The knowledge question

The recent post by teachingbattleground, centred on the arguments around a knowledge-based curriculum reminded me that, while nobody – surely – is arguing that we should not teach children knowledge, it might be timely to explore what we mean by teacher knowledge.

There has always been a narrative around the skills (knowledge? art? craft?) of teaching and, since I frequently get invited to provide CPD in this sphere, I find it helpful to link thinking to the Teachers’ Standards. As a teacher trainer, I often refer trainees to the old QCDA fourfold explanation of teacher knowledge because it sits quite well with aspects of the 2012 standards.

Teachers’ Standard 3 has three key elements: secure subject knowledge, critical understanding of developments in the subject and the personally correct use of English. The two other aspects relate to knowledge of phonics and early maths teaching. Add to this the expectation, in Standard 2, that teachers should know how children learn and we can now see that the QCDA fourfold explanation is a helpful model. This states explains teacher knowledge as:

  • Subject knowledge per se;
  • Pedagogical theory and practice;
  • Understanding how children learn; and
  • The teacher’s own attitudes to learning.

So, this means that teachers and trainee teachers, must pay particular attention to:

  • Their own subject knowledge and its application so that they teach accurately and in sufficient depth.
  • The way that children learn in order to present material that can be quickly assimilated.
  • The effectiveness of the pedagogies they employ so that material can be effectively deconstructed and presented conceptually.
  • Their own openness to key ideas about teaching and learning so that they do not limit their teaching by what is familiar to them.

If the re-think of the national curriculum and its assessment did anything, it moved the focus away from what the outgoing HMCI once called, ‘a stultifying methodology’ towards a more simple view of ‘what works’ and, as Sir Michael pointed out, ‘what’s good is what works’.  We are still waiting for many headteachers to catch up with this and move away from the straitjacket of WALT, WILF, or whatever set methodology they expect. Improve teachers’ fourfold subject knowledge and we should not need the straitjacket.







Progress in Year 6 from 2015

One thing that Year 6 teachers will need to assimilate is that they will no longer be chasing Level 6, or even Level 5. However, the need to demonstrate progress has not gone away and, it could be argued, has never been stronger.

One of the difficulties even the most up-to-date and enlightened Y6 teacher may encounter is a school leadership team that does not quite get the change in what progress might look like and so want to express starting points and progress in levels, or points, or some old familiar measure. And some LAs are still undergoing this transitional thinking. Take Hertfordshire, for instance, where we may no longer speak of Level 3A, 3B and 3C but we do speak of C1, C2 and C3! Senior colleagues cannot be blamed for feeling nervous about this – it’s the climate we work in where jobs are on the line if progress is below it.

The key message – for all teachers, not just those in Year 6 – is that the principle on which the new approach is predicated is that of consolidation before progression. In other words, a focus on the secure acquisition of concepts so that they can be applied with increasing confidence. In the National Curriculum for mathematics it clearly states that, ‘the majority of pupils should move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace.’ Now, that may change thinking about setting and differentiation. It is, in maths, the development of fluency through problem-solving, of which the product is reasoning. And this curriculum is all about developing pupils’ reasoning. If this works in maths then it will work in other subjects. We develop pupils’ fluency in English through reading and grammar, we set them problems – we might call it writing – and the result is reasoning. Or in PE, we teach ball skills, we set problems such as organising a game and the result is, again, developed thinking.

If we apply this model to looking at progress we might think that, rather than the old model of teaching a concept, setting some differentiated tasks that enable pupils to practice applying the concept and then moving them on, we use a modified approach. This might be similar at the outset; we still need to know pupils’ starting points before we teach them the new concepts. We still need to set up activities that enable them to apply the concepts but now things change. Rather than saying, ’okay you’ve got that, let’s move on’, we are now looking for ways to deepen the understanding of the concept. This idea of deep learning – long a phrase associated with Leuven and the early years – is key. If we see differentiation as deepening conceptualisation and not broadening it then we begin to get the idea. When the concept has been acquired, applied, tested and deepened, then we can move the pupils onto new learning.

That is how we need to see the new understanding of progress. How we capture it is another thing. But it’s a starting point.

Calling Year 6 Teachers

As an Osiris presenter, I have had a lot of fun over the last academic year with my best-selling course, ‘The Future of KS1 and KS2 Testing’. In a fast-changing world I have had to alter the presentation every term and, in the summer term, every time. We have a term and a half to go with yet another version of the original. However, Osiris also asked me to develop a short-window course for the autumn term only called Year 6 Certainty. It’s aimed at all those Year 6 teachers who are worrying about the upcoming year now that they could be playing catch-up with the programmes of study, chasing progress and yet having no levels by which to judge it.

This blog is the first of a short series aimed at exactly that cohort.

Year 6 teachers tell me, I am new this year in year 6 and really worried about the SATS, I don’t know what I should be doing to ensure that the children are properly prepared. The short answer is that the worst thing to do is worry – nothing breeds anxiety like uncertainty. So, let’s look at some of the things that have changed. Over the course of a few blogs we’ll:

  • Explore the background to the new curriculum so that you understand why we are at this point.
  • Explain the new thinking and the move away from progress at any price.
  • Examine expectations and implications for teaching and learning in the new Yr 6 curriculum.
  • Extend ways to develop conceptual understanding and make problem solving     an integral part of the curriculum and assessment.
  • Explore the new KS2 SATS so that you know what to expect.

The background to the changes

There are, arguably four themes here; a global dimension, an historical one, a political one and an educational one.

You cannot be unaware of the constant reference to international comparisons, to PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS. The first of these, the five yearly Programme for International Student Achievement showed that, in 2014, the UK had shifted little from its 2009 position with slight improvements in reading and maths but a drop-off in science. Similarly, the four-yearly Trends in International Maths and Science Study revealed that, in 2011, England was in the world’s top ten for maths but had slipped to 15th in Science. We can probably explain the science fall by the end of a science focus and testing in KS2. Worryingly, the five yearly Progress in International Reading Literacy study indicated that, in 2011 the reading performance of English children had plummeted from 3rd to 19th in the world (usually 40 nations). So much for the Primary Literacy Strategy! These international comparisons play a major part in driving government policy.

The history of the national curriculum dates from the 1988 Education Act, with the last revision in 2000. It was time for a change, come what may. At the end of the 2011 review process, Tim Oates, Chair of the Expert Panel, declared, ‘I hope that what we have done … is to return to the kind of trajectory of refinement that was present in the (earlier versions) of the National Curriculum. There has been a change of emphasis since 2000, from ‘pupils should be able to…’ to ‘pupils should be taught to…’

The political forces behind the recent changes come from right-wing thinking, often based on (not a right wing book), “The Knowledge Deficit” by E D Hirsch Junior. There was a strong sense that we needed to be much more explicit about the content of the curriculum. This, together with the change from ‘able to’ to ‘taught to’ is a fundamental difference and a reminder that teachers, So, the first thing you can do is to check your subject knowledge against the demands of the English, Maths and Science programmes of study and, where you find there are gaps, do something to fill them. You can’t get away with winging it. Not any more.  

The main change in educational thinking is the idea of ‘consolidation before progression. This is a major shift in thinking. Year 6 teachers need to become much better at understanding how children learn. There is a new focus on the cognitive domain as well as the content one.

In the next blog we will look in more detail about the new idea of progress.