A broad and balanced approach to English teaching and the curriculum

Having launched a stream of invective against the use of ‘balance’ as a weasel word in my last post, I want to offer a more nuanced take on what I think balance ought to mean.

I see the purpose of a curriculum as being to introduce students to that knowledge which will be of most use to them in academic contexts and to allow them to have the maximum amount of choice in what goals they choose to pursue in life. All skills are activated by knowledge and – if we want students to be creative, intellectually curious and productive – they need to build robust schemas which they can access in as wide a range of situations as possible.

The domain of English is vast and so we must make brutal choices as to what makes it into the curriculum. We should consider the opportunity cost – the value of the best forgone alternative – of the choices we make. To do so we need to consider the principles by which such calculations can be made.

I have found the two most useful organising principles for constructing an English curriculum are:

1. Powerful knowledge –  students should be taught those aspects of the domain that provide:

  • the most scope for abstract thought and making generalisations. As such, the focus ought to be on concepts and ideas rather than on procedures and routines for passing an exam. By narrowing our focus to the test we inadvertently reduce children’s ability to do well on that test. By broadening our scope to teach as many of the most powerful domain concepts as we can, we maximise children’s chances of performing well – on tests and in life.
  • access to the knowledge that is considered the most valuable by the broadest possible cross-section of society. We should acknowledge that certain kinds of knowledge provide children with greater cultural literacy.

2. Coherence – the foundational knowledge on which other knowledge depends should be organised coherently so that concepts and ideas build on what has gone before and lay the foundations for what will follow.

  • For literature, a series of chronological sequences is probably the best way into introduce new topics.
  • For grammar, knowledge should be sequenced from first principles outwards.

One much chewed bone of contention is who gets to decide what knowledge children should learn. The assumption seems to be that there’s some shadowy elite inflicting their preferences on the rest of us. This is nonsense. No one chooses; we all choose. No one person knows enough to make this choice but collectively we have access to the vast accumulation of human culture. The most important things to know are those things that last and which most influence other cultural developments; those things that inspire the most ‘conversations’ backwards and forwards through time and across space; that allow us to trace our cultural inheritance through threads of thought from the discoveries of modern science and the synthesis of modern art back to their ancients origins. What’s considered culturally rich is rarely arbitrary. It tends to be the product of generations of people agreeing that certain things are inherently good. Collectively, we all decide to what to ascribe value and importance. The more children know about their cultural inheritance, the more they can question, critique and respond to what has gone before.

The principles of powerful knowledge and coherence allow us to make more thoughtful choices about what to study and in what order to study it.

When selecting literary texts to study in the English curriculum we should consider a number of factors

  • the lexical challenge of a text
  • its appropriateness for the age group we are teaching
  • the extent to which it has had ‘conversations’ backwards and forwards with other texts, that is to say, how influential it has been on how we think and see the world
  • its quality – whether it introduces a broad range of literary conventions and offers stylistic merit
  • to what extent it fulfils a role or niche within a coherent curriculum. In my wildest fantasies children might spend key stage 3 just reading Shakespeare but this would be disastrously self-indulgent and would not provide a broad a balanced English curriculum
  • and lastly, personal preference. There’s no point teaching texts we feel are inferior to over other,  possible choices that could fulfil the same purpose in our curriculum.

In Making Every English Lesson Count, Andy Tharby suggests we ask a series of  questions about what we are considering teaching. I have adapted his list slightly:

  1. Does this choice add to students’ knowledge of what others in society consider to be valuable?
  2. Does this choice enable students to take part in discussion or debate that they would otherwise be excluded from?
  3. Does this choice enable students to critique what others have decided is important or true?
  4. Does it allow students to think beyond the confines of their experiences outside of school?
  5. Does it open up new ways of considering the world?
  6. Does it allow students to better critically evaluate what they have already been taught?
  7. Does it make it easier to speak to others about abstract concepts?
  8. Is it rooted in how to perform a task, or in why the task should be performed?
  9. How do I know this choice is better than an alternative?
  10. Would this be good enough for our own children?

So, once we have satisfied the demands of powerful knowledge and curriculum coherence, how should we teach our broad and balanced curriculum?

As our focus is on getting students to acquire and become practised at applying knowledge, this suggests certain approaches to teaching. These are:

  • Spaced retrieval practice – regular and frequent opportunities for children to recall what they have been taught in order to acquire stronger schema
  • Fully guided instruction – this is often caricatured and dismissed as lecturing. It is nothing of the sort. The best summary of this kind of instruction is Richard Clark’s article for American Educator.
  • Reading – by this I mean extended opportunities in lessons for students to just read. Clearly, some children will have more difficulty than others in reading challenging texts and so I think this has to mean that teachers read to students and students listen. Lots of English teachers have expressed fear or worry that they will be told off if they follow such an approach because students aren’t doing any work. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cognitive work of listening to and discussing literature is one of the surest ways to enlarge children’s horizons.
  • Structured discussion – this is whole class discussion, moderated and led by the teacher. The principle is that speech is particularly ‘cognitively sticky’ and that saying things aloud improves retention. The way I advocated structured discussion to run is by making students ‘speak like an essay’ and have the their use of academic language modelled, scaffolded and practised. (If you want to see this in action, I’m happy to demonstrate it in your school.)
  • Less but better writing – What we practise we get good at and students spend entirely too much time practising bad writing. The best way to ensure students are capable of writing analytical essays in Year 11 is by getting them to spend KS3 practising writing analytical sentences. If you haven’t already discovered The Writing Revolution, you must get hold of a copy immediately.
  • Opportunities for creation – children need time and space to experiment with ideas and a broad and balanced English curriculum should include this. My view is that these opportunities for creation are explained, modelled, scaffolded and practised with increasing independence. But they should not, in my view, be formally assessed. They should be seen as opportunities to explore the epistemology of English and should encompass such broad concepts as story, metaphor and argument.

What about skills?

The only of definition of skill which makes sense to me is ‘a process or procedure that improves through practice.’ Decoding is a skill that can – and should – be practised to automaticity. The best approach to automising children’s reading is the one espoused by James and Dianne Murphy in Thinking Reading. Grammatical knowledge, spelling, vocabulary (see Alex Quigley’s excellent book) can all be usefully practised and can all benefit from becoming increasing automatic. Essay writing and reading comprehension do not fit this definition. They are not skills because they do not improve through practise. Practising essaying writing leads to cargo cult essays. Practising inference is a dead-end that not only wastes children’s time but sucks all the joy out of English.

Beyond a brief introduction to the idea that texts can be read in different ways, there is no point investing curriculum time in comprehension strategies. Students will become better able to understand literary texts with access to the background knowledge and vocabulary common to those texts. The best preparation for GCSE exams is to experience as wide a breadth of writing as is possible. Nobody can make inferences about something they don not know. Likewise, no one, no matter how skilled they think they are, is capable of analysing something of which they are ignorant. My advice is to give students no more than 3 unseen texts to read per year in KS3 and to get them to respond via short comprehension questions using pre-taught grammatical structures. The time to do past papers is after Christmas in Year 11. TO do so before this is to narrow the curriculum and end up reducing students’ chances of doing well in their exams.

Similarly, the best way to improve students’ writing is not to focus on abstract skills but to learn specific knowledge of literary history and conventions and, to practise responding to these ideas in short, decontextualised bursts rather than over sustained pieces of writing. My advice is to give students no more than 3 extended pieces of writing per year in KS3 and not to commit more than 1 lesson to the preparation of such writing.

This then is my vision of a broad and balanced English curriculum and how it should be taught. I see nothing good in balancing this approach with other, less effective approaches that prioritise dreadful essay writing, tediously pointless lessons on inference and a bland diet of unchallenging young adult novels and transient media guff.

4 Responses to A broad and balanced approach to English teaching and the curriculum

  1. David F says:

    Hi David—thanks for this and the previous post. As a history teacher, what about research? I have students conduct longer individual research projects, but wonder if more shorter and smaller research exercises asking students to use specific and appropriate sources might not better develop research habits. I am constantly appalled at the procrastination-I’ll-find-it-on-Google-the-night-before nonsense that students often rely on. Can conducting good research be a skill that can be automatized?

    • David Didau says:

      I doubt it. The ability to conduct research must surely be dependent on domain knowledge. I would imagine that the more you know about the historical period you’re researching, the easier and the more productive your research will be. I confess I see very little point in novices conducting independent research (or FOFO as we used to call it)

  2. Lots to agree with in this, but I hate to think of readers nodding along to the phrase “transient media guff” without knowing what *good* media teaching is about: grasping sophisticated concepts; learning to decode texts; understanding a range of cultural forms, processes & institutions; high level critical discourse; writing in academic as well as other modes… It’s about contemporary culture, but it’s also about heritage. Like Literature, it can provide rich schema and conceptual lenses through which to understand culture, people & ways of thinking. Like Literature, it is sometimes taught badly.

  3. […] A broad and balanced approach to English teaching and the curriculum […]

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