Why Kate Green is wrong about the curriculum

The shadow education secretary says an information-heavy curriculum is 'joyless'– she's wrong, argues John Tomsett
21st November 2020, 4:00pm

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Why Kate Green is wrong about the curriculum

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/why-kate-green-wrong-about-curriculum
Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green Is Wrong In Saying That An Information-based Curriculum Is 'joyless', Says Headteacher John Tomsett

Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, has just announced that she is unhappy with the current school curriculum, which "has become a bit joyless" as a result of a "narrow" national curriculum, which is "information-heavy and traditionalist".

I want to explain in clear terms why she is wrong.

I am teaching a module on rhetoric to a Year 9 mixed-attainment English language class of 30 students from the full range of socioeconomic backgrounds. We have spent three lessons looking at Winston Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches" speech. 

Now, we could just watch the film extract of Gary Oldman as Churchill in The Darkest Day, then ask every student to write a speech aimed at persuading the headteacher to get rid of school uniform. We could then spend four lessons listening to students deliver their very average speeches. 

In the past, that is what I might have done. It would have been an instantly forgettable learning experience, and a waste of their time and mine.

The value of an information-based curriculum

But I am now three lessons into the scheme, and I have not even finished what was planned for lesson one. This is because the students do not know enough to understand what Churchill was talking about.

In a previous lesson, Bella had commented that she did not know what Mark Antony was saying in his "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech, because she did not understand some of the words. I stopped, and we went through the speech again, line by line. 

In this week's lesson on Churchill, I decided to stop what we were doing, and I gave the students five minutes to identify all the words they did not understand. We then went through the speech, annotating it. 

Here are 22 words the students needed explaining and defining:

boast

treacherous 

odious 

Napoleon 

manoeuvre

flag 

blockading 

outlandish

subjugated

Continental 

neglected 

Fleet 

novel 

necessary 

New World

malice

comrades 

liberation

ingenuity

tracts 

 

stratagem

Gestapo 

 


According to English teacher and blogger Alex Quigley, students need to understand 95 per cent of the vocabulary to comprehend a text. Well, 22 words comprise 4.3 per cent of this 508-word text. 

I think, had I had another 10 minutes, I would have found that the students did not understand "assurances", "searching" , and "exercised", along with a host of other words as used contextually by Churchill. And we did not even have time to explore exactly what comprised the British Empire and the French Republic. 

My point is simply this: even if they did know 95 per cent of the words, they would not have understood the text at a level that was remotely insightful. 

If they did not understand the text in an insightful way, how could they discuss with me how Churchill appeals to British patriotism to gain support for the war effort? They cannot analyse the literary techniques he uses if they do not know the meaning of what he is saying.

Learning moments that live in the memory

My other point, which is key to make, is that the students are really enjoying the lessons. Our lessons are joyful, because the students are learning. A highlight was when a student realised before I did that a tractor is called a tractor because it has the same etymological root as "tract".

And even the trickiest characters cannot help themselves. During the previous lesson, when they had packed up and I was checking their learning as we waited for their staggered slot to end their day, when I asked where Churchill was born, David - a professional chair-sloucher if only I were to allow it - threw his hand-up and said "Oxfordshire". 

And Emma - the same Emma I have had to chastise twice recently, once for spraying water around the top deck of the H1 bus and once for encouraging the non-wearing of masks, much to the distress of the bus driver - brought in her great uncle's handwritten, yellowing, first-hand account of his escape at Dunkirk. 

When I read the account to the class, they were transfixed, and I could feel a quiver spread from the small of my back to my shoulders and up my neck. Such learning moments live in the memory for ever.

Learning to delight in being knowledgable

I teach largely working-class, white students - arguably the most disenfranchised socioeconomic group of students in our country. They want to learn, but you have to insist that they learn, until it becomes the norm in your classroom. 

I rant at them. I tell them what they are getting from me is a high-quality education. That they are lucky to have me sharing what I know with them. I implore them not to revel in not knowing stuff, but to delight in being knowledgable. 

I teach from the front. The students are in rows, facing me. I insist upon eye-contact and 100 per cent attention, 100 per cent of the time. I am relentless in those lessons, because it matters in my soul that the masses are not shortchanged with teaching and learning characterised by low expectations.

How can our students gain a "wider understanding of the world which [they] are growing up in" if they do not know and understand the words required to gain that understanding? And the most efficient way for those students to widen their vocabulary is for me to tell them what the words mean. That means that they sit in rows and pay attention.

So, Kate Green, please listen to other voices. As I am no knee-jerk traditionalist; please, don't you be a knee-jerk progressive. Such binary nonsense is just that: nonsense. As someone articulated so effectively not that long ago in British history, there is always a third way.

I have spent the past 10 years working in classrooms that are more evidence-informed than ever before. As I near the end of my career, I finally understand what works. And what works for the students in our state schools, where we educate the masses at scale, is getting them to know and understand stuff. 

It is not joyless. Rather, it is making sure that children from all socioeconomic backgrounds encounter "the best that has been thought and said". 

I am all for "cramming [students'] heads full of facts", because only then can they "develop their own faculty for critical thinking, asking questions and interrogating data". 

We both want the same thing, Kate, but only I know how to get it.

John Tomsett is headteacher at Huntington School, in York

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