The world is full of things to know. There may be a need to debate what is important. Equally, there may be a need to consider how children engage with the world, in order to extract knowledge from their developing experiences. Just telling them will not create the mental images that will enable them to process for themselves.
It was with great interest that I read Mary Myatt’s review of E D Hirsch’s talk recently at the Policy Exchange, where she suggested that Hirsch’s views were often oversimplified by commentators and that he was putting forward a much broader thesis. He has argued for a core knowledge approach, which has been interpreted through the current National Curriculum as stuff that needs to be known and that, in itself, has released a tidalwave of commentary from all sides, with the extremes being very polarised.
It would appear that Hirsch proposed that children would get significantly more from their reading if they had an appropriate background knowledge to be able to engage fully with the text being read, proposing that reading was an interaction between the words being read and the mental images that these words were able to stir into use.
If this is the case, then this is an argument for children going outside at an early age, to see and feel the trees, to walk through long grass, to paddle in water, to create dens and have imaginary escapades, all the while talking with others; in other words, to have a childhood that I can remember, but which may not be the stuff of current childhoods. It was the adventuring that led me to read and find out, so that I could engender greater depth into the play situations, as did my friends. For example, learning how to tie knots was important, if we were not to fall from the tree swings over the river. Getting children to explore the world around them, so that they can then use the available resources, and yes, Google it, if necessary, in order to channel and enhance their curiosity
Where it has been simplified to a “knowledge curriculum”, possibly for political expediency and sound bites, it can be interpreted clinically, with some commentaries suggesting that children cannot think creatively until they know “everything”. If there is something that I have learned in life, it is that we operate within what we know at the time. Where that is found wanting, there is a need to efficiently fill the identified gap. We all work up to the limits of what we know, then use others to discuss, or research, to ascertain the gap filling expertise. In older variations of the National Curriculum, this was identified as “Use and Apply”, with English and Maths, especially, being used and applied across the broader curriculum to advantage all the subjects.
There is such an emphasis on English and Maths at the moment that the broader curriculum, in some schools, is under threat, with both subjects creating situations that then enable specific writing forms to be effected. A widespread example is the making of toast, or sandwiches, in order to be able to write instructions. Why can’t children write instructions for how to play a game of netball, or other sport, or perhaps how to make a collaged picture. There are so many opportunities in schools to write instructions, or reports; what we did on the netball pitch, or narrative stories; the final victory, which derive from other curriculum areas. By doing this the knowledge base is enhanced, together with the broadening of vocabulary.
Children need a strong language (knowledge) base, which comes from as broad a range of experiences as possible. Therefore it is significantly important to know the community habits of the children and the opportunities that are available and taken that can be used to enhance the classroom opportunities.
Mary’s review brought to mind an experience that must have taken place in around 2000, when John Stannard, the author of the National Literacy Strategy, came to talk with Hampshire Heads. His explanation of the Literacy Strategy described with some accuracy where my school had been before the introduction. The daily reiteration of the Literacy Hour, by politicians, and the further interpretations by LA advisers, who were the nominated “experts”, ensured that insecurity set into some excellent staff, who then adapted to the new style, often with disastrous outcomes and a downgrading of professional confidence. I rapidly made sure that we went back to a successful model.
Over the past several years, I have been able to work with a wide variety of schools, including a number in London. it appeared to be the case that these schools sought, wherever possible, to offer their children "real experiences", perhaps engaging with artefacts from local museums, experiences being brought into school, as well as going out. In this way, the school ensure that the language rich environment was maintained, enabling the children to read and write using their extended vocabulary.
It is a case of "something to think about, to talk about, then to read and write about." Without the "something", there is less to think, talk and write about, in depth.
Soundbites and what I have called “plug-ins”, are the greatest danger in the current climate. Keeping sight of the bigger picture is the means to ensure that any new initiative is explored for any potential benefit, but with the potential to reject, if it might lead to regression.
Professional competence and confidence are the bedrock of successful classrooms. Anything that undermines that is to the detriment of the children. The system, as a whole, should bear that in mind. It is not a bear fight.