A focus on knowledge – knowledge in the curriculum

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This is the 2nd post in a series on how my teaching has become more ‘knowledge rich’. The overview of the series is here.

  1. Planning schemes using knowledge
  2. Direct instruction with focus on context and linking of contexts
  3. Direct instruction & note taking
  4. Testing
  5. Foundation knowledge & depth of knowledge
  6. Use of etymology & focus on keywords

This post will focus on curriculum; what we teach and how it’s organised.

To some extent my experience of teaching will be very different to most. With RE we don’t have a national curriculum with specified content. Agreed syllabuses vary in detail of what should be taught. Some give a small list of ‘themes’ without any detail about what should be taught within them. It essentially means that  many Heads of RE are free to decide whatever they teach.

Also, lessons are infrequent. At the height of nonsense, I taught whole cohorts GCSE, on one lesson a fortnight. Just ponder that for a few moments if you’ve never done it. A child is off sick, you don’t see them for a month. It’s a bank holiday, you don’t see them for a month. It’s Easter holiday, you don’t see them for six weeks. Combine them and you realise you’ll be lucky to get 15 lessons a year; the equivalent to a few weeks for core subjects.

This is relevant to my teaching because now I am very lucky to be in a school that gives more time to RE than I’ve ever had before. This means I can cover more subject content and have to think more carefully about how it all fits together.

Knowledge schemes

One key difference is in our schemes. I don’t really care what you call them but ours are schemes of knowledge or schemes of learning not schemes of work.

Some people write schemes that are based around a question or a statement and then the rest is activities or ideas of what the students can do in the lesson. They focus more on the student activity than what they need to learn.

Ours now take the format of a fairly detailed list of what we must teach the students. For example, instead of putting ‘The life of Muhammad’ and leaving it to teachers to decide what might/might not be included, we specify what we must teach. This includes the key vocabulary we want them all to know. It’s not differentiated. It’s the same for all students.

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You might argue that this detail is down to teacher autonomy. It’s not taking this away. It’s up to the teacher ‘how’ they teach it but the important aspect is that every student in every class, no matter who the teacher, gets the same level of knowledge.

The rest of the document is relevant resources that can help explain, emphasise or be used to reinforce this knowledge.  It’s about what helps them to learn the key content not what activities can fill the lesson.

Skills as knowledge

Without getting into the skills vs knowledge debate, I have rethought what I think a skill is and how it can be learnt.

I believe that skills can mostly be learnt as knowledge. That knowledge is the skill broken down into its parts. I will use the example of an essay to explain.

You could say that writing a good essay is a skill in many subjects. However if we unpick what makes a good essay we can teach it as knowledge of how to write a good essay. These might include:

  • Using quotations to support points
  • Logical organisation of points
  • Use of paragraphs
  • Selection of relevant and most important content
  • A conclusion

You can then go into each of these and think what makes ‘a good one’ of these and unpick it further. For example with quotations:

  • Use correct punctuation
  • Correct use of ellipsis
  • Reference to source/author/speaker
  • Embedded into reasoning
  • Explained
  • Linked to point being made

etc

There is knowledge here of what correct punctuation is when using a quotation. Students can learn this as the knowledge of this skill. It is possible to teach these and to assess them fairly simply.  I will discuss this more in the next blog.

Overall, students can understand the skill of writing a good essay as a collection of knowledge about how to do each element. I realise there are some elements that don’t lend itself to this method, for example writing ‘with flair’ or ‘coherence’ are much more difficult to teach. But in my experience these foundation blocks mean that all students can work on small aspects of a larger task and make small improvements which then contribute to the whole.  Students will probably not just improve writing essays if you keep getting them writing essays. It’s these small parts of the knowledge that can help them to improve.

Foundation knowledge and depth of knowledge

I now teach in much more depth. In the past I would skim over key concepts or words. This was partly due to time. When you see them once a fortnight you rush through the basics of what they need to know and you have no time to do any more.

Now I have more time, especially at GCSE. I’m not ignorant of the fact that many colleagues don’t have this luxury. I have time to linger over these key things that are really important and crucially I give time to things that aren’t on the specification.

For example, the life of Muhammad. ‘Muhammad’ is on the specification but I used to do some basics of how he grew up and then what he did as the prophet. I missed out crucial details about what Makkah was like at the time, the focus on polytheism, social injustices and his final speech. Now we spend more time looking at these. If they understand these they have a much better chance of understanding things later on in the course e.g the role of women. They don’t realise it, but much of his final speech becomes the Islam specification content later on. The difference is that before I would teach the specification and link things in, now I teach these things as foundations and within context, knowing they will be applied later. This is foundation knowledge.

(As an aside, for RE colleagues, this is where I am wary of thematic schemes. They can lack the foundation knowledge needed for students to truly understand the concepts to then go on to compare and contrast.)

I also look more at things like etymology (discussed in my first post) and complex beliefs. My students seem to be fascinated the more we delve into things. I don’t find it dry as some colleagues do. It’s fascinating! What isn’t fascinating about discussing that some believe that the bread and wine become the blood and body of Jesus? They seem to love it. Mine know what transubstantiation is even if they don’t fully understand it (many Catholics don’t either!). Learning about holy mysteries are both challenging and interesting for the students.

Piecing together a curriculum

At key stage 3 we have designed our curriculum so that the knowledge of key skills is repeated over time. Their knowledge of how to argue ‘for and against’, how to use quotations to support points etc is repeated over the key stage. Their knowledge and understanding of these skills develops over the year.

year 7

See how the key skills are repeated and developed (in colour) across the topics

We’ve also designed it so that the foundation knowledge builds over the year. We start with Judaism, then Christianity and then Islam. Not only does it help understand chronology but they can see the similarities and differences much clearer and the contexts of each of them. They probably can’t truly grasp why Jesus being a Jew was very important in his arrest and Crucifixion if they haven’t studied the mitzvot and context of Judaism at the time.

I will explain key stage 4 in more detail in the next blog which will look at pedagogy and testing.

Slow feedback ©

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Last night I tweeted about ‘slow feedback’ (I made up the name as I typed. I now claim it as mine ©) I thought I’d write a quick blog to explain what I meant and the rationale behind it.

Marking exams takes precious time

Our year 11s did some exams in the final days of year 10. There was no way I was going to mark them before the end of the academic year and to be honest I wasn’t going to spend my holiday doing it either.

The new specifications are huge. Ours has two separate papers. Each paper has 16 questions, ranging from multiple choice to extended writing. They take a long time to mark. I will be honest. I didn’t set full papers for them as I knew it would take a long time to mark. My class has 27 students in it. That would be 864 questions. However I wrote a paper that was a complete mix of content and covered each question type at least 4 times.

We need to consider if the time spent on marking work is outweighed by the benefit to the students? I don’t ‘fully’ mark their work. A few hints, question marks and a simple tick sheet.

No marks. No grades

I don’t give students marks or grades until the last moment I have to; usually their year 11 mock. There is no way I was going to spend hours and hours marking and then they just look at the marks/grade. Because that is what they’d do. They say they won’t, but they would. I know it.  I’ve blogged before on this. Giving feedback alongside a grade is essentially a waste of time. I just go for the feedback.

Whole class feedback

When there are 28 questions to feedback on there’s no way that one lesson will suffice. If you try to do this, students will be overloaded (cognitive load) with feedback. It will blur into one. Some people type up the feedback and give it to the students. I don’t. I type key points onto a Powerpoint as I am reading their work.

I have then spent some time each lesson for the past two weeks giving feedback. I show the exam question and ask them what we already know, point out common errors, in some cases show a model answer and then crucially students are given time to improve their own answer ( we call it ‘green pen’ work. The only reason it’s green is so that it stands out. Nothing else). If I’d fed back on several complex questions they wouldn’t be able to focus on specific improvements. They would be overwhelmed and wouldn’t know where to start. I divided the feedback into manageable chunks each lesson. The added benefit of this is that this is repeating the same skills over and over, not just in one lesson but over two weeks. It supports retrieval practice; revision.

The second benefit is I can stagger my marking. I didn’t give up my whole weekend to do it. I did some each day, in between feeding back.

Delayed feedback?

They sat the papers nearly 8 weeks ago. Aren’t I a bad teacher not giving it back earlier? Well, the first lesson was a test anyway to interrupt the forgetting curve (see here for my blog on why the holiday may not matter for this) and I’m not bothered by the gap. I’ve seen research supporting immediate feedback and delayed feedback. Probably not this gap but it was an exceptional circumstance that is unlikely to happen again. I can actually see a positive in it. Once I’d fed back, they had to reread their own answer to see if they’d make the errors I’d highlighted. In some ways they had to diagnose where they needed to add some of the content I’d recapped and improved their answers with it.

Feedback as revision

As all the questions were from their year 9 and year 10 content, everything was based on retrieval from up to 2 years ago. In my eyes this attempt to retrieve content is part of revision; firstly in the exam and then in the improvement lessons. Some people leave revision to the last few lessons or weeks of year 11. We were revising many topics over these lessons. As long as I include these in our starter quizzes for the next few lessons, they should retain the previously missing content.

There were some questions for which there were clear gaps in knowledge or understanding. This is where I retaught the gaps. They added to the notes they already have on the topic (easy when they work on paper in folders) or created a new page of notes to then file in the correct topic. It wasn’t separate from the original learning notes. This shows students that notes are part of the revision process of checking what you might have gaps of knowledge in.We had to retrieve what we already knew and then added to this. This is revision.

Next lesson they will complete a review of the feedback and reflect on what they’ve improved on in the past two weeks; content and exam question skills. They should have a better view of this from the repetitions over the lessons in two weeks, rather than all in one lesson. It’s slow feedback ©.

Whilst this was an exceptional gap, I can’t see that it would’ve been better if I’d have worked all evenings in the last week of term to give feedback. This process has acted as revision and in my opinion, it’s the best time for it, in lessons.

Last week I told my year 11 this week that I will not be running any after school or lunch revision for them. Feedback is revision. Today, as I repeated this, one student said ‘Miss you should write that on the walls’. I think I might.

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*In case you don’t realise, the © is a joke.No-one ‘owns’ any idea on social media…..

A focus on knowledge: Vocabulary rich teaching

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This is the first in a series of blogs on how I think my teaching has become more ‘knowledge rich’. The summary of what this means is in the first post here. This post will focus on how I have developed my teaching of subject vocabulary to the stage where I think it can be classed as ‘vocabulary rich’.

vocab

My view of the importance of subject vocabulary has evolved. When I first taught I didn’t put much emphasis on words as I felt that the subject content was more important and that subject vocabulary came after the learning of concepts. In the first specification of GCSE that I taught, the first question on the paper was always a keyword, 2 mark question. They needed to write the correct definition. I saw this as something they needed to learn and it was almost separate to further learning. I created subject vocabulary sheets, gave them to the students and just expected them to learn them. No strategies, just the words and the definitions. I was leaving it to chance if they learnt them.

Now, this has changed. My understanding of the importance of subject vocabulary has evolved and over the years I have moved to this model. Some I’ve been doing for a long time (how I introduce words in my explanation) and others are relatively new in my practice. I’ve shifted to believe that vocabulary is the start of a deeper understanding of concepts within and beyond my subject.

Planning subject vocabulary

I’ve now realised that consistency is important. As a result we have written lists of the key terms that we will both use in our teaching for each topic. This means that all classes, regardless of ‘set’ or teacher accesses the exact same words. We plan to use them in our teaching so that students will be able to use them confidently in their own work.

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Introduction of a word

When I first introduce a new word, I casually slip it into a sentence. But not just any sentence. A sentence where the students already know the meaning of all the rest of the vocabulary being used. The new keyword is the only word that the majority of them won’t understand. It will either be full of tier 1 words or already ‘known’ tier 3 words. For example, ‘”Sikhs offer free food to anyone in the langar”. They already know what a Sikh is and the remaining words are tier 1 words so the word ‘langar’ stands out.

tier

I only recently learnt this hierarchy of vocabulary 

The definition

The next sentence is then the definition in as much tier 1 language as possible (I would class this as differentiation).

“The Langar is a kitchen that serves food to everyone and anyone, even if they’re not a Sikh”

Explain on board

I then will write the word on the board and annotate it where appropriate. I will use synonyms where possible. I will use examples. I sometimes use pictures if appropriate (although my art work is rubbish it adds to the excitement!). I will explain the word in the context of what they already know, making links and connections where possible. I will usually get students to write down the word and its meaning.

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This is usually when the hands go up. The students are starting to process what you’re telling them and have questions about it. They’re beginning to understand the word as a  concept and their minds start applying it to situations which they then want to know about.

A classic in the example above is “Do you really mean anyone? What about a homeless person? They could get free meals all the time”or “Can I get a free meal? Where’s the nearest langar?”

These show that the student is moving from just a word to a deeper understanding of an important concept in the religion or view we are learning about. The key word becomes important ‘knowledge’ in the full understanding of the idea or concept it’s linked to.

Etymology

In many cases it is possible to share with the students the root or origins of a word. In the past I haven’t really considered this as part of the learning. Now I can see that this is important for several reasons.

  1. Learning the origin gives an extra foundation for them to remember the word. The more they remember about the word itself the more likely they are to remember it. The visual ‘hook’ of a prefix or set of letters helps with the learning. I reference it when getting them to remember; ‘remember what I said about ‘mono’.
  2. It contributes to their wider literacy. They can see links to other vocabulary, out of the subject. It helps them create a vocabulary schema in their heads that can be used in my class, other classes and beyond. I don’t need to make up some nonsense for my contribution to whole school literacy. It’s already there.
  3. They love it! Whenever I explain some of the common prefixes or patterns in letters they seem to enjoy it. Especially when things ‘make sense’. You can almost see it processing in their heads as they realise that a ‘monotheist’ is ‘mono’ and a ‘theist’.
  4. I keep on learning more and more. From a selfish point of view I’ve learnt more from this, and as I love language, it’s very satisfying seeing students enjoying it too.

Languages

My knowledge of language has also increased through this focus on terminology. In the new GCSE students needs to know a few Arabic terms. I’ve gone well beyond what they need and have taught them as much Arabic as I can, for example all the prophets in Arabic.  I know more Latin now than ever. (I now wish I’d been made to study Latin at school).

I’ve also taught them how Arabic ‘works’ so they can see the similarities and differences between it and English. For example the root word ‘s_l_m‘ meaning submission or peace. They can see it appear in Islam, Muslims, Salaam etc.  I was particularly pleased when a year 7 exclaimed ‘Jerusalem Miss!’ and realised the s_l_m root was in it.

Our Languages colleagues may or may not agree, but most of my students love to ‘feel clever’ knowing words that aren’t English. I say the prophet in English and they say out loud the prophets in Arabic. Year 7 love it!

It provides ‘cultural capital’ they understand things that are ‘beyond’ their own experience. It stops the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, particularly in the context where I teach.

Over time

From this point onward, I will repeatedly use the term in my explanations and questioning. I will gradually decrease the use of the definition after I say the word, until I don’t add the definition at all. At this stage students begin to use the word themselves when asking a question.

If they use just the definition, I will usually say ‘What is that called?’ or suchlike to get them using the specific word in their own sentences.

Test

This is where things have changed the most in recent years. If we want students to learn, remember and retain these words to be able to apply them independently, they need to be tested on them to help remember them.

At key stage 3, every lesson begins with a ‘quiz’ from previous lessons. This will cover this vocabulary and I may also ask questions about the etymology etc This means they all have to retrieve the key word, not just one of them, which is a limitation of whole class questioning. Depending on the difficulty of the word I will either put the word on the board and ask for the meaning or will give the definition and ask them what the word is. The former being easier.

At key stage 4 GCSE we do much more in-depth, specific testing on keywords which I’ve explained here.

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Made for a GCSE student that said they hadn’t learnt their keywords as I was testing them on a day other than Tuesday.

Homework

At GCSE the keywords are one-third of student homework. See here for an explanation. This reinforces the importance of the vocabulary as a foundation for other learning.  However, this involves learning words that haven’t been introduced in teaching yet.

When presenting this model people have questioned whether students should learn vocabulary before they’ve learnt the word and the linked concepts in class first. I briefly looked at some research and it seems there is research supporting both approaches. However, I want them to almost learn these by rote so that when we apply them in class they have the foundation knowledge. An anecdotal example of why I’m not overly concerned about doing it this way was giving students an exam question linked to the words they had been given for homework and some students using these in their work even though we hadn’t covered them in class. They clearly knew them enough to apply them independently. Not all can, but some can.

What’s changed?

How do I know these added focus on subject vocabulary is ‘working’? I see it. I hear it. Students use the words in their verbal responses. They use it in their writing.  They start linking concepts due to the vocabulary.

As as subject we have agreed on the words and all students will learn them regardless of ‘ability’ or class. No differentiation by content taught. Everyone gets the same.

I spend more time on vocabulary than I’ve ever done before. I’ve shifted in my belief that keywords are there just to be learnt to answer a definition question. It gives students the confidence in their explanations. I can see in exam answers them using and applying these words well beyond just the definitions that they did in the old specification.

I think that student understanding is much deeper than just a definition used in RE. They can apply this knowledge and can use it outside of RE. It’s a new part of their huge schema of vocabulary. It’s knowledge beyond what they might learn at home or use between each other. Making teaching ‘vocabulary rich’ is much more than knowing keywords. They are the foundation for learning.

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A focus on knowledge – how my teaching has changed (short series)

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I often see people on Twitter talking about a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum or a ‘knowledge based’ curriculum and think, if I wasn’t teaching knowledge before, what was I doing? Of course, I’ve always taught knowledge however I have changed my view of it, particularly in how I teach my subject.

This small series of blogs will help to clarify in my own mind what I believe these terms to mean in my own teaching and how I have developed and changed what I do in practical terms. I aim to take it beyond the soundbites of politicians and tweets, to real life exemplification in my classroom. The posts will focus specifically on what I do in the classroom and my justifications.

I don’t know why I changed but almost certainly listening to others on Twitter, reading blogs, books and reading research have had a significant impact. The structures of how I teach has not changed very much; I’ve always believed in teacher exposition, students practising and getting feedback to improve, as a learning cycle. However, the emphasis on what I teach has changed. This small series of blogs* explains what I now teach is more knowledge or content focused.

The things that I feel make my teaching more knowledge based are:

  1. Planning schemes using knowledge
  2. Direct instruction with focus on context and linking of contexts
  3. Direct instruction & note taking
  4. Testing
  5. Foundation knowledge & depth of knowledge
  6. Use of etymology & focus on keywords

The term ‘knowledge rich’ has been accused by some as being the new fad in education. In my case if a new fad means how my teaching has developed in recent years then I seem to have fallen for the fad and it seems to be working.

*I will add the links to the blogs on the list as I write them

Further reading

http://parentsandteachers.org.uk/application/files/3415/0816/0485/The_Question_of_Knowledge_FINAL.pdf

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nick-gibb-the-importance-of-knowledge-based-education