Developing Schemas In English Literature: are we Hiding the most Important Knowledge from our Students?

A schema is essentially a ‘mental model’ or ‘cognitive network’. For example, if we imagine that the box below contains everything it is possible to know within a particular domain of knowledge*, (let’s say, Macbeth), then the network below might represent everything that I  personally know about the play; it is my schema, my mental model of Macbeth.

*In truth, knowledge domains cannot be boxed off like this. Domains are always infinite because language itself is infinite. In other words, even if I know the play very well, there will always be many other ways of explaining its details and nuances that I have never heard and never will hear.

Schema

Within my schema resides all sorts of information:

  • details of the content of the play: character names, places etc.
  • deeper concepts that Shakespeare was exploring: ambition, gender etc.
  • some sort of historical ‘sense’ of the past, its social structures, its hierarchies etc
  • concepts that might be considered deeper still because they go beyond this specific text: the concept of characterisation, the idea that groups within society are represented in texts, sometimes unfairly.

To really comprehend the play, I must also comprehend something about all of the above. And that means having more than just a passing familiarity with these ideas, especially the most important ideas to which other details will hopefully ‘attach’. That is especially hard if you’re a student growing up in an environment that might be described, for whatever reason, as knowledge-poor. But it can be a long road to mastery, even for those students who might be called, knowledge-rich.

Efrat Furst presents this helpful graphic illustration of the idea of a developing schema emerging over time:

Developing schema

The journey to mastery requires some form of memorisation, and lots of practice in grappling with complex ideas to facilitate the development of coherent, organised knowledge. It’s a long game.

So, how can we achieve this in English Literature? Take another look at this list of things I need to know about Macbeth:

  • details of the content of the play: character names, places etc.
  • deeper concepts that Shakespeare was exploring: ambition, gender etc.
  • some sort of historical ‘sense’ of the past, its social structures, its hierarchies etc
  • concepts that might be considered deeper still because they go beyond this specific text: the concept of characterisation, the idea that groups within society are represented in texts, sometimes unfairly.

Which of the above is the deepest, most important knowledge? How do we decide what is important in English literature? I’m going to suggest that we ask a couple of key questions:

  • how often does this information crop up in our subject?
  • how many other concepts/texts/ideas will it ‘connect’ with?

If we examine the list in this way, we can see that knowing the name of the King before Macbeth seizes power (King Duncan) is pretty important in helping us understand Macbeth, but it isn’t as important as having a secure grasp of the concept of ambition, an idea which probably runs through the entire text.

Having a sense of history will help me understand this play, but it will also help me understand other works of this period. And perhaps even works that came later, that might be said to be influenced by Shakespeare. Immersion in this period should deepen my understanding of a great many texts. I don’t necessarily need specific names and dates from history, but I do need to comprehend something about the role of women in Shakespearean England to find Lady Macbeth such a fascinating representation.

But this is arguably still less important to my being successful in the subject of English literature than understanding a concepts like characterisation: I need to know that characters are constructed (even when they are based on real people, they are still, inevitably, constructs) and that they are a way of capturing something about people in real life: about human emotion and behaviour, about relationships, about wider society. This concept is central to analysing any text. It goes far beyond the study of Shakespearean plays.

So the knowledge hierarchy in English literature might look something like this:

 

Most important                            Underlying concepts in English (e.g.texts are constructed;                                                          characters capture or represent something about human                                                            emotion and behaviour; structure influences meaning etc

Knowledge of a historical period, especially one that                                                                   relates to a number of different texts I will study

Knowledge of themes within a specific text, especially if                                                             these are important themes I might encounter again in                                                               other texts

Least important                            Knowledge of specific content details of one text

 

I have to be really careful here because I’m not suggesting that learning and being able to recall basic details isn’t important. It is. These concrete details will help me to pin down the much more abstract concepts I am exploring around them. This is not a manifesto for ignoring knowledge of the basics.

But how much time do we spend on explicitly teaching the more valuable underlying concepts? David Didau calls these ‘threshold concepts’. [He doesn’t actually refer to characterisation as a ‘threshold concept’ but he does say his list is not exhaustive and I think he would acknowledge there is an argument for including it.]

Do we signpost to students what the most important knowledge is when we do teach it? What might be sittting at the heart of any schema they are developing? Consider this: how would students answer the following question?

Q. What is the most important thing to understand about Macbeth?

  • Lady Macbeth is evil (too oversimplistic to be true but so many students write this in exams!!)
  • Macbeth kills King Duncan and seizes the throne
  • Lady Macbeth is (arguably) different to the typical stereotype of femininity
  • Shakespeare might be said to use his play to explore the power of unchecked ambition

Would you agree with their answer?

I think we often hide the deepest, most valuable knowledge. We conceal it under waves of storytelling and (shallow?) analysis that don’t always make deeper knowledge explicit. That’s not our fault. I would say that it is mainly a hangover from having to rush students through things in order to prepare for dreaded, and mostly pointless, data drops. We were too assessment-focused and were busy having to get students through controlled assessments rather than busy developing rich knowledge of our subject. But we now need to acknowledge that we can’t really bemoan the fact that students are ‘not getting it’ when we haven’t made it clear enough exactly what it is we want them to get.

When it comes to curating an entire English curriculum, I  argue that we need to put threshold concepts at the heart of what we do, and share them explictly with students. We’ve tended to prioritise choosing our texts first and working out what to say about them second. But a curriculum based on threshold concepts is one where we think about texts after we’ve decided on the rich conceptual knowledge we actually want to teach. That way, we avoiding teaching texts and focus instead on teaching through texts to help our students build the complex schemas they deserve. Eventually, they should know and understand enough to be able to conquer new texts with much greater independence.

If you found this blog useful, please share/RT and follow us on Twitter. And if you’d like to know more about how you can develop your own curriculum based on threshold concepts, please get in touch. We offer training and coaching and can even co-create your resources alongside you to save you some precious time!

Many thanks,

Zoe Helman

@EnglishEd10

http://www.english-ed.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

English Teachers: Fixing the Problem of ‘Just Feature Spotting’ in Language Questions

noun_Magnifying Glass_156206

Sometimes students seem to think that answering a language question is all about looking for personification or finding a simile. We know it takes a lot more than that. But how have our pupils arrived at this misconception and what can we do about it?

How this problem arises:

Answering exam questions about how writers use language is tricky. It’s tricky because there are infinite possible answers and trying to teach all of them would be impossible. We therefore tend to over-egg the pudding somewhat when we finally come across something in langauge analysis which is tangible. A sentence either contains a simile or it doesn’t. It’s absolute. And it therefore feels more easily ‘teachable’ for us and, for our students, such techniques are something firm that they hold on to when the going gets tough. In other words, it’s our own tendency to cling to language features as a ‘way in’ for students that helps create the problem. The reality, of course, is that they are not a ‘way in’. There is no point giving students ‘something to look for’ if that something is not couched in meaning.

How we might fix it:

I teach my students that answering this question requires first of all understanding a ‘big idea’ or ‘key intention’ of the overall text. We may only be asked to focus on a section of it in our answer, but the understanding comes from seeing how that section fits into the whole. The language of one section is working in support of an overall meaning within the whole text. I’ve found that we can usually get by with just three categories of ‘intention’ (or a mixture of the three) but this is not an exact science. These are the categories:

  • the writer intends to explore a particular theme (e.g. the disadvantaged working classes or changes in education)
  • the writer intends to create a particular mood (e.g. they create an appropriate atmosphere for the murder that is about to take place)
  • the writer intends to use or subvert generic conventions (e.g. they use the conventions of a ghost story to help draw the reader into their disturbing tale)

I teach these concepts explictly with several examples of each, which I model for students. The amount of involvement from students in this modelling processes increases very gradually as they become confident. I am explicitly telling them pretty much everything to begin with.

As we talk about the overall intention, we identify and connect the key pieces of language that support that overall intention. We only select the useful quotations that help us to track that idea. And I diagram it for them as I go along. I start by showing them the right-hand-side: the intention the writer wants to have fulfilled by the end of the passage. I then go back to the left-hand-side  and work from left to right, going through the ‘pieces’ of language that help the writer  fulfil their intention. It often ends up looking something like this:

Language Diagram (1)

Finally, where appropriate, I begin to add subject terminology. I explicitly make them aware that this is the least important aspect of what they’re learning and I ONLY start to do it on about the third examplar text for each concept. I don’t want to overload them too quickly so I ignore it to begin with.

We use retrieval practice to facilitate the memorisation of the key concepts, the actual exemplar texts that helped us understand the concepts, and the most useful subject terms. And whenever we explore a new text, I invite students to work comparatively, drawing on their knowledge of the examples they have already seen. Is this new text like any of the others we’ve studied etc.

I don’t use any other structures or writing frames because I find them unnecessary and counterproductive. I don’t want students wasting time and energy on whether they’ve got a PEE paragraph. I want them thinking about the actual concepts and the exemplar text. With enough explicit modelling, they soon begin diagramming for themselves.

I hope that was a useful run-though and I’m interested to hear about your experiments with this and any other approaches you may work with in your own classroom.

Zoe Helman

@ z_helman

@english-ed10

http://www.english-ed.co.uk

 

 

 

Implementing a New Curriculum? Coaching is Key!

Coaching image

I recently co-authored a new English curriculum for a school in West Yorkshire. The school was recently visited by Ofsted and I’m really pleased to say that they were really impressed with our (quite radical) approach. And the feedback was very interesting. When the HOD told me about the conversations she’d had with the inspectors, it transpired that they were particularly keen to understand her plans for implementing her new curriculum. It makes sense. There’s no point having a great curriculum if nobody is going to use it, or they aren’t going to use it in the way the designer(s) intended. Thanks to the work we’d done together, she was able to answer their questions in detail, explaining the strategies for ensuring all the English teachers were implementing the curriculum effectively and in line with what we had planned. And when Ofsted checked lessons and books, they found it was genuinely being carried out in lessons.

So, I thought it might be useful to others to write something about our thinking when it comes to implementation, and why one-off training days and occasional meetings just aren’t enough to embed something new, especially if it’s a radical shift.

I still see a lack of awareness a lot in the schools I work with when it comes to implementation. There’s a real tendency to underestimate just how difficult it can be to change teacher behaviour, even if those teachers are enthusiastic and fully engaged. Even subtle changes can be tough if it means changing the habits of a lifetime.

And it can sometimes lead to a vicious cycle of mistrust. Senior leaders, and possibly HODs, want to see the new curriculum up and running. Staff are trying but it isn’t quite working. SLT begin to lose faith may exert some pressure in the hope that it will rectify the problem. But that pressure just makes teachers more stressed and it becomes even harder for them to adapt. The blame game begins.

But, in my experience, piling pressure on doesn’t work because it is an attempt to solve a problem which doesn’t usually exist. It is, in essence, a well-intentioned misdiagnosis of a situation. The teachers aren’t usually failing to try, they’re just struggling to change habits because doing so is extremely hard. There is new information to process, absorb, wrestle with, and then we need a lot of practice, with feedback, just like our students. It takes time and it has to be appropriately structured and planned for.

We need specific strategies that will enable teachers to embed the new teaching approaches they encounter, even when they’re only being asked to make small tweaks, and especially when there are bigger changes afoot. But this doesn’t always happen.

And the other problem with poor implementation is that it can mean a genuinely effective, research-informed strategy that could have made a real difference to students ends up being thrown out solely because it hasn’t been implemented well enough.

Two key strategies can make the difference between successful implementation and a failed programme. One is the establishment of teacher learning communities of the kind described by Dylan Wiliam. And it doesn’t take much to run these. Teachers are given some reading in advance, they turn up at a TLC meeting and they discuss the reading and make decisions about how to act upon it. They can then be warmly held to account next time. This is what helps change habits: the drip, drip, drip over time which allows new ideas to become embedded because teachers are constantly reengaging and having to act on what they’re learning.

But to me, the most powerful way of supporting teachers to implement new ideas is to coach them. Once a fortnight, for no more than an hour, someone who has a better handle on the new curriculum, or whatever it is you’re introducing, sits down and offers support to a teacher who is still learning about it. Perhaps they video a bit of a lesson and discuss that, perhaps they co-plan something together. What matters is that an authentic voice speaks with authority to someone who may be a very established teacher but also happens to be new to a particular idea or process. Other forms of buddying or pairing up teachers are useful too but they’re never as effective as having a coach who is already an expert who can guide others to reach the same level of understanding and skill.

We might like to think that training days are enough but they really aren’t. There is far too much for a teacher to think about for them to truly absorb a new curriculum through just the odd training day, particularly in a subject like English. And this is especially true if the training is whole-school and not subject specific.

New approaches to curriculum, or teaching in general, involve thinking about abstract concepts. These are all abstract:

  • working memory
  • cognitive load theory
  • interleaving
  • sequencing
  • progression

And there might be subject specific concepts to think differently about too:

  • characterisation
  • setting
  • representation

Until we pin all of these abstract concepts down through subject-specific, concrete examples that make them meaningful to teachers, they remain hard to visualise and hard to grasp. And while I can talk at length on all the above in my own subject, it would be very hard for me to give you examples from maths or science. That’s why I work almost exclusively with English teachers.

So, whatever new curriculum you’re implementing, teacher learning communities and subject-specific coaching are powerful tools in ensuring it goes well.

Thanks for reading and good luck if you’re currently designing / implementing a new curriculum!

Zoe Helman

www.english-ed.co.uk

@z_helman

 

 

Implementing a New Curriculum? Coaching is Key!

Coaching image

I recently co-authored a new English curriculum for a school in West Yorkshire. The school was recently visited by Ofsted and I’m really pleased to say that they were really impressed with our (quite radical) approach. And the feedback was very interesting. When the HOD told me about the conversations she’d had with the inspectors, it transpired that they were particularly keen to understand her plans for implementing her new curriculum. It makes sense. There’s no point having a great curriculum if nobody is going to use it, or they aren’t going to use it in the way the designer(s) intended. Thanks to the work we’d done together, she was able to answer their questions in detail, explaining the strategies for ensuring all the English teachers were implementing the curriculum effectively and in line with what we had planned. And when Ofsted checked lessons and books, they found it was genuinely being carried out in lessons.

So, I thought it might be useful to others to write something about our thinking when it comes to implementation, and why one-off training days and occasional meetings just aren’t enough to embed something new, especially if it’s a radical shift.

I still see a lack of awareness a lot in the schools I work with when it comes to implementation. There’s a real tendency to underestimate just how difficult it can be to change teacher behaviour, even if those teachers are enthusiastic and fully engaged. Even subtle changes can be tough if it means changing the habits of a lifetime.

And it can sometimes lead to a vicious cycle of mistrust. Senior leaders, and possibly HODs, want to see the new curriculum up and running. Staff are trying but it isn’t quite working. SLT begin to lose faith may exert some pressure in the hope that it will rectify the problem. But that pressure just makes teachers more stressed and it becomes even harder for them to adapt. The blame game begins.

But, in my experience, piling pressure on doesn’t work because it is an attempt to solve a problem which doesn’t usually exist. It is, in essence, a well-intentioned misdiagnosis of a situation. The teachers aren’t usually failing to try, they’re just struggling to change habits because doing so is extremely hard. There is new information to process, absorb, wrestle with, and then we need a lot of practice, with feedback, just like our students. It takes time and it has to be appropriately structured and planned for.

We need specific strategies that will enable teachers to embed the new teaching approaches they encounter, even when they’re only being asked to make small tweaks, and especially when there are bigger changes afoot. But this doesn’t always happen.

And the other problem with poor implementation is that it can mean a genuinely effective, research-informed strategy that could have made a real difference to students ends up being thrown out solely because it hasn’t been implemented well enough.

Two key strategies can make the difference between successful implementation and a failed programme. One is the establishment of teacher learning communities of the kind described by Dylan Wiliam. And it doesn’t take much to run these. Teachers are given some reading in advance, they turn up at a TLC meeting and they discuss the reading and make decisions about how to act upon it. They can then be warmly held to account next time. This is what helps change habits: the drip, drip, drip over time which allows new ideas to become embedded because teachers are constantly reengaging and having to act on what they’re learning.

But to me, the most powerful way of supporting teachers to implement new ideas is to coach them. Once a fortnight, for no more than an hour, someone who has a better handle on the new curriculum, or whatever it is you’re introducing, sits down and offers support to a teacher who is still learning about it. Perhaps they video a bit of a lesson and discuss that, perhaps they co-plan something together. What matters is that an authentic voice speaks with authority to someone who may be a very established teacher but also happens to be new to a particular idea or process. Other forms of buddying or pairing up teachers are useful too but they’re never as effective as having a coach who is already an expert who can guide others to reach the same level of understanding and skill.

We might like to think that training days are enough but they really aren’t. There is far too much for a teacher to think about for them to truly absorb a new curriculum through just the odd training day, particularly in a subject like English. And this is especially true if the training is whole-school and not subject specific.

New approaches to curriculum, or teaching in general, involve thinking about abstract concepts. These are all abstract:

  • working memory
  • cognitive load theory
  • interleaving
  • sequencing
  • progression

And there might be subject specific concepts to think differently about too:

  • characterisation
  • setting
  • representation

Until we pin all of these abstract concepts down through subject-specific, concrete examples that make them meaningful to teachers, they remain hard to visualise and hard to grasp. And while I can talk at length on all the above in my own subject, it would be very hard for me to give you examples from maths or science. That’s why I work almost exclusively with English teachers.

So, whatever new curriculum you’re implementing, teacher learning communities and subject-specific coaching are powerful tools in ensuring it goes well.

Thanks for reading and good luck if you’re currently designing / implementing a new curriculum!

Zoe Helman

www.english-ed.co.uk

@z_helman

 

 

How to Think an Essay: Part 3 of 3

Thinking

Parts one and two explore the importance of organised knowledge and the importance of building analytical thinking as we go along, via the use of sentence fragments. This part will focus on another important thread: teaching students to capture and organise thinking before they write their essay. And I’ll begin with an anecdote.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a teacher who happened to be dyslexic. She was explaining how she had felt as a child when she was sitting in an English lesson, and was marvelling at how she ever mastered the subject. Her way of expressing this to me was that she had often felt like ideas were swirling around so fast that she couldn’t catch them. They came and went so quickly, it sometimes felt like she hadn’t thought of anything at all. But she had. It had just flown by too fast to pin down. It made me think of a student I was teaching at the time who was dyslexic and often said that he never had any thoughts of his own. It occurred to me to that he might be experiencing something similar to the teacher: thoughts that seemed to spiral away so fast, it felt like nothing had happened.

So, I tried an experiment. And I tried it with the whole class. We read a short story (just a page and a half long) and I asked all of them to simply capture their own responses. I said that they might think about themes or characters or feelings, and they could pull out quotations too if they wanted. And they could use concept drawing, an approach they were already familiar with and which I will explain later.  We could all freestyle. (I’ve heard this strategy called many things from a ‘brain-dump’ to a ‘splurge’ and even a ‘puke.’) I was very explicit that they should try to capture everything that their brain produced, even if it wasn’t relevant.

It is important to note that these students were in year 8 and had amassed sufficient knowledge by this point to be able to comment independently on a short story like this. They had also been explicitly taught mind-mapping, and had been given opportunities to do guided practice. [Had I understood better at the time, I would also have shown them that linear diagrams are not as helpful to us as ‘looped’ diagrams, and that creating them from left to right, as we usually read, is a better approach than any other. Oliver Caviglioli taught me these important details and I am very grateful to him! Follow him on twitter @olicav]

I quietly went over to the boy with dyslexia and asked him to try to work quickly. I explained it was just an experiment and that working quickly might be helpful. It might not.

In the end, he independently filled a sheet of A3 paper in just a couple of minutes. It was quite extraordinary and he had produced far more than the so-called ‘smartest kid’ in the class, much to his delight. Because I had demonstrated several times before how to create thought-chains and mind-maps in some detail, he had quite naturally adopted this strategy, although he’d never felt able to do it independently before.

Some of what he wrote was nonsense. The story was about a soldier on the front-line during WW1. But somewhere on his mind-map, the boy had written, ‘cheese sandwich’???

Well, the soldier certainly didn’t have the luxury of a cheese sandwich. But the story did refer to hunger, and, as it happened, the student had a cheese sandwich in his bag; it was his lunch that day. His brain had made a quite logical connection between hunger in the story and the boy’s own packed lunch. So, even the nonsense made some sort of sense. And much of what he wrote was relevant, and coherent and insightful.

He was so pleased with himself, he cried. He said, ‘I’m not stupid.’

It’s such a shame that this revelation came as such a surprise to him. Everyone else knew he was clever even if he struggled. From that day on, he used this simple technique of just ‘thinking on paper’, and capturing everything at speed, in all his subjects.

To that boy, the approach made a significant difference. It might not to everyone. I have tried it with other students and it really didn’t work as well for them. But part of teaching is experimenting with different ways of generating, capturing and organising knowledge. It is a strategy that can become useful once a child has a sufficient baseline of background knowledge upon which to draw.

Anyway, the first step was complete but how would we turn his notes into an actual essay? When we looked back at the A3 paper, we realised the work needed some serious organisation before it could be turned into an essay of any kind. We set about numbering everything, which seemed the simplest, quickest way, to go about it, and every single thought was numbered. After a little help to get started, this student was able to finish this work independently. And he used his mind-map to write a detailed essay with no further intervention or structuring. He did not use PEE or anything else – he just followed his own map.

PEE is strategy we wheel out because, in the past, we have had to produce writing quickly, usually for data collection, and because essay-writing is often misidentified as primarily a ‘skill,’ so that we assume overt structures that can supposedly be applied to many different essays are the answer. But they don’t actually help to organise or tame the thinking process. And they don’t provide knowledge. They are not the answer. So, mind-mapping, or diagramming in some other form, are useful strategies.

Another one is concept drawing, which I mentioned earlier. I find this really useful for those students who know what they mean but aren’t sure how to write it down. The human brain processes semantic meanings and visual images much faster than it processes words. And a visual element, if well chosen, also constitutes a form of dual coding – basically expressing ideas through verbal and visual languages simultaneously, which helps secure the learning in our memory. This is more than just ‘adding any old picture’. Images and diagrams need to capture and express relevant meaning.

Perhaps my favourite example of this strategy was a lesson I did with a year 11 ‘top set’. Having shown them some examples of concept drawing and how it differs from literal drawing, I asked them to draw the concept of human nature based on the play we had just watched and studied, which was Macbeth. They had done a lot of work by this point and they knew the play well. This is not an activity you could do on day one or with any class that has not first amassed sufficient knowledge. We then discussed these and started to add vocabulary and short phrases to the images.

For example, one student drew something like the two masks often used to symbolise the theatre: on face is smiling and the other is frowning. This seemed to be capturing the themes of duplicity and ambiguity in the play.

Another student drew a head full of question marks with a spiral in the middle that looked something like a corkscrew. He wasn’t sure at first what it meant, but we ended up adding the following phrases and quotations, among others:

  • ‘full of scorpions is my mind’
  • guilty conscience
  • led astray by his own desires
  • confused
  • his identity has shifted in ways even he cannot fully comprehend or explain

The students then used notes like this to produce their essays. Most also used some form of mind-mapping first. They were sophisticated and thoughtful pieces, and the best thing about them was their individuality. Each student had plotted their own unique path.

There are two points that I want to underline before I bring this to a close.

The first, is that these approaches can work in subjects other than English. I have seen science teachers use concept drawing and mind-mapping with students to prepare them for writing longer answers. And I have seen Venn diagrams used in almost every subject to prepare for comparative essays, although I personally prefer bubble diagrams because they provide more structure to the thinking. If anyone has other specific examples of diagrams or maps or of concepts drawing, perhaps they will let me know. If you’re on twitter, as I mentioned earlier, please follow @olicav for the best examples of diagramming and dual coding you are likely to see. His work goes way beyond what I can capture here.

The second, is that gathering students’ authentic responses is obviously hugely important, especially in English. And there are many ways to do so. And they usually work for all students.

But they only work if they are used at the right moment. This is not discovery learning. These are not strategies to use on day one. They are short, focused activities, deeply relevant to whatever it is you need students to learn. They are based upon sufficient background knowledge having been secured, and on repeated modelling of the techniques employed.

And in using them, we can hopefully do away with PEE ‘what, how, why’ and other  scaffolds, which may teach students something about one way of writing, but will not help them to marshal their own thinking or write with confidence.

Quick Recap

Build knowledge carefully – ensure students understand what is the most important knowledge (make sure you do too!!) and help them remember it through retrieval practice

Essay writing starts with a sentence – lots of modelling and practice of sentences and paragraphs are required as we go along

Use thinking diagrams and concept drawing to help students capture and organise thoughts, and begin to articulate them. Recognise it takes time and a certain amount of experimentation. Model these processes repeatedly – creating mind-maps & other visuals is hard at first.

Avoid PEE or any other acronym. Try detailed mind-mapping, number everything, use that as a plan. It’s much more reliable and authentic. It allows time for collecting and sequencing thoughts in a seperate operation to actually writing the essay, without imposing anything artificial. And it will also show up any gaps in understanding if we check what they’re diagramming before they write the essay. It makes it quicker for us to process what the class understands in real time than reading lots of essays.

Many thanks for reading!

Zoe Helman

www.english-ed.co.uk

@z_helman

How to Think an Essay: Part 2 of 3

Part one is available here.

I have argued that knowledge need to be organised; a collection of disparate facts is not enough to help our students write great essays. Organising knowledge starts with our selecting the most important our students need to have and just giving it to them. I know we want students to be independent and draw their own conclusions. But we have to build up to that; it doesn’t come out of nowhere, especially if we want their interpretations to be valid and meaningful.

So, where do we start? All too often, we make the mistake of planning backwards from an assessment. For example, I might know my students will have to write a response to this at the end of the half-term: how does Priestley present Mr Birling in An Inspector Calls?  (This could just as easily be a specific essay in RE or history or science.)

There is a danger I focus my teaching on that one topic so that I can ‘show progress’ etc. But what I really need to do is to plan backwards from the essential knowledge that underlies the whole thing – in my example, the whole play – so that my students’ knowledge becomes flexible and can be applied to a range of specific questions. That’s not just so they can pass exams; it’s so that they genuinely do understand the play and can reap the personal rewards that real learning always brings.

When I teach An Inspector Calls, I give my students the key knowledge right away. I tell them that the most important thing to know, the anchor that we will attach all our other thoughts to, is this: Priestley wrote the novel to expose the injustices of the class system. I tell them. They don’t work it out or guess. I don’t want any confusion here. We unpick what those words I just used really mean. We pull apart what being part of a class system in 1912, when the play is set, meant for different kinds of people and we unpick how, by 1945, when the play was written, two world wars had begun to break down the barriers between the middle and working classes. Priestley saw the possibility of a greater and more permanent change to British society.

From that moment on, whichever character, technique or minor theme we explore, we attach it to that big idea. I use a lot of diagrams to help me. Having a working wall in the class with that idea at the top helps students to map connections as we go along. But they also have their own notes and diagrams. More on that next time.

This approach works in other subjects too. We start with the question: what is the most important underlying concept we’re trying to teach? And underlying concepts can be well hidden and difficult to work out. I think we probably all need to confer with our departments to make decisions about that. I bounce ideas off my friend and colleague, Sam Gibbs, all the time. Without her, I would be far less of a teacher, that’s for sure. If we don’t work together, there is a danger our teaching becomes surface, somewhat disconnected, and that nothing will really stick.

All of this brings me to another aspect of organising knowledge that is oft overlooked: writing organised, meaningful sentences. We need to teach writing all the time, every lesson, as we go along, in order to adequately prepare students for the essay at the end. I’ve written about this before so this serves as either an introduction or a brief reminder.

Firstly, we can use sentence fragments – taking small pieces of sentences that students play with in order to ‘do the thinking’ and express themselves on paper. Hochman & Wexler (The Writing Revolution) suggest we might try something like this (this is my version).

In explaining why Gerald, an upper class philanderer in An Inspector Calls, behaves the way he does, we might offer these fragments in which key elements are missing. It encourages students to think about connections and relationships:

                         is self-indulgent in that he

                         lacks self awareness because

                         allows Priestley to explore the idea that the upper classes are

One student wrote this:

                        Gerald is self-indulgent in that he allows himself to take advantage of                                        someone vulnerable.

                        He lacks self awareness because he doesn’t see himself as a philanderer; in                              fact, he seems to think he’s a sort of victim of circumstance who couldn’t                                  really stop himself for having feelings for Eva. Nothing is ever truly his fault.

                       Gerald allows Priestley to explore the idea that the upper classes are also                                 failed by the class system, despite seeming to be in control of it, because they                           have to live with their failed relationships and guilty consciences.

I deliberately don’t ask them to include quotes here because students need to understand the message itself, the argument, before they can go about including ways to support or exemplify it.

In creating these fragments, I think we teachers also get clearer and more fine-grained about what matters most. It forces us to zoom in on the key ideas that really matter so that our students do the same, something that is vital for low structure builders (see Make it Stick for an explanation) for whom working out what matters most is often very difficult.

And here is one from Doug Lemov. This is about the use of appositives. An appositive is a way of renaming a noun in a sentence. It sits next to the noun it renames. In each of these examples, the appositive is in the centre as an embedded clause (there are other ways to construct them!)

A bird, a tiny blackbird, kept visiting the garden.

A bird, a huge great eagle, was poised in a nearby tree.

A bird, the most important bird in the whole clan as it turned out, began to address the crowd.

I like this technique because it’s a fairly easy way to build something that feels quite sophisticated. It also encourages students to think of more than one way of saying essentially the same thing. Having options like this has to be one of the ‘holy grails’ of using language: our students need to have more than one option easily available to them if they are ever to express themselves with subtlety and nuance.

And writing well does not require the kind of ‘shoe-horned in’ fancy vocabulary that students don’t really understand. I can’t count the number of times I read the word ‘harmatia’ in relation to Macbeth while marking essays over summer. If they can really own that vocabulary, I have no objection. But many of them can’t and it stands out in their work as a mad attempt to points-score rather than a genuine articulation of a thought. One student wrote, “it was because of his harmatia that he did what he did because it wasn’t very nice, his harmatia.” Time would have been better spent on allowing this student to develop their expression through practising with sentences than worrying about vocabulary. Barbara Bleiman writes wonderfully about this here.

So, we have a big cohesive idea to pin everything on and we’re developing writing in short bursts as we go along. In the next instalment, I’ll look at how we might go from writing sentences to actually planning and writing the essay itself.

How to Think an Essay: Part 1 of 3

It may seem rather a strange title but it seems self-evident that in order for any of us to write an essay we first of all need to be able to think an essay. I’m going to explore an approach to this as a way of unpicking potential challenges for students and how we might address them. Essay writing is such a key procedure for students to learn but it is also bloody difficult and oft misunderstood.

For too long now too many of us have considered essay writing as a transferable skill. We hoped that by handing out PEE structures, or versions thereof, that we might engender in our students the ability to make coherent sense out of pretty much anything.

We were wrong.

We were wrong because we we underestimated the importance of knowledge. If you think essay writing is mainly about skill, try this thought experiment. Imagine writing an essay about a knowledge domain that you would consider well outside your personal expertise. For me, I am imagining having to write an essay about property laws in France. I know nothing about this. I therefore can’t even begin to write an essay despite knowing a great deal about essay writing.

So, step one is ‘acquire knowledge’. The more, the better. And that means more than just reading something and making notes. We can’t marshal our knowledge, take charge of it and give it shape with our careful explanations until two things have happened. Firstly, retrieving that knowledge (the vocabulary, the concepts, the mental models) has become relatively easy. That requires retrieval practice and interleaving so we build and rebuild our mental schemas until they have some shape. For more on these topics, see my blog here.

I see this as a bit like sculpting. A sculptor may get the idea of the shape hiding inside her piece of clay on first glance, but this is not enough yet for her to express her vision. She has to go back, have another look, begin to find the contours and see the details as well as the whole. In time, she has a perfectly realised set of thoughts captured in clay. To write a meaningful essay, we need to be similarly invested over time. Rushing to essay writing before students have had time to learn knowledge and explore it may be the single biggest thing we have got wrong.

It has serious consequences because it forces us, probably in the name of some upcoming data-drop, to cut corners and offer scaffolds that students wouldn’t need if they had had sufficient time to explore their growing knowledge.

And no matter how great the scaffold, no student can use it efficiently to reach their full potential if they don’t fully understand what they are putting into it. When PEE type approaches fail, we tend to blame the students for not listening closely enough or not following our instructions. I would suggest these students simply don’t have anything to say yet or they don’t have enough to say. No scaffold in the world can save them from that.

So, every time students write essays, there has to be sufficient time given to knowledge acquisition. In my own subject (English), I don’t just want them to know about the text itself, that’s actually pretty useless if they know nothing about the landscape of the society in which it was created. Autobiographies are great for helping students becomes immersed in a particular time and place (thanks to Jules Daulby for sharing this tip with me.) Access to high quality non-fiction texts are essential for students to be able to write about any fiction text.

Secondly, we need to have organised our knowledge. This is a step we often miss out with our students, or we attempt to do this for them without explaining our approach.

I teach English. Pretty much every English teacher who ever taught ‘Of Mice and Men’, a popular choice until it was taken off the syllabus and a useful example here, taught something about the American Dream. They taught something about the Great Depression too. The students have knowledge of these ideas. That’s great but if their knowledge is inadequately organised, they may underestimate the importance of these concepts.

If you asked me, what is the most important knowledge to have about this book, I would say that it’s mostly about the failure of the American dream or, more broadly, the failure of American society to create fairness and equality. But if you asked students, which knowledge is the most important, most will start talking about characters. After all, if we’re not careful, or students will have spent more time unpicking George and Lennie’s relationship than talking about big concepts about society. Perhaps we don’t even touch on big concepts at all with some students because we wrongly believe they won’t understand them.

This is a problem because it denies students their right to complex, interesting knowledge. But it’s also a problem when it comes to essay writing.  An essay based on character (not characterisation, which is different) will fail to get the higher grades because the student’s thinking is not conceptualised enough. But it could have been, if only we’d given our students access to rich, carefully organised knowledge.

Next time, I’ll explore ways of capturing and organising knowledge in preparation for essay writing. I’ll consider what we need to do first as teachers as well as how we help students organize their thinking more effectively.