how to navigate, how to use a compass and so on. Our teacher would watch as we practised, letting us make mistakes, correcting these when we got them wrong, and gradually giving us more and more independence as we made the transition from novice to basic competence. Once that teacher was satisfied that we could be safe on our own, we were let out independently, and the teacher would arrange to meet us at various waypoints along the way. Eventually we reached a point where we were able to complete the two-day expedition with complete independence.

      After this I went to university and went out walking with a walking club. Here, although in theory I was part of a group, I regularly went walking with experienced walkers who would teach me new things (e.g. scrambling) and correct me when I was making a mistake. Over a few years I went from being the competent beginner to the experienced walker, and I began teaching the new people who joined the club. Nevertheless, whenever I wanted to push myself, I would employ (now at a cost!) the services of a teacher. I wanted bang for my buck (a mountain guide can cost over £300 a day) and again explicit instruction was what I needed. I had explicit, teacher-led instruction on rock-climbing, winter-walking (wearing crampons, using an ice axe), alpine mountaineering, mountain first aid and then (when I wanted to qualify as a mountain leader) in mountain leadership. The process was the same: as a novice the most helpful thing was explicit, teacher-led instruction, which then progressed to the teacher observing me practise, before I was able to practise on my own.

      Now this is a model of pedagogy I think we should be using in schools. For novices who know little, the close tuition of a teacher is essential. As time goes on pupils, once they have got some basics, can practise under the observation of a teacher, before gaining more independence. It is normally at the latter stage that ‘group work’ begins to become useful, as each member of the group is sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to correct the mistakes of other people in the group. Now, my experienced friends and I regularly challenge each other on the best course of action, and the reason we can do that is because we had so much explicit instruction early on.

      In situations where death and serious injury are possible, this approach to teaching is very, very common.

      Yet when it comes to learning academic subjects in school, the stakes are not as high. The unspoken, or even unrealised, assumption is that we can risk illiteracy, innumeracy and ignorance on a teaching strategy that is less likely to be effective.

      Finally, on the content choice, as the blog says: I didn’t know about good routes. My routes initially chosen for me and, as I came to know the routes, I was able to select and modify them. Even now, when doing a rock climb or a serious Alpine ridge, I’ll still follow the guidebook religiously.

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