Detecting the curriculum: Holmes, Hirsch and Jim Hawkins


Driving back home along the M5, my son and I are listening to Sherlock Holmes. Watson is stunned by Holmes’ all round ignorance, and gives an informal school report:

“Knowledge of literature – nil; philosophy – nil; astronomy – nil; politics – feeble; botany – variable (well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally, but knows nothing of practical gardening); geology – practical but limited; chemistry profound; sensational literature immense (he appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century); plays the violin well.”
Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes has made distinctive knowledge choices, counter-cultural for Victorian Britain, but which fit perfectly for the consulting detective role. His deliberate approach has been to pursue arcane knowledge (blood stains, pollen grains on the soles of shoes, 300 types of cigar ash) whilst eliminating facts which would get in the way:

“A brain is like a little empty attic and you stock it with as much furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort, so that the knowledge which might be useful gets crowded out with a lot of other things.” 

One of the earliest descriptions of the pain of retrieval? Possibly. If Benedict Cumberbatch was all mind-palace, this is definitely more brain-attic.

We think deeply about what we choose to teach, and what we leave out. Each school will have different needs for the core curriculum, its reading and oracy programs, its SMSC. To get pupils university-ready or fit for their next steps we think deeply about our context and what they’ll need.

I am currently in the classroom most of the day teaching English – not a subject for which I was trained. Nor how I have spent most of my time as a headteacher over the last eight years. But for lots of reasons it was a short-term challenge I was keen to have a crack at. As I have watched the shortlists for English posts dwindle in the last 15 years I like other Heads have looked at how to creatively recruit into this subject. And I wanted to see if I could break into the secret garden – the classrooms that so many teachers peep into, wondering at the magic of language being formed. Everything starts with English. So many of the best teachers and people I have had the honour to work with have been English specialists. So I had no illusions. It was going to be like a guy pitching up at Top Gear with his VW camper van and hoping to compete in the timed lap. You see, I’m already into similes.

5 weeks in and I’m loving it. I have some great English specialists helping me and am working within a terrific school ethos. Teaching is an unbeatable, if exhausting, vocation. Still. I’m loving the direct contact with class after class, the interaction and energetic fun of working with 30+ children each lesson, crafting in my own classroom. Watching the moment the ideas kick in.

There is no getting away from the ‘trial-by-class’ for the new teacher, whatever your background. They want to know you can cut it. So bridging the behaviour protocols, navigating the transitions between texts and adjusting to the lightning class-changeovers have all been part of my journey as a fledgling English teacher. Until I reached the point, a couple of weeks in, when pupils began to realise it was going to be OK. Teaching is such a complex task that identifying that precise moment is tricky. I sensed my transitions becoming smoother – the class easing from one English activity to the next. Classes began to happily hum.

With my Y7s I knew it the moment when, bedraggled and sopping, they climbed the stairs from a swimming lesson and minutes later, were all hooked into Treasure Island and writing about Jim Hawkins as a hero. For my top set Y11s, they needed to know that this relative stranger could actually help even this close to the exams, so it was a lesson which compared the theme of power in Blake’s ‘London’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘Storm on the Island’, and when they asked for revision help with Browning’s tricky ‘My Last Duchess’. More about getting alongside, than setting expectations.

And then the gears shift into subject pedagogy. How do I develop the Low Stakes Quiz format in a way that does more than check retrieval of content or search for synonyms? How do I ensure that my teacher-brain (which automatically recalibrates the degree of difficulty for less able groups) keeps the level of challenge high? And so just as my confidence grew and I started to look more closely at the English curriculum, it was then that I received an observation that didn’t go well.

Like many growing Trusts we have a central curriculum which, although emerging, is strongly conceived, highly challenging and centrally shared. Subject leads or ‘curriculum curators’ work with Heads of Departments across schools to develop and construct great schemes of work.

“The best way to learn lots of words is to systematically and coherently learn lots of things. The most egalitarian school is one that follows a cumulative, multi-year plan of knowledge building.”

Anyway, back to my observation. To be fair, more of a gentle drop-in. Y7 studying Treasure Island; I was trying to use one of the centrally planned resources (it was fine) to get my pupils to write more exciting sentences. They were attempting narrative writing but I wasn’t happy with what they were coming up with – it was too clunky, too robotic. So the plan was to look at two pages of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s flowing, descriptive prose, set this against ‘typical boring sentence-starter’ (pronoun/verb: He raced) and then crack on and create their own sentences with a few models to get them going. I was teaching five lessons that day and this section was probably the least well thought through (for this read badly planned).

One thing I rediscovered early: Remember that in every lesson there will be a key moment to learn from. Enjoy it. It’s part of the joy of the journey. Teaching which becomes all about end-points is a dismal vocation.

My Y7s got stuck very early. Stuck in a way that if it had been a conceptual gap in geography I would simply have stopped, listened, apologised for not explaining clearly, cracked open the misconception and retaught it. But because teaching English was still fish-out-of-water territory, I was not agile enough to adjust and we soon ground to a bit of a halt. Two vast and trunkless legs of stone indeed it felt, with tumbleweed whispering away into the desert. My observers kindly peeled off giving me space and time to recover my wits and very soon I was into John Agard with Y11 and having a ball. With them it was more urgent. With my Y7s at least I knew I had time to put things right.

But this showed me a little about how a central curriculum running across a group of schools should and should not be used. It should be a team endeavour, corporately created and explicit about exactly which concepts and ideas are taught. These are set out through shared knowledge organisers (this is a must-read from Jon Hutchinson), texts, articles and slides that lay out the picture of a high quality, challenging curriculum. In Y7 English on the ground I could see this meant more epizeuxis and epistrophe, less metaphor and simile.

At its best this reservoir of resources gives me different ways into teaching these concepts – it supports my planning but does not substitute my thinking. At its worst, knowing there is centrally planned powerpoint means I could simply turn on the PC at 8 in the morning and 30 minutes later be delivering someone else’s hard-won thinking. I become some sort of MAT hologram teacher.

So what did I get wrong with my Y7s? My pupils need my own particular strengths and personality that I bring to my craft. They need my thinking about where they are and where they need to be, and the careful crafting which will achieve that. I missed this, the most vital element in the learning process. And of course the dawning realisation that ‘writing floats on a sea of talk’. So the following lesson began well before the following lesson. I created some modelled writing of Jim Hawkins, made parallels with Catniss Everdene (of Hunger Games fame) and studied the characteristics of heroism each character shows. In other words some scene-setting and referring to another world (this time dystopian) to add context, then lots of discussion, before returning Stevenson’s cracking prose and getting my students to write well. And they did. Best writing yet.

“If you look at the manuscript of writers preserved in museums and libraries you can often see the changes they made scribbled between the lines. What you can’t see are the changes they made in their heads before those sentences were even inscribed.”
V Klinkenburg – Several Short Sentences about Writing

And so with thousands of powerpoints down the land. In the visualiser v powerpoint debate, this is excellent from Ben Newmark. I favour visualisers because they are an outward manifestation of the thinking process of the teacher and the class. They see the changes we made in our heads. With slides it has already happened. Visualisers captivate: they are a little bit Tony Hart. I have watched so many lessons where pupils are entranced about what comes next. In contrasts powerpoint slides are usually slapped on the screen rapid-fire (I’ve done it myself) and too fast for all of our brains to process. There is little mystery or joy.

Putting together a great curriculum across a group of schools:
So what about losing the autonomy of my curriculum? As a head of department having to abdicate control of what is taught in my department can be tough. I will have forged together a team and, through trial and error of what works well in our context, having crafted thoughtfully sequenced schemes of work which accumulate the building blocks of good geographers, methodical mathematicians, curious chemists. I will have made decisions about exam boards, tested through the crucible of changes to curriculum frameworks or QCA politics. My team will have built resources, developed successful fieldwork days or museum/art gallery visits which enrich our curriculum choices. All of these decisions built on their particular strengths, qualifications, specialisms or areas of interest (I think of a brilliant geographer I worked with recently who was a proper glaciologist, with serious expedition experience. We were definitely using that in our curriculum!). When I put all of this together, I will be resistant to having to change or reverse these decisions.

But being part of a group of schools means I am also part of a larger team which should help me in creating a more enriching, more exciting, more in-depth curriculum because there is now a bigger resource-base of expertise, thinking and passion and a real sense of purpose. So while I’m losing some control, and a topic or a scheme here or there, I gain the expertise of other leaders and specialists who can, together with me, build what should become a more challenging curriculum. Success depends on the subject-lead setting key principles, keeping the level of challenge high and harnessing the best of our larger teams’ skills and resources. Some schools now part of Trusts will inevitably be further along the journey, others less so. But all make a contribution and so (and this is the key bit) all pupils must inevitably benefit. I can see my way to compromising my autonomy for the greater good. In losing some control, standards must increase.

I’ve visited lots of schools over the past year, and things are changing. Many schools are now acting on the evidence (rather than talking about the evidence) and have introduced daily reading and seeing the impact this especially has on disadvantaged pupils. The ‘reading canon’ so clearly articulated in Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered has been an inspiration in the culture where I am working. The reading approach is led by @josiemingay, and my first experience on day 1 was Y10 reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles at 8.40 for 25 minutes per day and the day ending with another 20 minutes of DEAR time. This is not a school where there was any history of a love of reading and the difference is palpable. The next challenge for schools who are on this journey and who who have selected their canon is developing close reading to ‘uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension’ rather than just whizzing through the books.

English departments are teaching harder texts earlier. This works best when delivered by great subject specialists with the reservoirs of behind-the-scenes background pupils need to know. But in the hands of the less experienced/non-specialists this can throw pupils in the deep end without a rubber ring, creating only the impression of more challenge. Teachers are also introducing more challenging vocabulary earlier, but we need to know how well this new information is taught, how much practice we give pupils in using it and how the knowledge is applied systematically across the curriculum. There is also the risk of losing the connectedness of this rich vocabulary. We need more of what Mark Enser describes brilliantly here.

When visiting a school recently I was asked my thoughts on academic v vocational curriculum. Should we pursue EBacc or applied qualifications? On reflection I think this is the wrong question. The big stuff is happening in KS3. This is where leaders and teachers have been forced/encouraged (you choose your politics) to take ownership of the curriculum rather than blaming the next edict from on high. I think the reason we been asking that very question for years (as some sort of litmus test of our leaders) is because we have not thought about our year 7-9 curriculum hard enough, we have not planned it well enough and because we have not put our best teachers in there (how could you with accountability at the other end?) and so unsurprisingly it has not been taught well enough.

If we properly invest in finally getting KS3 right, the applied/academic question becomes redundant. This will take brave leadership from Heads/Trusts to invest in and allocate resources in a way which promotes long term change, and from Regional School Commissioners/Ofsted to recognise and reward this:

The French soldier Marshal Hubert Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected saying trees were slow growers and it would take a hundred years for the tree to mature. “In that case” replied the soldier, “there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”
 from The Wood – John Lewis-Stempel

My favourite moment from my English teaching? The point I was sure my Y10 bottom set who had struggled with poetry were with me: When 3 of the boys hung around at the end of the lesson and wanted me to know, without exactly saying so, that the lesson on Shelley’s Ozymandias had touched a chord. You are never too long in the tooth for a fist-pump moment down the stairs believing you’ve made a breakthrough. Until you then hear one of them as he steps into the playground asking his friend: “Does Ozymandias play for Spurs?”

It’s a great profession.

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