As I expressed in a recent posting on the Hirsch ‘knowledge curriculum’ affair, I am not opposed to knowledge: having it, teaching it, valuing it.
I am against it dominating/leading an approach to teaching and learning.
My educational views are primarily focused on how this issue impacts on my subject of English, but I will focus here a little more specifically on English Literature.
At an academic level I believe in the reader-response approach to study – so much of this posting is going to be summary; soft-touch: it isn’t a thesis – but I do also think, for example, knowing about an author’s background, their expressed personal thoughts and feelings, the cultural, social and historical frame in which works are written, and so on, will matter. This can be an important part of knowing about a text.
At A-level this would apply to a degree, maybe more-so in some cases, but I’m not going to quantify how much here. Not that I could anyway.
At GCSE, my main area of experience both as teacher and examiner, such ‘knowledge’ can be a very dangerous possession [not that this would be my main objection for caution]. The commonest example of GCSE students’ unnecessary use of such knowledge would be in the reference to ‘biographical’ details – not so much the detail itself, but the over-use and over-reliance on it at the expense of the work itself.
Worse still is the regurgitated use of ‘received’ knowledge about texts and their meaning. That which has simply been fed to them, and I think this feeding is very much a part of the Hirsch mantra/model. One gets examples of this when marking GCSE English Literature examination responses.
A quick side-track on this point: I did read recently a teacher – obviously an acolyte of the Hirsch methodology – bemoaning the fact students in English didn’t get taught/research enough themselves about knowledge in this subject, but especially English Literature. Her singular reason was in referring to the ‘dreadful’ responses she encountered from students as an examiner herself. She clearly meant most/all students.
I don’t ‘get’ teachers who lead with such negative, sweeping assertions about students. It was withering in its generalised disdain. That’s not the kind of teacher overview I would ever hold, endorse or like. Call me snowflake if you will [an aspersion about which some knowledge of its origins and prejudicial application would be useful…]. More importantly, as a GCSE English Literature examiner of at least 35 years, this is not and never has been my general experience and impression. Quite the reverse.
What I do dislike, when happening, is the students’ increasing over-preparedness in their exam responses, this delivered by their teachers and perhaps students accessing the online ‘knowledge’ guides when they revise. Teachers obviously do this for two main reasons: one, admittedly, a misguided trust in the value of spoon-feeding [also known as a Hirschian model of rote-learning], and second, the fear of results judgements, target setting and league tables. This latter phenomenon of cause and effect most evident in more recent years out of my 35 examining.
But the absolute worst of this ‘knowledge’ about literary texts has been the proliferation of students being taught and regurgitating language/linguistic references. I mean at the grammatical and similar level – notions of knowledge about language and writing that has come directly from the English Key Stages 1, 2 and, when it existed, 3 SATs, these truly dreadful and invasive [because statutory and school target related] forms of assessment and therefore teaching.
Such an overall notion that this is how writing operates – a notion avidly supported by schools minister Nick Gibb who takes his ‘learning’ on this from the likes of Hirsch – is simply wrong, and infuriatingly so. Passed on by the sheer force of its persistence in teaching and assessment throughout the primary years into secondary, this so often corrupts the students’ appreciation of what literary works are all about. It usurps exploration and interpretations, and it usurps the acceptance of being ‘wrong’. With the move to Writing study [and some elements of Reading] that deals in ‘finite’ answers – yes, this is ludicrous – the direct and indirect precedence given to this ‘knowledge’ is destructive.
But I’ll stop on that thread. This too is a bigger argument than I want to indulge here [but it has been addressed throughout this blog by me over previous postings/years].
Back to the title of this posting.
I mean the Book of Job from the Old Testament. Having read this or been introduced to its Christian propaganda about the good of suffering [well, you have to know it to be so critical] is, I readily admit, an important piece of knowledge if students are to understand much about our Western culture and its politics [e.g. how austerity is ‘good’ for the country…] and our literature. I was disappointed so few of my A-level students had any ‘knowledge’ of the Book of Job, or more importantly the Bible as a whole text. So I would supply that ‘knowledge’ in a number of ways, valuing it. In teaching Waiting for Godot to my mixed-ability GCSE groups, I always arranged for students to explore differences of reporting/expressing detail in the four gospels of the New Testament, and yes, supplied summary ‘knowledge’ about it to support their ‘discovery learning’ on this.
Like I said at the start: soft-touch. A snapshot.
It’s not a question of the value of knowledge and its relation to learning/education – though it is about types of knowledge – but the way in which we as teachers endeavour to convey this. Too much of what I have read, and am continuing to read, in the Policy Exchange produced Hirsch pamphlet Knowledge and the Curriculum makes me weary of how knowledge acquisition is being interpreted by those in the UK. These postings are me working aloud to unravel my fullest understanding of all of this, and as with this particular posting, making clear I am not simply anti all of it.