Knowledge is not an end in itself
The West London Free School history conference was an excellent opportunity to discuss a knowledge-rich approach to history teaching. I have often valued a truism presented by Mike Hughes to an INSET session I attended in my NQT year, that any task is only as good as the quality of the dialogue it provokes. It is with this in mind that one should think about this conference. While I may evaluate the ideas presented in a series of blog posts, the conference as a whole was excellent in promoting discussions between history colleagues, expanding the horizons of many of them. Lunchtime* was characterised by colleagues discussing what they could, should and would take back with them to their own departments.
The day started with a curious introduction from head teacher Hywel Jones. It is always good to see a senior leadership team supporting staff in their extracurricular endeavours and it was clear from the outset that there is a clear philosophy engrained throughout the school. The message was a strong one, that knowledge was valued in this school and passing on a knowledge-rich curriculum was vital to students’ success. It was for Christine Counsell to introduce a bit of nuance on the precise role of knowledge and importance of knowledge in the curriculum.
I do not intend to summarise the contents of Christine’s speech in full. I will, however, point out the key messages that I took away.
- Christine had an important point to make about humility. I think this is important in the context of the current pedagogical debates taking place through blogs and on Twitter. Many straw men are being set up, heinous schools out there which deny students’ knowledge. I am not sure how far that is true, not in 2017 at least. Concrete evidence would be welcome. Certain commentators could take heed of this note of humility.
- Assessment theory has been absent thus far from recent debates on knowledge. So far as it has been discussed, it has been in a limited way and brought back into fashion low-stakes testing. I have always been keen to remind my own students, particularly those preparing for external assessments, that those tests take a sample of students’ domain knowledge which needs to be built up over time. The upshot is that we need to be laying the foundations of knowledge, and the tools for manipulating it, over time.
- Christine helpfully reminded us of ‘timeline tests’ where students need to plot their knowledge, in chronological order, to reach a threshold standard before taking a summative test. These ideas are not new, but a valuable reminder. Whilst submerged in curriculum reform at KS4 and KS5 it is easy to forget such basics.
- This speech also helpfully distilled recent cognitive psychology on knowledge and its role in learning. Students need ‘fingertip’ knowledge to help support more advanced, second-order thinking (a theme that was not as prevalent during the day as it could have been). Once students have used and deployed that knowledge, they are left with “residue knowledge”. Recent work on knowledge organisers, I think, has taken quite a short-termist approach and my sense was that the WLFS put more emphasis on what “residue knowledge” we want students to have in five years and perhaps ten years after their schooling. It was at this point in Christine’s speech that I reflected on Fordham’s post on what knowledge is cumulatively sufficient; what is the relationship between the little details and the big picture? As a history community, our debates could be infused with more of this thinking and language.
- The expression “cumulative assessment” was used, but not really elaborated upon. This too is perhaps important. I would contend that we want students’ residual knowledge to be a broad, overarching framework of the past. Students should be able to see the broad arcs of change in history, and analyse those. Not only were frameworks of knowledge** not discussed, but cumulative assessments seem as though they might be a useful step towards constructing them.
* I live my life through my stomach, and thoroughly enjoyed the lunch offering! An excellent effort by the school’s catering team.
**I use the expression in a Shemiltian sense. See Nick Dennis’ blog for a brief introduction to frameworks of the past.