Assessment, Curriculum, English, Literacy, Literature, Progress

What about the tree? Why knowledge is empowering.

‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid’ 

This quotation tends to lend itself to the idea that curriculum, assessment and differentiation should lead us to expect, and accept, different things for different students due to an understanding of individual differences. And there’s a place for that – if every student left school at the same point, somebody’s been failed somewhere along the line. All students have different skills, attributes and talents and it’s reasonable to expect schools to nurture students in a way that enables each student to achieve.

The problem is that this idea can be over-simplified to the ideas in this cartoon.our-education-system-fair-selection-all-climb-tree-300x

In practice what can happen is that aspirations are capped because the decision is made ‘you won’t be very good at climbing a tree, so we’ll not introduce you to a tree at all‘. Or because certain students don’t succeed very well in extended writing, or because they’re bottom set, or kinaesthetic learners, we’ll remove the extended writing or highly scaffold it in the name of fairness. As long as all learners feel they’ve achieved then that’s all that matters, whether the achievement is real or not.

It’s relatively obvious from the image that the monkey will climb to the top of the tree the quickest. But does that mean that we shouldn’t expose other animals to the features of a tree? Or expect them to have a go at climbing the tree? Or give them a harness and help them have a go? Or sit with them at the bottom of the tree and consider how they might go about climbing it?

To consider the tree as core subject knowledge in English, some students will be better versed in canonical literature and have much higher reading ages, others may have very little wider cultural awareness. Some students may have sophisticated writing with a lot of imagination, when others struggle with linking sentences together. It’s limiting to suggest that either student should have a cap on their progress. If anything, the classroom should be the place where opportunities exist that some students wouldn’t get at home.

At the Transforming Tees English conference, this exploration of KS3 brought home one of the many questions I’ve been thinking about for a long time: is there a danger of expecting less from certain groups of students?

  • E.g. Boys don’t like reading so we’ll design a curriculum to appeal to boys.
  • E.g. Lower ability students might struggle so we’ll not introduce them to Shakespeare.
  • E.g. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds need ‘edgy’ texts to engage them.
  • E.g. They’re a bottom set so they’ll need lots of writing frames.
  • E.g. They’re a loud class so they’ll need lots of group work and discussion to keep them engaged.

There is a risk of making curriculum and assessment decisions that limit the progress of (arguably) the very groups that need the most support and nurturing. Selecting ‘accessible’, ‘relevant’  or ‘any other descriptor for easier’ texts at the expense of higher culture actually widens the cultural divide between students. If extended writing is reduced to writing frames (read: essentially cloze exercises) then that does nothing to empower the students by transforming their writing ability. But it looks good in books and learning walks because all the students are ‘engaged’ (see proxies for learning).

Not only is this problematic for students,but it’s problematic for their next teacher who wonders where the hell these levels have come from. It’s an issue because we want informed, critical students with a rounded understanding of our subject. It’s an issue for students who’ve been allowed to avoid writing when their literacy is likely to be a barrier to success later in life. It’s an issue because somebody else may pick those students up at GCSE where they have to sit closed-book exams at the end of a linear course and wonder how on earth they’re going to close the progress gaps that exist in reality, but not on paper.  It’s an issue for the students because they’ll have been implicitly told for years that ‘you can’t do this without support’ so it isn’t surprising that they internalise the low aspirations they’ve been fed and display learned helplessness behaviours.  To go further, it’s a sign of teachers abdicating responsibility for real progress by focusing on superficial observable features that look good but don’t actually address the real issues.

This isn’t a post about an ideal curriculum or set ways of assessment, nor does it suggest that what KS3 needs is a diet of nothing but canonical literature. But it is a post to challenge the rationale behind some of the curriculum and assessment decisions that are made in schools and whether they risk making The Wasted Years report the tip of a large iceberg. I feel that knowledge-based curriculum can get a bad press of being irrelevant, elitist or just plain boring. But so far, students have shown me they want to know things; they want to use advanced vocabulary; they want to feel success and know they’ve earned it. Students are capable of far more than we think they are – if we just raise the bar a bit for each group we teach, how much more could our students achieve?

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