Knowledge, Antiknowledge and Knowing (myself as a teacher)

“Know your learners” is a catch phrase that’s consumed my school this year. We must make a dedicated effort to probe into every aspect of a student’s learning and life that will help us understand why they aren’t meeting their targets.

Interesting that the word “know” is there, when much of the reason the student isn’t producing the results we want is because she doesn’t “know” enough. But whose fault is that, really? Where should we as educators put the blame?

I turn once again to ED Hirsch:

In Education, we hear “the high-sounding antiknowledge advice that has been offered for more than sixty years–the very prescriptions (now to be facilitated by “technology”) that have produced the system’s failures. These continually reformulated slogans have led to the total absence of a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum.” ED Hisch The Schools We Need (2)

Having recently delved into the world of Hirsch and those who follow him, I’ve found myself refocused on why I went into teaching in the first place 13 years ago: to help students. To assist with social mobility. To provide hope for change to so many who won’t have a hope outside of education. And whilst this sounds idealistic and true of many an NQT (at the beginning of the year), I still spout these ideals years later.

I still believe–despite my over-workload–that education is the best hope we have for changing students’ worlds. I didn’t initially go into teaching to teach the wealthiest, for I’ve always thought I’d make the biggest difference where there was the most need (I’m a missionary kid, so you can probably guess where I acquired this thinking!). I wanted to give these students hope and a chance to succeed. I had no idea that what I wanted to teach was what Hirsch calls “Cultural Literacy.”

“To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world … That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, on which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories. Some say that our schools by themselves are powerless to change the cycle of poverty and illiteracy. I do not agree. They can break the cycle, but only if they themselves break fundamentally with some of the theories and practices that education professors and school administrators have followed over the past fifty years …” (Hirsch Cultural Literacy ch 7)

I told my professors back in 2004 that I wanted to teach “inner city” kids. They gave me scholarships to help me meet my goal and I went on my way. First I taught in an alternative school for kids with BESD, which I loved. Then I taught in the largest, most overpopulated high school in Albuquerque New Mexico in portable classroom #40 to 36 students a class, which I loved. Then I took a job on the Navajo reservation, which I loved. I always loved teaching my classes and, because I had the freedom to create the curriculum and lessons I wanted, I created and refined lessons I loved.

I started a speech and debate team, I published, I took kids on field trips, and I’m still in contact with a large number of them today. Together, we LEARNED things and, more often than not, we enjoyed it.

For example, when I got my first job, I was told I was teaching a “World Mythology and Folklore class,” which was a senior English elective. Problem was I had never studied any mythology. There was no curriculum and I was dumped in it a week before school started. In one week I would have seventy 17-18 year olds in my classes expecting to learn what I didn’t know. What to do? I learned it! I created a world mythology curriculum out of nothing, buying more than my fair share of Barnes and Noble’s “folklore” novels and spending too much of my salary (and probably my time) on books. But my students learned every Greek god and goddess, what they were god of, their symbols and weapons, who followed them, and the myths that told their stories. We learned about Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Osiris and Isis, Thor and Odin, and a myriad Native American myths. We compared mythologies to the cultures from which they originated. We analysed the motivations of the gods based on the cultures who created them, and we connected this knowledge to what Joseph Campbell discussed as the “modern myth” complete with an evaluative study of #1 Campbell fan George Lucas and his Star Wars franchise (Luke Skywalker is of course modelled after Luk.As, who is thus able to become the hero on the journey of his own films). Fascinating stuff and so interesting!

Essentially, I taught my students parts of our cultural heritage that crop up in many texts, newspaper articles and “scholarly” journals today. Indeed, our pop culture has bastardized/advanced (depending on who you talk to) many of these stories (for example, Disney has taken liberties that may or may not create improvements. I created a debate over Disney’s Little Mermaid vs Hans Christian Anderson’s more sacrificial original, to interesting student conclusions). My students’ desire and ability to debate these subjects and draw conclusions stemmed from the knowledge I gave them.

I was teaching core knowledge, but I didn’t realise it was a deliberate defiance of the system of “anti-knowledge” in place across the US. New Mexico, at least when I taught there, was 48th in the nation for our education system. Many classrooms were neglected. I hated seeing this, but I hadn’t a clue how or why this happened. I didn’t have the time to find out, frankly. I judged from a young and newly professional perspective and moved on to plan my next lesson. The lack of oversight in the schools I taught also meant some teachers performed miracles, and I met many of these inspiring and outstanding, committed individuals whilst teaching there. (New Mexico’s Debate Team, for example, is awesome. The best school in Albuquerque was run by a tiny woman in The largely Mexican South Valley. Her kids performed miracles on stage).

“Literate culture is the most democratic culture in our land: it excludes nobody; it cuts across generations and social groups and classes; it is not usually one’s first culture, but it should be everyone’s second, existing as it does beyond the narrow spheres of family, neighborhood, and region.” (Hirsch Cultural Literacy chapter 7)

New Mexico was/is “behind” much of the States because we didn’t put enough money into monitoring what teachers do, it’s said. For me, this played out in my having a greater impact simply by caring, and by teaching kids knowledge. They were starving for it and grateful to receive it.

The question I’ve been asking myself for the past 5 years since living in the UK is this: why was I so successful before and now I seem to make less impact? We are told that a kid’s home life makes much more impact than a teacher ever could. We are told that the determining factors that matter most include where a child was born and to whom, that schools don’t matter as much as we think we do.


Why is that? And how can that be? How can we let that be it? Have we really given it our best shot?

As a missionary kid who grew up in Africa, as a kid who watched her parents strive to “save” those who had it rough–homeless people, disabled people, poor people in general, and as a kid who watched my parents have a huge impact on many people they helped, I know that outside intervention can be vital for success and survival. I have also learned that, unless people are taught how to sustain their improvement, unless they are EDUCATED, the status-quo will resume after the intervention is taken away.

That’s probably the biggest reason I became a teacher. Education is the only thing that has the potential to make life better in the long run for those who’ve been given a rough deal.

This is where Hirsch’s message comes in, and why it’s reinvigorated me; it’s supported what I’ve always believed to be the case but haven’t had the research to justify. His careful research into the history of American education and civil rights, and his explanation of our move away from knowledge onto the “thoughtworld” and “discovery learning” has resonated with me. How can kids possibly “discover” anything if they don’t know anything? Sure, I played a lot as a child and loved running around wildly, but it wasn’t until I learned to read that my world expanded. I got lucky living in Africa without a tv. I read Little Women, Wuthering Heights and Agatha Christie at age 9 for entertainment, and I never knew I was supposed to be embarrassed about that.

“It is true that, under our present curricular arrangements, academic achievement is heavily determined by family background. But we cannot conclude from the present state of affairs that deprived children would be predestined to low achievement under a different school curriculum …” (Hirsch ch 7)

For the first 8 years of my teaching, I had relative freedom. I was given the book to study (in some cases) and told to get to it. What I didn’t realise until I came to the UK was that my lessons “weren’t structured properly.” I didn’t know what a “mini-plenary” was or why it was so important. I had no idea what a “skill stop,” “collaborative task,” “sentence starter,” “things to think about,” and the like in fact were or why they were so important. Hell, I couldn’t even manipulate a PP template to add a background, learning objectives and other formatting “necessities”. I didn’t know how to spoon feed students tiny tidbits of knowledge as needed and I definitely didn’t know how to use sentence starters so the kids could put the ideas I’ve just given them into some sort of order (“But Missss,” they say to me, “What do I write after ‘this shows’? I don’t know what this shows!” Yes exactly. You don’t know! That’s the issue).

My first job in the UK, someone helpful gave me the PP and told me to teach what was on it (Wow, I don’t have to plan my own lessons? I said in disbelief, not realising what that meant exactly). As I muddled my way through someone else’s carefully broken down plan, I couldn’t figure out what students were supposed to KNOW. “Use these sentence starters,” “think about this,” and “here’s a thought-shower for you to copy so you have ideas to use.” I went with it and taught my first lesson. Upon reflection, I’m pretty sure the “teacher modellings” I attempted those first days were probably pretty poor, as I found it difficult to use the sentence starters to my advantage, and I had no idea what “the technique used is…” meant.

Indeed, my first glance overwhelmed me with words on the screen. How do I teach this? In what order? Should I just tell the kids to read the screen? What’s my role here? Do I even need to be in the classroom?

I was a professional, I thought, so this shouldn’t be an issue. I now tell people I was experiencing culture shock. Oh, and I truly did not know how to read a PP presentation effectively, which should really have been my pre-req before I entered teaching in the UK. And it makes sense really. (How else can cover teachers be expected to disseminate information?) Suddenly, I was in a system tightly controlled and monitored, a system where kids acted like they didn’t care about learning and a system where none of my students seemed to have any ideas or confidence unless their “targets” were high (and I’d never heard of targets before. To estimate and tell a student what grade they should get based on what they got when they were 10?! Before, I would have told you that was absurd). Anyway, as a teacher new to the system, I taught mostly bottom sets anyway so I didn’t get many ideas beyond “can I go to the toilet?” and “what time is it?”.

I used these PP lessons and tried to make them work (make me work “properly”), though I was told I couldn’t change them much, as we “were all teaching the same thing to our students.”

Then I got a 3 on my first lesson observation. A needs improvement grade. And I deserved it.

The person observing me told me it seemed like I didn’t know my subject matter very well. My teacher modelling didn’t flow. She said I seemed confused, that I lacked confidence, and that my students didn’t behave well enough. That they were unfocused because I was unfocused.

Problem was, I didn’t know what to focus on (and yes I knew what a learning objective was–I think there were a few on that lesson, complete with Bloom’s higher order analysis and synthesis words). I’ve still had trouble with that FOCUS word for the past five years, because how do you effectively focus on more than one objective at a time, or a differentiated objective, or an objective that asks a kid to analyse something when you have to give them the knowledge first, which isn’t one of the learning objectives but what must be taught in order to analyse (or spoon fed so we can skip to the analysis?)?

After that 3, I went home and drowned myself in wine. I’d taught rich and poor kids all over the world for the past 8 years, TESOL, American Ed, the IB, IGCSE, had earned a Master’s Degree in English Literature and Writing, had even received “student teacher of the year” back in my secondary ed training, and suddenly I couldn’t do anything right.

It was humiliating.

But I’m nothing if not a survivor, and I don’t give up for long, so I rallied. I did what I was told, and I set my sights on getting better than those around me (yes I am competitive). I learned what people mean when they roll their eyes over students’ coursework (how many times did they “rewrite” that essay before it was “at their target”?), I learned what “helping” students with coursework meant and I HATED teaching coursework because students knew they could “rewrite” as many times as they needed to. Of course, officially we don’t give any comments or help students, but how in the world was I going to meet my target when the student before me refused to have any ideas whatsoever and didn’t seem to care whatsoever about their grades?

Damn. No wonder 1 in 3 teachers quits. These kids in the UK were unlike any kid I’d ever taught before, or so I thought at first.

Five years later and I’ve got the lesson model down. I have largely learned the art of teaching “transferable skills” and can “sentence-starter” a kid to death. I can “thought-shower” anyone under the table, and I can “structure” that bad-boy essay with the best of ’em. And I can twist a student’s arm until they put that pen to paper, regardless of apathy. I can get 1s and 2s on my lesson obs (not that anyone is officially counting anymore. Now we rag rate because I guess a coloured judgement is nicer than a number).

But am I successful, or have I learned the system? By telling my students exactly what to write, am I helping them?

Today, I argue an emphatic no.

Don’t get me wrong: I see the benefit of breaking things down, of including structural tips and things to include before students write extensively, but they must know something first. Part of my craft has improved, and in forcing myself to look closely at what the student isn’t doing, I have a better understanding of what that looks like, and what challenges our students face. But what we can do about that as teachers is something we now need to work on as a teaching cohort.

“Teachers are as ill-served as our students by the inadequate ideas and impoverished subject-matter instruction they have been compelled to absorb in order to receive certification.” ED Hirsch (15)

I argue that I was largely accidentally successful before because, without strict guidance as a new teacher who was taught in an international, largely knowledge-based educational system, I taught knowledge, I loved teaching, I believed in my students and I took risks. Truthfully, I didn’t teach essay-writing skills enough. I also wasn’t taught to really structure an essay until I attended university. I didn’t think it mattered much before then, and frankly I’m not sure it did matter much. I wrote extensively in high school and I always had ideas. It didn’t occur to me not to have ideas! Similarly, those first years of teaching, my students also had ideas and they wrote them down largely because they had knowledge–which I quizzed and tested them on routinely–and when they needed a grammar lesson because their essays included sentence fragments, I gave it to them and made them rewrite. So straight-forward and obvious, I thought. I didn’t know any different, which is again why I say I got lucky my first few years of teaching. My students also got lucky. Now I realise I was doing some of what Christodoulou says helps students Make Good Progress. I did it naturally because the kids needed to know it to sound educated, and I knew I needed to teach them things to make them educated.

The “knowledge-thirsty youngsters” need to get “solid knowledge in a coherent way” says ED Hirsh The Schools We Need (13).

For this reason, I’m 100% behind the new GCSEs. It took some reflection, but when many were Gove-hating and moaning about the impossibly high new expectations, and when I joined in without really knowing what Gove stood for or why (but only that he’d never taught, so what could he possibly know?), I secretly wondered if it would be so bad to be able to teach without spending stupid amounts of time on coursework. To really teach again?! I scarcely dared to hope.

Today, I realise how much time I’ve wasted in the last 5 years by myself not learning much knowledge. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve worked HARD. LONG, HARD HOURS struggling to figure out how to get my kids to write a band 4 or 5 paragraph, struggling to get them to respond to my marking, to mark enough and to make students underline titles. Struggling to create a lesson with enough “fun” to mask the PEE at the end, or at least make them complain less about doing it. I’ve struggled over the word “progress” and how to show this in lessons. I’ve sweated and cried and agonised and, often, given up for short chunks of time when things don’t work. Quite frankly, I’ve largely stagnated, stalled and lost much of my vision. Often, my lessons lack focus on the goal because I’m no longer certain what my goal is–do I want them to write a PEE paragraph? Is that my goal? Or do I want them to know the chapter? Do I want them to look up words in the dictionary, or learn those words? Do I want my students to “forget that they’re learning” and have fun, or do I want them serious and silent? Do I want them sitting in groups or in rows, in ability groups, or randomly placed? The hours I’ve spent trying to figure out “what’s best” means I’ve neglected to focus on what matters: how to get knowledge to go from my head (and the PP if I must use one) into the kids’ heads, and to stay there.

Often in my lessons, I’ve felt the need to cut the knowledge bit down “because it’s taking too long and the students are getting bored and, besides, someone might come in and I need to perform”. I flip to the sentence-starter slide, introduce it quickly before students’ eyes glaze over completely, write a paragraph to model what I want kids to do (asking kids pointed questions to ensure they are listening, and ensuring that I get some participation, even if it’s just from the most able!), structure the rest of their writing for them, continue to ask for ideas from students (and the same ‘high targeted’ students usually pipe up), ensure they’ve done “talk-to-write” with their partner so I can ensure they “know” what to do (they have sentence starters for their talking task too) and I finally “set them lose” on something that’s been half constructed for them, and most importantly, that they don’t usually have a good enough knowledge about.

In my lessons, even the “good” ones, the weaker students often try to get away with copying my teacher modelling, and the weakest students copy the words off the board and, when I stand over them, kick off so nobody has to see that they actually have NO IDEA what to write about because they have NO IDEAS and no knowledge because they’ve been absent or staring into space because their target is low and they “know” they are stupid. The lowest students always lose out, and it’s another reason to agonise, because we as teachers certainly care about this! These word-poor kids are the reason I went into education, right? It’s heart-breaking and can easily create a sense of hopelessness for the student and the teacher.

“We cannot afford still to accept the untrue belief that adequate schooling is natural and painless, and mainly a function of individual talent rather than hard work.” (Hirsch 217)

So this year, alongside my new reading and my new study focus, I’ve started making changes to my lessons, quizzing more, reviewing knowledge more, making students memorise chunks of text (and what’s wrong with that, Didau argues here). At first they balk at me and say “We can’t do that Miss! That’s long!” but you know what, the more I do it, the more they like it. “Are we going to have a quiz today Miss?” and “Do you know what? We haven’t quizzed on our vocabulary in awhile Miss,” and “Hey Miss! I was really loquacious today wasn’t I? But I wasn’t insolent, right? You know what? I’m always going to speak like this now because I sound smarter.”

According to Hirsch the progressive movement [of education] is “pervasive, deep-dyed Romanticism, not just its one-time expression in the progressive movement, which continues to thwart a balanced educational approach that would emphasize high standards, book learning, and hard work in school. Persistent educational Romanticism is the source of many assumptions about childhood and human nature that still pervade our minds and hearts. These deep-lying assumptions need to be modified–no easy task.” (Hirsch 215)

Perhaps, just as the Romantic movement produced better poets than the Empiricist movement, perhaps because I myself have a good foundation of knowledge–and here’s where Doug Lemov’s blog about Bloom’s taxonomy comes into play, link here–perhaps I can be both a knowledge-ist and a Romantic. For though the progressive movement to steer education away from “common symbols” and “rote learning” was then a romantic and attractive idea, I argue we’ve come full circle. The bloom is off the rose, literally. It’s old, dying and as unattractive as the student essayI just read that uses no capital letters . Therefore isn’t it now a Romantic idea to think education should be about knowledge? It’s a rebellious notion in most of today’s educational circles, and it’s certainly attractive to my students who enjoy learning the word “loquacious.”

Today I don’t have all the answers, but at least I have the questions again. And I have hope that the new exam-based, knowledge-fueled English GCSEs might provide hope for our students. That is, if we as teachers can get out of our own way and re-teach ourselves to teach knowledge well.

“We must not accept the claim that knowing how to learn (which is an abstract skill that does not even exist) is more important than having a broad foundation of factual knowledge that really does enable further learning.” (Hirsch 216)

I have an exhaustive plethora of lessons to heavily refine. And a lot of discussions to have before I’ll be allowed to bin at will. But I know what works, I’ve been a part of classrooms that work, I’ve created knowledge-based lessons that work, and my focus is back on what I’ve always thought matters: on creating “culturally literate” students who can hope to compete in today’s competitive, ruthless world. Only this time I learning the language and studying the research to support my ideas (in Boom’s language, I’m gleaning the knowledge to create a strong base on which to analyse and evaluate). I’m hoping this will make all the difference.


One thought on “Knowledge, Antiknowledge and Knowing (myself as a teacher)

  1. Pingback: Cuts to Education Funding: does it really spell doom? A response to TES | No Pain: No Progress

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