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The Importance of Knowledge-Led Curriculum

‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.’

Facts. Somewhere amongst the VAK and the discovery-based learning, facts fell out of fashion. During the second half of the twentieth century, the Dickensian notion of a factually dense education with its whiff of repression and child cruelty gave way to one of discussion and discovery. So called ‘progressive’ educational theories, such as those inspired by Vygotsky, Kagan and Montessori, vehemently eschewed the didactic ‘chalk and talk’ style of teaching many of our parents (and some of us!) grew up with. It was decreed that teachers would henceforth be known as ‘facilitators’ who would sit back and let learning happen. Students would work in groups and discuss. Answers would be discovered through trial and error. The individual learning style of every student would be taken into consideration and teachers would not stand at the front of the classroom droning out facts, Gradgrind style. Learning became fun, posters were created and classrooms were noisy and colourful. But did it work? Research suggests not.

However, the times they are a changin’. Kirshner’s work on fully-guided instruction is clear that decades of research tells us that direct, explicit instruction for novices is more effective and efficient than minimal guidance methods. Other educationalists and schools alike have realised that a knowledge-dense curriculum, rich in historical dates, times tables, rigorous spelling tests and scientific formulae learned by rote is the best gift we can give our students. At Towers, we are embracing the return to the old ways. In the English department, the shift started a few years ago when we created our Grammar for Writing scheme of work. Realising that some of our sixth formers were still struggling to write accurately at length, we taught a sequence of lessons that focused on the differences between adverbs and adjectives, on building multi-clause sentences and on using semi colons accurately. We taught it to every year group. Was it the most fun the students had ever had in their English lessons? Probably not. Did it work? Absolutely.

Visits to schools such as Michaela have reminded us that we, as teachers, are the experts. Our collective education, the degrees and postgraduate qualifications we have accumulated between us, make us the best people to feed the young minds who sit in front of us for five hours a day. Using my nine year old son as a research case proved useful. Desperate to learn how to rainbow flick (a football trick involving trapping the ball between both legs, rolling it up the back of the right leg with the left foot before flicking it skilfully over the head), he convinced me to let him watch a Neymar tutorial on Youtube. Learning the steps from an expert before practising for hours in the garden resulted in the skill being mastered. Could he have worked it out by himself? Maybe. Eventually. But being explicitly taught by an expert was by far the quickest and most effective way of learning.

At Towers, as a result of our new vision, students sit in rows, they knowledge check in silence and are regularly tested on the facts they have been taught. Research reveals that without regular revisiting and testing, knowledge is forgotten. We believe that regular testing, quizzing and exams, with supporting guidance on how to revise, ensures that knowledge is firmly embedded and stored in our students’ long term memory.

Other next steps involve rebuilding our curriculum and providing subject teams with the precious time they need to create challenging, ambitious, knowledge-led schemes of work that will ensure our students can compete with their peers from selective and independent schools, with young people from the most privileged of backgrounds, to hold their own at university and on their future career paths. As Joe Kirby, English teacher at Michaela, reminds us in his chapter of the school’s book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, ‘the consequence of reducing the knowledge taught…is an entrenchment of the gaping achievement gap between richer and poorer pupils’. We don’t want a student’s socioeconomic background dictating his or her future. We want all of our students to achieve and to excel.

So, is it working? Well, experiencing a challenging year 9 class chorally reciting the accurate spellings of words such as pernicious, vengeance and onomatopoeia is evidence enough for me that we’re going in the right direction.  

Kate O’Hara

AP: Teaching and Learning

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