skip to Main Content

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.

This Post Has 0 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *