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Activating students’ knowledge

Like all English teachers, I’ve had students who have known something perfectly well, but failed to use it in a written answer. When checking with them afterwards, they’ve been able to retrieve the knowledge instantly – it just didn’t occur to them to use it in an answer where it was highly relevant and would have gained extra marks.

As schools focus on making their curriculum more knowledge-rich, this will become crucial. There will be little point in ensuring students have rich knowledge if they can’t recognise how to use it effectively. This is different from learning and retrieval – a student may know something accurately and retrieve it correctly when prompted, e.g. by a direct question or in a quiz, but still not recognise when to use it effectively in an essay.

Alex Quigley has written about this helpfully in the EEF blog – https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/eef-blog-what-do-we-mean-by-knowledge-rich-anyway/ – drawing on work by Professor David Perkins at Harvard. Perkins describes four kinds of ‘fragile knowledge’.

Missing knowledge. Sometimes a relevant piece of knowledge is forgotten. The student knows it if prompted, but doesn’t recall it spontaneously. Quigley gives the example of a student forgetting that Macbeth was written for performance in front of James 1.

Inert knowledge. Sometimes knowledge is present but inert – the student doesn’t see its relevance to the matter under discussion, e.g. the divine right of kings.

Naïve knowledge. Sometimes the knowledge takes the form of simplistic theories and stereotypes which persist even after discussion, e.g. that Lady Macbeth is solely responsible for her husband’s behaviour.

Ritual knowledge. This is knowledge deployed to please or impress the teacher rather than to show understanding, e.g. when the student writes that “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” is an example of dittography.

Quigley points out rightly that ensuring that students’ knowledge is both robust and effectively used requires them to understand themselves as learners, i.e. metacognition, as well as understanding the tasks. He ends by writing about the need explicitly to teach how to plan and monitor writing “including how to evaluate it and spy knowledge gaps and when seemingly ‘inert’ knowledge of historical context needs to be explored alongside interpretations of character and motivation”.

However, he gives no indication how teachers might do this apart from using knowledge organisers and teaching practical strategies for organising knowledge such as writing frames, graphic organisers, mind-maps and Cornell notes. But these ways of organising knowledge may not enable students to activate their knowledge fully and to best effect under time pressure, especially in an exam. Formal ways of organising knowledge may prevent items of knowledge being forgotten, but they give little help with organising retrieval and deployment of knowledge speedily in the most effective way to answer a question. In reality, there is a limit to the amount of time a student can be expected to spend preparing and writing an essay and, in exams, there simply isn’t time to work out a careful structure.

Students therefore need – as an aspect of metacognition – embedded skills of retrieving and organising knowledge to evaluate, compare and persuade to best effect. For this they need regular practice in text-based argumentation through KS3 into KS4.

Drawing on the work of Robin Alexander – e.g. https://www.robinalexander.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/DfE-oracy-120220-Alexander-FINAL.pdf – Neil Mercer and others, it is clear that students need frequent practice in at least five of the eleven categories of talk for learning to embed effective retrieval and deployment of their knowledge: explaining, analysing, evaluating, justifying and arguing. And as all of these talk-types require connected thought, they give practice in structured thinking – the basis of metacognition. For developing detailed responses to literature, they are in turn underpinned by skills of deduction, inference, exemplification and analogy.

As an example of this process in action, four Year 8 students are discussing the first four paragraphs of 1984. The class has been given the text without any explanation of where it’s from, have read it together and have been asked to identify the things in the story that seem to be different from real life or other stories and to say what they suggest about the story. The aim of this part of the lesson is to give practice in inferring a dystopic setting. The group has commented on the posters of Big Brother, the people’s poor lifestyle and the telescreens which can’t be switched off, and they have come to the Thought Police in the last sentence: “Only the Thought Police mattered.”

Alex
It sounds as if they check on your thoughts.
Ravi
They tell you what to think.
Alex
They sound important, I wonder why. “Only the Thought Police mattered”.

Pause

Jay
I think it’s a cult. Big Brother watching you and the Thought Police. It’s like a cult.
Ravi
What do you mean?
Jay
When they play with your mind. You have to go somewhere and pray and sing and do what they tell you. You’re not allowed to have your own thoughts.
Alex
Why not?
Jay
You just aren’t. That’s what a cult is. You all have to think the same.
Kim
I don’t know…
Jay
It says about Hate Week. You have to hate people who are different from you.
Ravi
Yeah, it sounds vicious.
Alex
The Thought Police could check you think what you’re supposed to think.
Kim
And they could punish you if you don’t.

The group reports back to the class its idea that Big Brother and the Thought Police suggest a cult.

Teacher
That’s interesting. Could it be something like the Inquisition?

The teacher gives a short account of the Inquisition with its use of imprisonment, torture and execution to force people to have the beliefs it accepted.

Eric
But that was centuries ago. This story can’t be about then because it’s got telescreens and helicopters and things.
Teacher
Could the story be using the same idea as the Inquisition?
Kim
Yeah, in a modern way.
Ravi
I don’t see how.
Teacher
Let’s read a bit more.

The class then reads a further three paragraphs describing the four Ministries with their ironic names and the Party’s three paradoxical slogans (WAR IS PEACE, etc), culminating with the terrifying description of the Ministry of Love.

Teacher
Anyone notice anything about the word “ministry”?
Alex
It’s part of the government.
Teacher (nods).
Anything else?

Pause

Jay
It’s what priests are – they’re ministers. Yeah, they’re supposed to tell you what God wants you to do.
Ravi
But they’re not priests here. They’re vicious, they want to scare you.
Jay
They say they love you, but they want to hurt you. It’s like saying “War is Peace” and that. They’re playing tricks with your mind. I think they want to drive people crazy.

Several things are happening here:

1      The students are exploring an unseen text under the teacher’s guidance with the teacher providing additional information by direct instruction as appropriate, i.e. about the Inquisition, or by questioning, i.e. about the double meaning of “ministry”.

2      Under the teacher’s guidance the students are making deductions and inferences about the text which they share with the class so that a range of possible interpretations are explored. They are beginning to grapple with the concept of brainwashing and Orwell’s use of grim irony.

3      These deductions and inferences involve analogies (in the example, with a cult, the Inquisition and religious practice) and striking examples of paradox and irony. The discussion therefore focusses on a high-quality literary text with rich language and powerful emotional implications. These are likely to make it memorable so that students retain associations of meaning, inference/deduction, analogy and exemplification. There is increasing experimental evidence that rich language and powerful emotional implications assist memory and they are, of course, common features in texts set for GCSE.

4      The students are therefore developing mental processes (metacognition) which enable them to use their knowledge actively. In terms of cognitive load theory, rich language and powerful emotion help to establish a schema of literary response in their long-term memory on which students can draw whenever relevant. Because discussion is focussed on short appropriate texts and led by student discussion of a small number of open questions on the text, cognitive load is always intrinsic and germane, never extraneous.

5      Embedding ideas in long-term memory through a nexus of rich language and powerful emotion mediated by personal response and teacher guidance makes it easier for students to retrieve them in other contexts, e.g. other descriptions of settings, other dystopias, other accounts of unrestrained use of power. Students are therefore more able to connect, apply and generalise their knowledge to other contexts. In Perkins’ terms, the student’s knowledge is much less likely to be forgotten, inert, naïve or ritualistic.

This embedding requires repeated practice and the 1984 lesson above (of which the transcript is a short part) is one of 30+ designed to be used fortnightly over two years in KS3 in the Let’s Think in English programme – www.letsthinkinenglish.org The lessons act as worked examples in practicing the metacognitive skills necessary for using knowledge robustly and effectively.

You may be interested that the class discussing 1984 is mixed-attainment and Jay is regarded at one of the lowest attaining students. But this assessment of his ability is based on his writing, of course – no student is ever assessed primarily on their speaking and listening in which Jay is thoughtful and increasingly perceptive. His writing is steadily improving too.

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Renewing the English curriculum, increasing 
Progress 8 AND closing the gap

This post explains how schools can redesign their KS3 English curriculum in ways that respond to Ofsted’s increasing interest in the curriculum, significantly increases their Progress 8 AND considerably raises the attainment of their lower-attaining and disadvantaged students.

What Ofsted wants

The new draft School Inspection Handbook is due for consultation in January, but since October 2017 Ofsted has signalled its wishes increasingly clearly:

  • schools are to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum for all students,
  • monitoring its effectiveness directly rather than relying on data spreadsheets
  • and being clear about its intentions, e.g. whether reducing KS3 to two years is appropriate
  • without evidence of ‘gaming’, e.g. off-rolling difficult or low-attaining students or using easy GCSEs to inflate Progress 8.

This is intended to bring about a major change in schools’ approach to teaching and learning. Amanda Spielman has confirmed repeatedly that there won’t be an Ofsted-approved curriculum, but schools will need to be able to convince inspectors that what they are doing is educationally effective. Her speeches on this are summarised at https://www.risingcurve.net/2018/07/16/no-progress-tracking-no-pixl-no-mocksteds-no-gaming-ofsteds-plans-for-transforming-how-schools-work/.

In reality, SLTs will need to be able to explain the school’s curriculum, and how teaching and learning is known to be effective, in some depth. Detailed progress-tracking data won’t be required – this is now seen as a misuse of teachers’ time, adding unnecessarily to workload and distracting from a focus on teaching. And this change is made possible, of course, by the creation of Progress 8 as an overarching measure of value-added.

Progress 8’s influence on the curriculum

The significance for the curriculum of the information provided by Progress 8 is only gradually being realised. In September 2018 Emma Ing, one of Ofsted’s Regional Directors, pointed out that many schools do much better in the Open slot of Progress 8 than in English, Maths or the EBacc slot. She reported that, in 2017, 209 schools had entered more than 95 per cent of their Year 11 for the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) and 2240 had used this qualification to some extent. She writes: “The average points score for ECDL in 2017 was 52 (equal to a grade A) and schools with high levels of entry, not coincidentally, tended to have very rosy Open P8 scores.”


Progress 8 Overall English element Maths element EBacc element Open element
+0.23 -0.09 +0.01 -0.06 +0.88

Ofqual has now discontinued ECDL as a possible GCSE, but Emma Ing implies that there are other ‘vocational’ subjects with similar potential high Progress 8 scores. She concludes: “I would want to know, if a school is doing so well at ensuring pupils gain great grades in the Open subjects, why leaders and teachers are not able to make the same difference to their learning in English and mathematics.”
https://educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2018/09/04/vocational-qualifications-progress-8-and-gaming/

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director for Schools, has now indicated that discrepancies of this kind will now be investigated during inspections. If a school’s English, Maths and/or EBacc P8 score is significantly lower than its Open score, it will be asked to explain why and, if a convincing explanation isn’t available, this will appear in Ofsted’s report and be reflected in the school’s Ofsted grade.

Increasing Progress 8

The surest way of increasing a school’s Progress 8 score is by raising students’ attainment in English.  There are two reasons for this.

English counts most.  English is double-weighted if students take both English Language and English Literature as most do now. If a student’s Language grade is higher than Literature, it will appear as the grade in the English slot – vice-versa if the Literature grade is higher. But the other English grade will appear as one of the three in the Open slot if it is one of the three highest grades in that slot. So, unlike any other subject, English can be worth 30 per cent of Progress 8.

All progress is equally valuable and English underpins many other subjects. With the move to grades 9 – 1, progress by lower-attaining students counts equally with other students for Progress 8. If a Year 7 student is predicted on their KS2 scores to achieve GCSE grade 2s across the board, enabling them to achieve grade 4s is as valuable for Progress 8 as raising predicted grade 5s to 7s or 7s to 9s. Each improvement on prediction has equal arithmetical value across all grades; for the first time every student’s progress counts equally. And skill in reading and writing English inevitably underpins success in all Humanities subjects.

Towards a knowledge-rich curriculum and higher Progress 8

It’s becoming clear that students will need a knowledge-rich curriculum which is age-appropriate for KS3, yet prepares them for GCSE, avoiding the limitations of a narrow curriculum. Four practical thoughts may be relevant.

1     English teachers are always learning.
An English teacher, Freya @fod3, put it like this in a tweet on 25th November 2018:
“Interesting that an English teacher’s subject knowledge isn’t fixed unlike some other subjects. Every time we teach a new text, we have to enter that reading / research period. Spent morning learning about Garcia Marquez, Colombia etc etc.”
This received 41 replies 32 retweets and 320 likes. We don’t often talk about this, but it’s true. In most other subjects, knowledge is relatively static and, once learned, can be taught year after year. In English there are always new texts to read and prepare to teach.

2     Teaching through enrichment. As with all subjects, much needs to be taught directly, but much can’t be. No teacher can teach all the possible shades of meaning of all the words and phrases that students may encounter in their English Language GCSE, let alone meanings at sentence, paragraph and whole-text levels. This issue has been thoughtfully explored by Barbara Bleiman in Overemphasising the vocabulary challenge? Students accordingly need strategies for inferring and deducing meaning and making sensible hypotheses, and these can only be developed with extensive practice over several years. This is one reason why students who read a lot for pleasure are at an advantage and why one of English teachers’ central tasks is to encourage reading for pleasure.

3     Quality and cognitive load theory. One of the most helpful accounts of cognitive load theory (CLT), recommended by Doug Lemov, is Adam Boxer’s blog Simplifying Cognitive Load Theory.

Boxer points out that CLT “was not necessarily designed with teachers in mind. The product of lab-based randomised controlled trials, it is a theory from the specific academic discipline Cognitive Science.” He proposes a simplified model of CLT which is directly applicable in the classroom. This is brilliantly clear and helpful until the very end. Drawing on Frederick Reif’s book Applying Cognitive Science to Education, Boxer discusses two ways of breaking down a task to lower its demand. These relate to the quantity and quality of information provided by the teacher. Quantity presents no problem – it relates chiefly to the amount of information that is required to be considered and its sequence – but Boxer struggles to describe quality and actually gives up, saying “I don’t think … there are many useful applications in class.”

The reason is evidently that Boxer is a chemistry teacher and the sciences don’t depend on quality of examples in the same way as English. Science, like mathematics, consists of concepts and processes which don’t vary with personal response. They are the same for all students at all times and can be understood in similar ways depending on the clarity with which they are taught.

English is different. Take a fundamental concept like irony. Students understand irony in different ways that are intimately bound up with their personality and maturity. This understanding is built up over time depending on the range and quality of the worked examples (in CLT parlance) that are provided and teachers’ skill in guiding students’ understanding of them. Irony may begin with the verbal discrepancies on which a lot of humour depends, but it builds into awareness of tone and writer’s strategy across whole texts (A Modest Proposal, stories by Saki or Roald Dahl) and as a powerful contribution to the effect of a whole text (Golding’s head chorister who turns into a murderous savage; Lady Macbeth who, having coolly organised Duncan’s murder, becomes a guilt-stricken sleepwalker endlessly trying to wash the blood off her hands).

The ability to recognise and discuss irony confidently is one of numerous essential skills needed for success in GCSE English and this depends crucially on quality of teaching. And it can lead to original insights. Some years ago one of my Year 10 students suggested that Macbeth’s bleak “Out, out, brief candle!” on hearing of his wife’s death is an echo of her “Out, damn’d spot, out, I say” in her sleepwalking scene shortly beforehand. It’s an idea I’d never come across before, but as we discussed it the more plausible it seemed. Macbeth knows his wife has a candle by her all night long because she’s afraid of the dark and this is no longer needed now she’s dead – he imagines blowing it out. It’s a more direct emotional association than the usual one – accompanying corpses into burial vaults (“all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death”) – and ties in better with a candle-lit evening performance (as the first performance of Macbeth was) which leads to the next lines: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then in heard no more”.

It’s an original and plausible interpretation. But my main reason for mentioning it is that the student who came up with it wasn’t regarded as very able. This brings me to…

4     Reducing differentiation. There is increasing awareness that, when all, students are expected to make good progress and to sit the same GCSE English examination, differentiation as commonly understood – providing different work for students of differing ability – is questionable. Greg Ashman, writing for the University of Durham, has pointed out the lack of theoretical justification for most differentiation – http://www.cem.org/blog/is-it-time-to-ditch-differentiation/ – and Zoe Helman has questioned it in practical terms: https://unpickingeducation.wordpress.com/2018/10/15/doing-away-with-differentiation/

A few students have medical conditions like dyslexia or partial hearing for which adaptations need to be made, but otherwise assumptions about students’ lack of ability to learn are based on teachers’ responses to previous low test scores (which may reflect past poor teaching in some cases caused or aggravated by the student’s attitude to learning) and/or their current attitude to learning. There is often a ‘halo effect’ in the language of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow: a student is in a low set with a poor attitude to learning, so must lack ability. This may not be true.

In this case, differentiation needs to be by providing challenging materials and using teaching techniques through which the teacher engages ‘low attaining’ students in learning, not by providing them with easier work. Zoe Helman puts it thus:

“Our ‘struggling’ students … need more opportunities to learn and remember knowledge. They don’t need less or simpler knowledge. … They need more high-quality challenging knowledge and they need it even more than the other students. They can handle it too. Students who have been held back for years relish the opportunity to bask in someone finally believing in them and offering them deeper, more interesting material to play with.”

Closing the gap

I’m aware this may well seem ridiculously optimistic to teachers faced with grumpy, dissident students who apparently prefer to do anything rather than learn, but this has been our experience with the Let’s Think in English (LTE) programme. Again and again, in demonstration LTE lessons, teachers have been surprised by the willingness of ‘difficult’ or lazy students to participate eagerly or at least willingly. This experience has so far been reflected in two small-scale studies.

Case Study 1 – Hampshire



In 2014/15, 6 schools undertook the Let’s Think in English (LTE) programme, each with 2 LTE classes in Years 7, 8 and/or 9 and 2 non-LTE classes in the same years for comparison. The LTE teachers had been trained in the programme and taught the LTE lessons fortnightly. At the beginning and end of the year the students in the all the classes sat a previous KS3(?) test paper which was moderated to ensure consistency of marking.

All the classes in Years 8 and 9, and some in Year 7, were setted by prior attainment.

  TA Reading TA Writing Average increase
All students +2.1 +1.81 +1.96
3 lowest attaining classes +2.35 +2.25 +2.30

Case study 2 – ICS, Zȕrich

The Inter-Community School is an English-medium school in Zȕrich, Switzerland. In 2016/17 LTE was used with one of two parallel mixed-attainment Year 6 classes, the other not using LTE at all. The LTE teacher had been trained in the programme and taught the LTE lessons fortnightly.

The school does not used England’s KS2 tests or GCSE, so at the beginning and end of the year the students in both classes sat the age-appropriate test set by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). This uses the same scale and psychometric model as PISA.

The differences between the LTE and non-LTE class were:

  Reading Narrative Writing Expository Writing Average increase
With LTE (average of all students) +0.30 +0.12 +0.42 +0.28
With LTE (least able quartile) +0.42 +0.46 +0.67 +0.52

These effect sizes compare to the top 14 International Baccalaureate schools’ performance on the same tests – https://www.abceducation.ch/blog/2018/03/30/effects-of-a-one-year-lets-think-in-english-intervention-in-an-international-school/

In both cases the least able students made significantly greater gains than average. This is very unusual – with most interventions, less able students make smaller gains than others.

These gains were made in one year. The LTE programme is designed to last two years, so gains would be even greater.

Anecdotal evidence from other schools is that, when students assessed as less able are able to engage in challenging work that interests them and are listened to respectfully when they express their thoughts at length, their confidence rises and this is reflected in due course in more skilful reading and writing.

How does Let’s Think in English work?

Let’s Think in English (LTE) has been developed from 2009 and is now used by over 300 schools in England, Wales, Europe and Asia. It uses the same methodology as Cognitive Acceleration in Science (CASE) which has been repeatedly proven over 30 years to raise attainment by between 1 and 2 GCSE grades.

LTE provides:


  • fortnightly lessons which guide students in interrogating unseen texts effectively
  • deepening experience in swift, perceptive inference and deduction
  • ‘verbal drafting’ of responses through guided group discussion and feedback
  • experience in recognising higher-order features of writing such as tone, pace, irony, wit, suspense, variety of structure, unreliable narrator, etc
  • enjoyable, high-interest lessons which stimulate memory.

The programme provides specially-designed lessons (40+ for KS1 and KS2, 30+ for KS3 and 20+ for GCSE) using fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama and film. These guide teachers in working with students on developing higher-order response and analysis skills. All the lessons are fully trialled with a lesson plan and Powerpoint, reducing teacher workload.

Further information is available at www.letsthinkinenglish.org.

There will be a taster day on Let’s Think in English at King’s College London on Monday 25th March. For more information please go here.

If you would like to find out more about how secondary schools are using Let’s Think to raise attainment in the core subjects, visit Ruislip High School, a Let’s Think accredited secondary school in West London, on 23 January or 14 May to observe Let’s Think lessons and talk to school leaders about the approach. The school has taught Let’s Think lessons in English, mathematics and science since 2011. See https://www.letsthink.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Lets-Think-Day-flyer.pdf.

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