Sailing on a rising tide of knowledge

Imagine for a moment a cannon positioned on the south coast of England, pointing at France. The artillery officers identify a target on the French coast and calculate exactly what is needed to hit that target. Using years of experience that has helped them work out how to do this, they set off the cannon and, if they what they are doing, they hit their target more often than not.

We often treat schooling as if it should be a cannon. By this I mean that we set out a clear target, we aim children towards that target, and we judge ourselves on whether they hit it. To give ourselves the best possible chance of getting children to that target, we focus very closely on the fine details: we do not load them up with unnecessary weight, we strip away anything that might cause a distraction, and, for the delivery system that will get a child to their destination, we put all of our resources into ensuring that the system will get them there.

Like all analogies this is not perfect, but I think it’s not a bad comparison for what happens in schools. We focus on qualifications as outcomes, and we train pupils with just what they need in order to get a particular qualification. We model a curriculum as linear, a ladder-like progression model where each step inexorably leads towards the particular outcome we have determined.

Now I am not against examinations (to the contrary) and nor am I against the idea that I want my pupils to leave school with qualifications and future prospect. But I am not sure that the cannon model is the right one.

I prefer much more to think of a pupil as a ship in a harbour at low tide, sat on the muddy ground, unable to go anywhere without outside intervention. As the tide gradually rises, however, the ship begins to move. Channels in the harbour open up and, before long, the range of possibilities has vastly improved. A single bucket of water chucked in from the harbour side does not make a difference, but, collectively, the more water there is, the easier it will be for the boat to sail away.

Readers of this blog will know that for me the water here is an analogy for knowledge. Rather than have a narrow curriculum that gives a child just enough knowledge to pass a qualification, I would instead argue that we should be gradually filling the harbours of their minds, where each new layer of knowledge joins with what they already know in order that they might sail away to a wide variety of possible futures. With a high tide our sailing ship can get to the coast of France, and we can help to make sure it does, but we have also prepared the ship to go to many other places as well.

Our role as teachers is not to fire the cannon: it is to fill the harbour.

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10 Comments on Sailing on a rising tide of knowledge

  1. I’m in danger of mucking up your metaphors, but it’s worth emphasising further that we need to do this not only for students to get to other destinations, as well as France, but even to get to France. In other words, anticipating the inevitable cry from those who misunderstand what knowledge is doing here (i.e. ‘Oh that’s all very well but in limited time and with students from disadvantaged backgrounds, surely we must prioritise getting them to France in the first instance, so that they get the currency of qualifications’), I would add a further emphasis: one needs this knowledge even – and especially for the low-attaining and disadvantaged – to get the qualification. One needs to fill the harbour even to get to France.

    What happens right now, with the flinging of resources at Years 6 and 11, especially for those children struggling from very low base lines, amounts to dragging the ship along the mudflats, dragging and pushing it, without allowing wind and water to do their at first deeply subtle, often indirect but ultimately powerful work. We steer at destination instead of looking to wind and water.

    And hell, at worst, it’s miserable work. Because it’s all just too late. The harbour fills back in Year 7, or back in Year 4. We must draw in water then.

    What school leaders therefore need is a deep grasp of the generative and ‘sticky’ character of knowledge (sorry – other metaphors are about to car crash with yours…), a well-worked account of why domain must come before test. Only if test (and I mean here significant, standard and summative tests) is to gain its proper status as mere sample (Koretz) and byproduct, can we adequately conceptualise the transformative work of curriculum leadership.

  2. Tom Burkard // 11 December 2016 at 11:01 // Reply

    It’s seldom I disagree completely with one of your posts! Let’s just look at what happens to new information that enters our working memory. If it doesn’t relate to any of our existing schemata, it is unlikely to stick for very long. So undifferentiated information coming into our brains is just that–information.

    It stands to reason that we only have so much time in the classroom, and this puts a limit on the amount of information that we can present, so our objective must be to build schemata for it to adhere to. Hence, I think we have to concentrate on narrow fronts initially, building up a good beach-head at various points. Once again the English Channel comes to mind!

    The more we know about a subject, the more interesting it becomes, for the simple reason that new information is more likely to enhance our knowledge and expertise. And once we develop expertise in one area, the more we can understand that studying other subjects will repay our efforts.

    One little nugget that has stuck in my mind for a very long time comes from ‘Beginning to Read: Thinking and learning about print’ by MJ Adams. It was published in 1990 and is a seminal text in terms of introducing educators to the hard truths from the cognitive sciences. She reviewed studies of vocabulary acquisition, and found that after the age of nine, the vast majority of new words are learned through reading. Even with educated professionals, the words used in ordinary conversation (in other words, not ‘shop talk’) is roughly equivalent to what you’d find in something like a Roald Dahl story.

    This, of course, is the main factor behind Stanovich’s ‘Matthew effect’: the more you read, the more your vocabulary grows, and the more you want to read. So teachers really should think about how we get our kids into this virtuous feedback loop. And I think the answer is simple: we should aim to make them experts, rather than simply filling their minds with undifferentiated buckets of information.

    • I’m fascinated by your comment Tom. So much I agree with, both from experience and from research (stickiness of knowledge, the role of schemata we bring to the text in securing comprehension, etc. Absolutely. Yes). I’m therefore fascinated and puzzled at your assumption that Michael is advocating ‘filling their minds with undifferentiated buckets of information’. It seems to me that this is the last thing he is advocating. Admittedly, I draw that conclusion from contextualising his post within his numerous other posts, and all that I’ve heard him argue elsewhere, but I am quite certain that that is very, very far from what he is advocating. So why have we read his post so differently? (no doubt our own schemata!).

      Why ‘undifferentiated’? (the work of content selection, even and especially where the goal is to broaden that content, is complex, challenging, relates to pedagogic-curricular challenges of sequencing, choices and blends; it requires precision, both in grasping the way a subject furnishes tools for precise thought, and in establishing patterns of epistemic ascent within and across subjects).
      Why ‘buckets’?
      Why ‘information’? (MF has been explicit, elsewhere, about the distinction between knowledge and information – information is free-floating, clickable, de-contextualised – knowledge has structure, both in its disciplinary manifestations, wherein its socio-historical origins present themselves and its debates become part of what must be learned, and in its curricular presentations, as a narrative structured across time).

      Who would want to throw ‘buckets of undifferentiated information’ at children? I’m genuinely interested in why you read that into Michael’s post. Would love to hear your thoughts.

  3. Tom Burkard // 12 December 2016 at 15:50 // Reply

    Christine–I found it impossible to make sense of the metaphor in any other way. Having been in many tides, both rising and falling, if you take a bucket out of the sea it’s just a random procedure. What you come up with is just a matter of chance.

    But the main problem was the argument against a narrow curriculum–the alternative is a broad and shallow curriculum. You’ve only got so many hours with your kids, and you can’t have it both ways. By studying a rather more limited number of topics (and perhaps subjects) in greater depth, you are far more likely to reach what I’d call the ‘critical mass’ at which the subject becomes interesting enough so you will actually want to learn more about it. And as the schema extends, it becomes more likely that other things you read incidentally will relate to it. So the rate of expansion of knowledge becomes exponential rather than just linear, as it is when learning is confined to what the teacher tells you (or the readings assigned).

    Of course, one of the problems in the humanities is choosing the topics. Although my first degree is in early and late modern English history, very early on I became fascinated with how and how late Stuart England, which was technologically retarded in every field save agriculture and dependent upon French subsidies, progressed by 1815 to being the world’s leading power as a result of the most remarkable revolution the world had ever seen. I owe this to Prof Colin Davies, whose seminars focused on specific events which demonstrated the social, religious and economic imperatives faced by the gentlemen of 17th C England. There were a lot of major developments that were covered lightly if at all, but once we understood these tensions, we could read a wide variety of texts about them and make sense of them. Ever since, I’ve ordered dozens of books relating to every aspect of changes unleashed by William of Orange, Shaftesbury, Locke, Marlborough, and not the least people like Nicholas Barbon, who more or less invented the modern insurance industry.

    However, if I had ever taught history in school, I’d have been sunk–anything that remotely resembles the Whig interpretation of history is deeply unfashionable. Even our great radical tradition is ignored–until the middle of the 19th century, nearly every radical thinker advocated limiting the scope of government. Lastly, I believe that the only point in studying history is to understand why people acted as they did, rather than passing childish moral judgments on them. I don’t think I’d have a cat’s chance in hell of unleashing the same passions in my pupils considering the mandates of the National Curriculum, which is far too broad.

    • I think this just shows that my metaphor did not work very well! Really it was criticising the idea that (say with GCSE History) you start prepping them in Y7, teach to the test, drill on exam technique, and that’s about it. I think the metaphor was more aimed at what the purpose of teaching is: a one-off shot at passing a test (and then forgetting lots of it thereafter) or the teaching of lots of knowledge that might be harnessed for passing the test, but is also then available for many other things. So just a weak metaphor I think.

    • Thanks. That’s helpful.
      I think we are talking about completely different things – or at least different scales of knowledge. I taught history at Key Stage 3 for many years and have since spent over half my life in other people’s history classrooms. So my sense of filling the harbour is this:
      (1) Knowledge itself is transferable, from one topic to another. It may be much more transferable than skill. Our ability to recognise and comprehend (and call up at will and deploy) tricky abstract words (institution, peasantry, government, federal, society, dukedom, heresy, public opinion) that are vital to make sense of any text about the past, grows as a result of knowing many stories. You don’t ‘get’ these words by looking them up in a dictionary, or bumping into them once, or using a glossary. Their complex and shifting meanings are too subtle. You get them as a result of encountering them in stories. By hearing/seeing them used in multiple contexts. Thus they gather meaning. And spotting them change over a secure time-frame can make them even more meaningful, and contextualised. Our usage of them bends and flexes with the content that sits underneath them in our long-term memories. And through a systematic history curriculum, there is the opportunity to see these words changing over time, e.g. the multiple ways in which an ’empire’ manifests itself, or, e.g. the way in which it is used both as a geographical and a political expression.
      (2) Short-term memory can only cope with so much stuff at once (I’m thinking right back to Eleanor Rosch’s work, that Hirsch drew on in his 1988 work) and this profoundly affects our reading speed (speed of adjusting our schemata to the test). But actually even before I read that kind of research, I realised after years of teaching ‘bottom set’ Year 7, Year 10 etc, that their difficulties – the almost unsurmountable challenge such pupils had of reading the source sensibly in the exam, the challenge of assimilating any new material, the challenge of reading the textbook or staying focused during a tricky topic – was to do with lack of familiarity with this recurring abstract language, and thus cognitive overload. Too much of their attention was necessarily focused on trying to get these words and the flow of the sentence was lost. So I started to re-focus my teaching on knowledge. I did not rest until a weak pupil had grasped the word heresy. If they struggled to arrive at the point where it could used with fluency, I re-thought the curriculum and built in some more study of other heretics. I got them to learn definitions so they could call them up and re-use them. I deliberately organised re-encounters with them. Only later did I find that there was research about memory that underpinned this. By filling the harbour, I’m talking about the psychological structure of background knowledge as it underpins literacy.
      (3) So many efforts to push up standards in Year 11 have involved rehearsing examination rubrics and markschemes earlier and earlier, as these are things pupils get better at, as though these markschemes are the subject or the domain. Imagine spending five years practising a four-mark ‘describe’ answer and a ‘six-mark ‘explain’ answer, and so on. Not just boring, but pointless. They are just proxy genres within which no skill hierarchy inheres at all. And yet there really are schools that think this is sensible and make their heads of history do this. But, as Kate Hammond illustrated very well in her piece in 2014, the Year 11 pupil who uses the word ‘public opinion’ appositely, who turns a crisp phrase with it, who reads it fluently when it pops up in the source in the exam, and so has brain space for the new stuff the source is telling him/her, is the pupil who has bumped into ‘public opinion’ many times, in many historical contexts, and so has it as a flexible power tool, rather than a clunky mallet.

      In school after school I have seen teachers dragging Year 11 across the mud flats by making them practise the exam rubric. But back in Year 7, they needed the water under the ship – enough knowledge to recognise and use the words with ease, enough knowledge on wider scales to know how things worked in the past, enough comparators to reach a finely tuned judgement when asked to analyse. In my experience, the disadvantaged child, more than any, lacks the knowledge that underpins this fluency – both the language and the multiple, orientating reference points that adequately broad knowledge supplies.

  4. George Harris // 14 December 2016 at 09:58 // Reply

    I though I agreed with MF’s post. But the resulting comments have gone far beyond my understanding (despite 4 decades teaching). One or two simple points I would make.

    1. Too many commentators when they say “knowledge” only seem to mean “know what”, forgetting “know how to”.

    2. I hated having my success or failure as a teacher judged by the immediate exam results (though one of course had a duty to help ones pupils do as well as possible in those). It was more helpful – and could be measured – to look at university performance. It was even more helpful (though could not be measured) to learn about their futures ten, twenty and thirty years later. What’s that Kipling poem, that appears in “Stalky and Co? “But their work continueth, broad and deep continueth, far beyond their knowing.”

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