It all started when I was planning a lesson for Year 10. I wanted to tackle the question of whether Lady Macbeth embodied transgression or conformity. But I was stuck. How could I teach transgression when students didn’t have a secure understanding of Jacobean expectations of women? How could I teach Jacobean expectations of women when students didn’t have a secure understanding of original sin or Malleus Maleficarum?
It niggled away at me, and then something else happened: while making a Year 7 knowledge organiser (a one-page overview of key information for a topic) for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I realised I was struggling to extract relevant or challenging knowledge from the text that I wanted to teach, test and retest.
In the words of educationalist Doug Lemov, “books students read and study are … a scarce and valuable resource” (Reading Reconsidered, 2016). So how could I teach the novel when, as a teacher, I have the expertise – the duty – to enable students to read texts that pose distinct, unique challenges? How could I teach it when any precise knowledge gained from its reading would, I knew, rarely be used by staff or students?
These events combined to prompt a realisation: at GCSE, students’ successful comprehension and analysis of texts is contingent on presumed knowledge of allusions, vocabulary and history; by failing to take a systematic approach to providing the knowledge that empowers students to write about texts with authority and perceptiveness, I was leaving success to chance. In other words, I was leaving success up to factors outside the classroom: financial advantages, cultural capital, prior attainment.
By failing to provide students at key stage 3 with a backwards-planned, knowledge-focused curriculum, I was surely allowing the “Matthew effect”, in which the “rich shall get richer and the poor shall get poorer”, to prosper and to fester (Daniel Rigney, The Matthew Effect, 2010). Without carefully curated planning at KS3, students lacking the “mental scaffolding and Velcro to catch hold of what is going on” were being left behind (E D Hirsch, The Schools We Need, 1996).
A few context lessons on Jacobean gender stereotypes were not good enough. A text that most Year 7 students could read independently, without the need for teacher guidance and expertise, would not do. KS3 should not, of course, be a period of panicked, premature GCSE preparation. But I started to realise that a haphazard approach to content, slapdash assessment and a lack of intention to ensure meaningful long-term retention was fostering inequity.
My obligation became clear: I had to catalogue the knowledge underpinning a complex, critical, comprehensive understanding of KS4 texts. I had to use this clear inventory to define unifying concepts, notice patterns and employ modules at KS3 to explicitly teach knowledge with utility and significance; knowledge that established an internally cohesive curriculum. I had to know what specific vocabulary students would need to use and master, and teach this from Year 7. I had to provide “high-quality material” and ensure that students were supported to “get to grips with it and apply it in new settings” (Mary Myatt, The Curriculum, 2018). I had to establish stable schemas in students’ long-term memory that would reduce cognitive load when it came to future summative assessments.
Planning backwards from KS4 knowledge demands was not original; many people have done incisive, forward-thinking and research-informed work upon which my own efforts squarely relied. In particular, Chris Peirce and Jude Hunton at Ashlawn School in Rugby, Warwickshire, have thought deeply and critically about the complexities of our moral imperative to ensure cultural literacy. Teacher-blogger Joe Kirby and educational consultant David Didau have persuasively articulated the necessity of a curriculum driven by underpinning knowledge.
However, I kept returning to the idea that “cultural capital takes one tangible form: a pupil’s vocabulary” (Matthew Bromley, “Pupil premium: closing the vocabulary gap”, SecEd, 2018). To provide students with Hirsch’s “mental Velcro”, we have to know what specific “stuff” needs to stick and what we want it to stick to. Or, to use Myatt’s metaphor, we need to know what label to put on the “bigger baskets” – the broad concepts we want to explore.
Transgression and oppression
Unsurprisingly, the first of these labels was transgression. It struck me that all texts are, in some way, about transgression: of expectations, stereotypes, patriotism, norms, boundaries, laws, conventions, form, structure. I had to include texts at KS3 that established or explored contentious, recurring boundaries, beginning with gender, race, class and the supernatural. Alongside the idea of transgression came that of oppression. At KS4, students need to be able to discuss routes and roots of oppression, again rotating around key recurring axes of gender, race, class and the supernatural.
Arising from these key concepts was vocabulary that explored related binary opposites; vocabulary that added flesh, content and detail to the broader conceptual “baskets” : utopia and dystopia; superiority and inferiority; homogeneity and heterogeneity; action and stasis; imprisonment and liberation; transience and permanence; duplicity and credulity; indignation and submission; conformity and subversion; the natural and the supernatural; tyranny and democracy; the corporeal and the ephemeral; the interior and the exterior.
These ideas, embedded into a KS3 curriculum, could provide useful hooks (or Velcro) upon which to hang (or stick) students’ understanding of a range of texts.
I became preoccupied with ensuring that the “raw materials” of KS3 “were of sufficient quality” as Myatt puts it, containing the “desirable difficulties” that are necessary prerequisites for long-term retention and sustained progress (Robert A Bjork, “Institutional impediments to effective training”, in Druckman, D and Bjork, R A, eds, Learning, Remembering, Believing, 1994).
I began each module with the “vocabulary” and “context” section of the knowledge organiser. As a starting point, I defined words that students would use to navigate texts and formalised the “stuff” they needed to know to facilitate and enhance their learning.
In all cases, what was on the knowledge organiser needed to be relevant to future study, fitting together across modules and between year groups to “build students’ factual knowledge base” (Daniel T Willingham, “Inflexible knowledge: the first step to expertise”, American Educator, 2002). The vocabulary taught needed to refer to and stick to our broader conceptual Velcro (transgression and oppression) and key binary opposites, creating curriculum cohesion.
Therefore, in Year 7, Oliver Twist introduces Dickens’ preoccupation with the potential transgression or destruction of established class boundaries. Students understand the significance of Victorian attitudes to religion and class, and can use and apply words such as temerity, eponymous, cyclical, retribution, punitive, entreaty, inherent and sentimentality. This vocabulary fits within the conceptual “baskets” that guide our curriculum and the binary opposites that fit within and inform these.
Pupils study and use rhetoric through the analysis of speeches, letters and articles by figures who discuss transgression and oppression, such as Elizabeth I, Emmeline Pankhurst, Malala Yousafzai and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They learn and apply words such as perpetuate, subvert, egalitarian, upbraid and ingrained. The contextual information is revisited continuously.
After establishing an understanding of Victorian society in Year 7, students are positioned to discuss the transgressive nature of Gothic fiction in Year 8. Having been explicitly taught the forms and conventions of Romantic poetry, they are well placed to look at poems that use form, structure and language to question social and literary conventions.
Consistent discussion of oppression and power dynamics throughout the curriculum enables Year 9 students to perceptively discuss Othello. Year 9 ends with a non-fiction module that tracks attitudes towards the supernatural, women and minorities through time, weaving together King James’ speeches, The Communist Manifesto, Thomas Malthus’ writing and pamphlets from the 1400s.
In providing consistent, backwards-planned, frequently revisited, consistently embedded vocabulary, we have the chance to empower students with reliable lenses through which to understand and navigate texts. Coupled with a strong underpinning of relevant literary and historical knowledge, this vision for our curriculum will, I hope, give our students a “cognitive edge” (Willingham, “How knowledge helps”, American Educator, 2006).
Our KS3 curriculum map now sets out the specific knowledge that needs to be retained from each module, and knowledge organisers build upon and reference each other in terms of content and vocabulary. Throughout KS3, returning to key concepts provides students with a memorable chorus of stable, long-term knowledge; the repetitive recurrence of our “baskets” builds success, automaticity, confidence and the mental architecture that allows for perceptive analysis of any text.
This model has enabled us to simplify and systematise our teaching. All lessons begin with retrieval practice, a vocabulary quiz, guided grammar practice, scaffolded analysis or a recap quiz.
Booklets constructed for each module facilitate focused annotation and support extended writing. Knowledge organisers are used to support, challenge and structure students’ writing.
However, it is by no means the finished product. Many people have written persuasively on the virtues of teaching literature chronologically and this approach is one that I would like to embed. Daisy Christodoulou’s ideas about decontextualised grammar teaching are needed, too, in our classrooms and in our curriculum.
But in the work we have done already, we have begun to take responsibility for teaching all the knowledge we would expect our most successful students to use and apply. Building “mental Velcro” from KS3 makes the implicit explicit: we are aiming to arm students with “powerful knowledge” (Michael Young and Johan Muller, “On the powers of powerful knowledge”, Review of Education, 2013). This “power” is enhanced and justified through repeated use and application, and by revisiting.
Josie Stacks is deputy head of English at Oasis Academy Coulsdon