Finding my shot

How Hamilton has made me think.

I try to avoid things that are overhyped; or at least I think I try to. I have long had an interest into the period of American history around the War of Independence and the founding of the republic. So when everybody started going wild about a hip-hop musical telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, I wasn’t too fussed. That was until, ten months into a global pandemic, living through a succession of social restrictions and having literally ‘completed’ Netflix, I found myself on Disney Plus and saw that they were streaming the recording of Hamilton. Worth a shot, I thought.

One of the reasons I try to avoid hyped-up stuff is because it is often disappointing. Hamilton doesn’t follow that pattern. I sat quite happily glued to the screen throughout. I have now downloaded the album and find myself randomly singing my new favourite songs. I’ve even bought the book of the musical and am enjoying the various footnotes about the lyrics. It is not only a fantastic musical but very accurate history.

I had been worried that the musical would play too fast and loose with the events. Far from it, it goes to sometimes extraordinary lengths to ensure the audience understand what was really going on. Having read and watched so much about that period of American history, I found myself swept along, entertained and further educated at the same time.

A bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman

I knew something of Alexander Hamilton’s story before watching the musical. Usually though, Hamilton had been one of the supporting characters in a book about Washington or Adams or Jefferson. As such, I’d probably failed to appreciate how significant a role he played in the war, the founding of the republic and the first few decades.

The first time I came across Alexander Hamilton was when he appeared in the HBO miniseries, John Adams, which doesn’t paint him in a very positive light. In hindsight this portrayal, based on a popular biography of Adams, is unsurprising as there was little love lost between the two men and the biography, by David McCullough, set out to offer a more positive re-evaluation of Adams’ status as a founding father.

Perhaps overly influenced by that McCullough biography and the accompanying miniseries, my subsequent reading about that era has been coloured towards and against certain people. This is exactly what Lin Manuel Miranda describes in his book about the musical: ‘history is entirely created by the person who tells the story’. I am taking note to be less blinkered in the future. There is also some truth to the behaviour of the reader in identifying something of themselves in certain characters; again this is a theme which Miranda discusses in terms of seeing in Hamilton traits which he shared.

What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot

As well as seeing something of ourselves in characters, we can also try to transpose ourselves into the events, into the story. We can imagine ‘what would it be like to live through that moment in time and space?’. Certainly when I read about that era of American history, I always feel some excitement at the prospect of being alive and hopefully involved in such a moment (or a movement).

Typically being incredibly well-read, the founding fathers knew how significant their endeavours and how without precedent their actions were. Barack Obama, amongst others, often refers to the ‘American project’ and in doing so seems to draw a line through history right back to those decades straddling 1776. I remember studying about Indian independence and the creation of the Indian constitution and saw the parallels: how electrifying it must be to be involved in creating and shaping a country anew.

There is of course a longstanding debate as to whether it is seismic events that make great men or women, or whether great men or women take history by the bootlaces and make their own weather. As with almost all things in life, it is not one or the other, but some shade of grey in between. What always amazes me about that period of history though, as America was founded, was the sheer number of incredible people who all seemed to be in the right place at the right time: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and so many more. And not to forget the remarkable women, such as Abigail Adams. With such a melting pot of talent, there is perhaps little surprise that such world-changing events happened. Yes, events sparked the revolution and offered opportunities, but those figures made and manipulated those moments to achieve independence and create the republic.

My Shot

Whenever I read or think about all of these people and events, I am nearly always left reflecting on my own character and ambitions (surely one of the reasons to read anything biographical). Hamilton, not unlike Winston Churchill, seemed to have a lifelong drive and determination to put himself in the history books. I wonder in their cases whether their personality alone would have secured them their historic status, or whether events helped them.

Regardless of that debate though, and avoiding any frankly ridiculous comparisons between myself and these historical figures, I think the key thing which I take is the desire to have ‘my shot’ and to do my best to take it. Success can be judged in retrospect, it can’t be guaranteed, but giving it your best go is within your grasp.

Giving it a go though requires hard work. Watching the scene where Hamilton turns down a family break because he was too busy at the Treasury, I thought about the decisions I take and the sacrifices I do (or do not) make, especially when it comes to trying to juggle teaching, politics and some semblance of a personal life. It is difficult to balance those things if you want something and I am reminded of former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron’s comment that if you want to achieve something unreasonable (he was speaking about getting elected as a Lib Dem MP, no mean feat), you have to make unreasonable demands of yourself. So it is a question of how badly you want something and how serious you are about getting it.

That also makes me think about what it is I am actually working towards and what it is I really want. It is here that the character of Aaron Burr looms like a spectre. The first song which got me, like an ear worm, was The Room Where It Happens. But behind the catchy melody and clever lyrics of the song, which Miranda admits is one of the best he’s ever written, it made me think: am I more like a Hamilton or a Burr? Is it about making some seminal contribution, or just being in the room where it happens?

Of course, it’s not that simple, you have to be in the room where it happens to make the contribution. Plenty of figures throughout history didn’t know in advance what their contribution would be (such as Lyndon Johnson), events determined that, but they were in the right place to do something about it.

My Why

Bizarrely watching, reading and reflecting about Hamilton took me back to Simon Sinek’s mantra of ‘finding your why’. I guess this demonstrates what a great piece of art can do. It can reach right into your mind and soul and really make you think about yourself. In my case, I have always been motivated to want to make some impact, to make a difference. I’m not entirely sure what that difference might be, but I need to be in a position where I can make one. I do need to get in the room where it happens. So that is what I’m going to try and do. I’ll keep working hard, proving myself and waiting for my opportunity. Just you wait.

Farewell to all that

Thank goodness for that.

2020 was a shocker and I am definitely looking forward to a year which isn’t so restricted or under strain. For all the negatives though, I am still thankful for a number of opportunities in 2020…

The joy of cooking

Last year was when I finally got around to learning how to cook properly. With the time which lockdown afforded me, I used Gousto’s recipe service to learn about an undiscovered country of ingredients, techniques and cuisines. I have made pastas, curries, soups, tray bakes and risottos; cooked recipes from India, Italy, China, Japan, Canada, France and elsewhere.

My goal in 2021: I want to take the stabilisers off! I want to keep developing my confidence and go ‘off piste’ without a Gousto-measured set of ingredients.

Getting back in the swing

I stopped playing golf, probably six or seven years ago, because I just got fed up with playing badly. At the time I got into cycling instead and that worked out for a while, helping me get a lot fitter (something I also need to do in 2021). In hindsight though it wasn’t a logical choice: I was frustrated with a lack of improvement but I wasn’t actually doing anything to improve. I was the golfing embodiment of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different outcomes.

So an initial nine-holes with a friend soon turned into a welcome distraction and addiction. Unsurprisingly though, the game remained initially frustrating. So I did something about it. I started getting lessons and in addition to playing, ideally at least once a week, I also try to get to the driving range to practice. As well as practising what I’m learning in lessons, I also watch instructional videos and try to pick up tips and drills wherever I can. And lo and behold, improvement is coming. Slowly but surely.

Plus I’m also tackling one of my biggest adversaries – my mental game. Less negative self-talk, better expectation management and an emphasis on enjoying playing. Easier said than done, but it is helping.

My goal in 2021: keep improving. I have some short/medium term goals – I’d like to break 100, just once and then regularly. Then, on the back of that, I’ll get a proper handicap, maybe play some club comps and, most importantly, I want to play the Old Course at St Andrews. Once I’ve done that last one, I might just walk away again – as far as I’’m concerned, I will have ‘completed’ golf.

All in quiz together

Everybody was facing the same uncertainty: the country was going into lockdown and we don’t know when we’d be out of it. Peoples’ lives were thrown up in the air, not least their social lives. It wouldn’t be clear when people could see family and friends in the same way again.

What could I do to help people? Organise a quiz.

We did the first quiz on 22nd March, as I was actually recovering from what I reckon was my brush with Covid-19. A dozen or so households gather on Zoom and we started something very special. My partner-in-quiz Paul White and I have hosted over one-hundred quizzes. At one point we were holding them every day of the week. It has become a bit more realistic since then – we now host two per week, with Paul and I alternating from week to week.

With Christmas and New Year plans completely torn up by Covid, we provided quizzes and even an impromptu New Year’s Eve party on Zoom. It has been an absolute blast and a social lifeline for me even if for nobody else.

My goals in 2021: keep calm and carry on quizzing! Normal may return in 2021, we just don’t know if or when. So we’ll keep providing the quizzes, twice a week. I imagine we’ll definitely get to our first anniversary in March.

So 2020 wasn’t all bad, and these are just three highlights. I’m glad it’s over though. All the best for 2021!

The Ignorance Trilogy

I had never intended to write a trilogy of posts, however things fell into place and while there was a unifying thread it made sense to separate ideas into separate posts rather than produce one of my typically sprawling articles. In many ways, this trilogy draws together much of the reading, thinking and writing that I have done, particularly over the past six months, so I thought it might be helpful to set these latest posts into the context of that previous writing.

Like all good trilogies – Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, The Godfather, Cornetto – there is a theme running through this latest trilogy. Taking Beveridge’s classification of ‘ignorance’ as one of the great social ills, I believe that tackling ignorance should be the main aim of schooling.

In On ignorance, I discuss why ignorance is perhaps the greatest of Beveridge’s ‘five giants’. A problem in its own right, it also contributes the other ills (want, squalor, idleness and disease) and leads to inequality passing from one generation to the next. Tackling ignorance does not mean politicising the curriculum or schools though. Following the liberal-humanist tradition, it is about providing knowledge which gives students choices in life which ignorance would deny them.

The second part, On cultural capital, examines what exactly we mean my cultural capital, sets out why I think it is so important and discusses some of the reasons why we shouldn’t shy away from teaching cultural capital over fears around diversity and representation.

In the final post, On learning (or getting the horse to drink), I offer a cautionary note on how we cannot forget about how learning happens as schools shift their focus to curriculum for the first time in a generation. Instead, by ensuring that teaching and learning reflects what we know about how learning happens, we must ensure that students engage with the knowledge we are offering them in order to actually tackle ignorance.

In a postscript to that third and final post, I offer a couple of more personal reflections about why it is important for teachers to remind themselves of what it is like to be a novice and also my perspective on lacking cultural capital.

The context of the trilogy (or shameless plugs for my previous posts)

This trilogy needs to be seen in the context of my views on curriculum and knowledge. I believe that we do need to teach knowledge in schools – lots of knowledge. It is important though to think about how we consider knowledge. Knowledge is more than just a list of inert facts. Rather, knowledge should be seen as enabling and powerful. Indeed, I subscribe to Professor Michael Young’s concept of ‘powerful knowledge’. I give a brief overview of what powerful knowledge is, together with a discussion of what it might actually look like in practice, in this blog from the beginning of the year. For more on powerful knowledge and what it looks in geography, read Richard Bustin’s book which I review here. To read a practical example of what is meant by powerful knowledge, I wrote a piece about how I understand Coronavirus as a geographer. For an example of how powerful knowledge is put into practice in curriculum planning, read about how I designed a new scheme of work on the geographies of fashion.

I have done a lot of work in my own school to make our curriculum ‘knowledge-rich’ and have found this work has reinvigorated me as a professional. I am however aware that in asking teachers to engage in a qualitatively different way to curriculum, we are asking teachers do so something which many of them have not had to do in a decade. This blog discusses whether teachers want to engage with curriculum in this way. I have also written a note on how we mustn’t confuse curriculum tools, such as knowledge organisers, with curriculum thinking.

On learning (or getting the horse to drink)

In this third and final series of posts looking at how tackling ignorance should be a principal aim of schooling, I reflect on the actual process of learning.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

This proverb has been a perennial plague for teachers and schools. Exacerbated by an accountability system which fails to take into account any of the cognitive or social psychology about how learning happens, teachers have searched for years to find ways to force that pony to drink the well dry.

Over the past year or so, curriculum has become the new vogue. Intent, implementation, impact. The curriculum is the progression model. Powerful knowledge. Cultural capital. I have no problem with this refocusing. For too long, schools have not paid enough attention to curriculum. So much so that an entire generation of teachers hasn’t had to engage with curriculum and is now suddenly expected to do so. In shifting the focus from the horse to the water though, I would raise a warning that we can’t forget about the horse completely.

The main reason why I am so passionate about curriculum, and the unifying thread to this series of posts, is about tackling ignorance and inequality. By providing wider access to knowledge, including cultural capital, we are levelling the playing field. So we rewrite our curriculum, and we map out all of the experiences which will expose students to cultural capital.

The water in the oasis now looks lovely. It looks cleaner and more plentiful than it’s been in years. Let alone taking a drink, this middle-class, white, degree-educated educationalist would happily dive right in. Paddling around I look around and realise that everybody else in the oasis looks just like me. We engage in similar conversations. We have broadly similar views. I look beyond the oasis and there’s a bunch of people stood around (next to the recalcitrant, now-thirsty horses). Why aren’t they coming in?

This is the challenge: how do we make sure that students, especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, see school and knowledge as something for them? It is their attitudes, both individual and collective (be they family, community, etc), which we need to address. The education system seemed content for some time to produce a vastly unequal range of outcomes; it almost seemed to be hardwired, a deliberate design. Indeed the tripartite system of grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools was almost that explicit. Disadvantage was born of disadvantage. In some cases, educational failure was almost a badge of honour. More commonly, parents who didn’t do well at school struggled or simply didn’t see the point in trying to help their children do better than they did.

For all the hoo-ha which the British right have raised about educational disadvantage being made worse by the school closures of the Covid-19 lockdown, their narrative seemed to ignore that a) these inequalities have long existed and are just being exacerbated and b) teachers have been trying to do everything they can to address them, often in spite of the system, for a lot longer that their opinion pieces have been raising the issue.

Part of what we can do, and what many schools are doing, is to plan a knowledge-rich curriculum. We will teach knowledge because knowledge matters. Previous strategies of teaching ’21st century skills’ and suggesting that Google had rendered the teaching of knowledge obsolete have thankfully been consigned to the long grass (in the large part anyway).

We can also teach in a way which reflects how the brain actually works. We can have high expectations of everyone, but by careful planning based on gradualism and motivating students by allowing them to experience success, we can avoid them giving up on knowledge because it seems too hard. We can harness homework, revision and lesson time in a way to build strong memories with the help of methods such as knowledge organisers and retrieval practice.

And we can practice tough love. We can establish strict routines in the classroom and across school. It should be clear that students come to school to learn and there will be zero tolerance for behaviours which go against that. We can make it clear that homework is critical and sanction those who don’t do it. When standards aren’t met, we need to engage with parents and families. There cannot be an opt out from engaging with your child’s school in a meaningful way.

There was a notion, that our children’s generation would grow up to have more opportunities and a better life than our generation, or at least an equal chance. This was so widely held, and for so long a reality, that it almost formed part of our social contract. A perfect storm of events, some unplanned (e.g. Covid-19) and others very much deliberate (e.g. Brexit) have rocked that notion almost to the point that I can’t imagine many people believing it anymore. This is a tragedy for our national narrative. It must be corrected. By tackling ignorance and tackling inequality, schools can play a part in making that notion a reality again. We must give children a sense of optimism for their future. Hope matters.

Postscript (the bit you don’t really have to read unless you really want to, though I think it is just as good)

When I set out to write, I wasn’t initially intending to write three posts. We’d had some INSET on cultural capital, which started those thoughts rolling. It then occurred to me that ignorance was at the heart of the problem. Tackling ignorance therefore became the best way to frame the solution: that is what schools must aim to do.

Amidst my thoughts though, two points kept recurring to me, though neither of them fitted neatly into any of the posts themselves. They’re both personal points and as I refer to in both this post and the previous one, I am conscious that ‘positionality’ matters. I know that I am writing as a white, middle-class, degree-educated teacher and this massively affects my world view. In acknowledging this though, those two points are relevant:

  1. A significant barrier to getting students to effectively learn is when we, as teachers, forget what it is like to be a novice. A chapter in Paul Kirschner and Carl Hendrick’s glorious book, How Learning Happens, highlights the differences between how a novice and an expert approach learning. It is important that we remember what it is like to be a novice. As I have documented in other posts, I have spent some of my lockdown time dividend learning how to cook properly. I have also started refreshing my German (studied up to GCSE) using the app DuoLingo. I’ve even got back out on my bike (after over half a year) and the golf course (after over six years). When reading How Learning Happens, I have repeatedly recognised myself and those learning experiences. Then in planning, I have drawn on these recent experiences of being a novice to help get into the minds of students and think about how to sequence knowledge, gradually and to address the likely challenges and common misconceptions. While it would be difficult to mandate, I think every teacher should make sure they remind themselves of what it is to be a novice.
  2. When engaging with the idea of cultural capital, I often think that despite my own educational history, I have still often felt isolated by not knowing things that other people seem to have had access to. Of course, I don’t mean things that people have actively sought to learn or specialise in. I’m not talking about quantum mechanics! But when people mention musicians, or artists, or historical figures and the reference triggers blank in my memory, I think ‘why don’t I know about that’ and that dents your confidence, it makes you feel inferior. Its not just conversation of course. I’m normally quite happy reading The Economist or the front half of `The Spectator, because my geography education plus my political geekery means I have a pretty good grasp of enough knowledge to get through most articles. Turning to the arts & books section, or heaven-forbid picking up The TLS, and I am left feeling like a man overboard in a cruel sea of cultural references in which I struggle to stay afloat. And I speak, as I said before, as a degree-educated, middle-class bloke. For sure I could have read differently, but those gaps were not all of my own making. Where those gaps – that ignorance- emerge from differences in schooling, these are the unacceptable inequalities that we can do something about.

On cultural capital

In this second in a series of three posts, I look at the concept of cultural capital. This follows my previous post on ignorance in which I argued that challenging ignorance should be a main aim of schooling. Offering cultural capital is a key strand of challenging ignorance and makes it essential that we get it right.

Cultural capital is one of the many new buzzwords of the English education system. It is also one laced with confusion. I’m going to try and avoid repeating David Didau’s excellent post which discusses some of the problems with how we’re currently talking about cultural capital. Instead I’m going to link to the thread of my three posts on challenging ignorance to tackle inequality.

Before I make my argument though, I think it’s worthwhile to state my position which dovetails with what David had to say in his blog:

  • Cultural capital is a concept originated by Pierre Bourdieu, which posits that culturally valuable knowledge is a form of capital like material wealth.
  • Culture should be broadly defined as the ideas which humans have accumulated over time.
  • Cultural capital therefore is not just reading books or going to the theatre or a museum, as vital as those things are. We need to distinguish between cultural capital and ‘being cultured’.
  • Cultural capital should also not be reduced to the checklist-style approach of E.D. Hirsch who coined the dangerously similar-sounding term ‘cultural literacy’ and wrote the obnoxiously subtitled book What Every American Needs To Know. The superficiality of this approach fails to acknowledge the complexity in how certain knowledge comes to be culturally valuable. I argue that a vital part of cultural capital is that students understand why they’re learning it.
  • Due to the socio-economic structures which exist, access to cultural capital tends to reflect what might be termed as social class.

In unpacking exactly how we define cultural capital, an immediate and significant question is how do we decide what is ‘culturally valuable’. I personally don’t get too caught up about this where others see the inherent choices as too political. I appreciate there are a whole manner of problems in how we apportion cultural value. Writing this a week after campaigners tore down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol due to his involvement in the slave trade, I am not trying to downplay concerns around diversity and representation in how society apportions cultural value.

While undeniably writing this from a position of ‘white privilege’, I don’t feel we should be deterred from embedding cultural capital in our schools and here is my reasoning:

  1. Any curriculum choice is selective and choosing the cultural capital we give students access to in schools is no different. We cannot cover everything and we need to make it clear that we’re not doing so. Students need to be aware of the remaining ‘unknowns’.
  2. We must be explicit with our choices. This is the tricky part. We need to ensure that students understand why they are learning about what they’re learning about. This includes why something is considered valuable. Just as we try to tell students in our subjects why we’re learning about plate tectonics or covalent bonding, students should be given some insight into how society apportions value.
  3. We must allow students to understand that value changes, just as knowledge changes. In geography, we teach about how the theory of plate tectonics emerged over time. This offers an insight not only into how knowledge is made, but how it is challenged. As the Covid-19 pandemic is proving, there is no such thing as ‘the science’. Most knowledge is contested. The way we value things changes over time. We need to try and communicate this to students.
  4. As well as the cultural value which leads to us teaching it, there are three values which are gained by teaching it. First is the educational value in terms of the benefit which students derive from having cultural capital. Like any knowledge, cultural capital is ‘sticky’ and it allows other knowledge to stick to it. So by teaching about a broad canvass of people, places, poems, paintings and processes, we give students a framework to add other knowledge to – it facilitates further learning.
  5. Cultural capital also gives students a social value in terms of allowing them to engage with other people. It offers students the intellectual arsenal to have discussions and understand what is going on with a range of people, in a range of situations. I can recall conversations through my life, at university, in the workplace or in social situations, where the something has come up in conversation which I have little or no knowledge of. This is confidence-sapping. It leads to impostor syndrome. So by ensuring everyone has access to culturally valued knowledge, we are levelling the playing field to avoid people being or feeling excluded.
  6. As a result of this confidence, cultural capital also has a societal value. Cultural capital helps to tackle the ignorance which I wrote about in my last post, which is responsible for inequality being replicated and persisting. By giving students both knowledge and the confidence which that knowledge offers, they will be better placed to engage with society, hopefully in a positive way.

Cultural capital therefore is about enabling all students, regardless of background. For those from disadvantaged backgrounds it should be liberating. Cultural capital is a vital strand of how schools can tackle ignorance and inequality.

In the third and final post in the series, I write about the actual process of learning. For all the work and writing I’ve done on curriculum, powerful knowledge and cultural capital, I am very aware of the challenge of actually getting students to engage: we can’t just focus on the quality of water in the oasis, we have to make sure the horse drinks!

On Ignorance

This is the first in a series of three posts which draw together some of the thinking, reading and conversations I’ve recently had. In this first post, I consider the issue of ignorance and how challenging ignorance should be one of the fundamental aims of schools.

In 1942, William Beveridge recognised ignorance as one of the ‘five giants’, a series of challenges which Britain needed to overcome after World War 2. Despite the widespread embrace of Beveridge’s report, not least by Clement Attlee’s reforming Labour government, many of the social ills identified by Beveridge persist.

Ignorance, which I define broadly as a lack of knowledge, is one of the worst forms of inequality, not only because it does so much to cause other social ills (want, disease, squalor and idleness, to use Beveridge’s list) but because it also plays a huge role in replicating inequality. Unless ignorance is challenged, inequality will persist.

Ignorance leads to a lack of agency and choice. Without knowledge and understanding of the world, it is not possible to fully engage in it. Apathy is in part born of ignorance. I would suggest ignorance may lead to certain views and opinions, but the relationship between knowledge and opinion is far more complicated than to suggest that educating everybody better will lead to everyone having the same views. Far from it, challenging ignorance is about sparking a better standard of debate rather than generating agreement.

Ignorance and apathy of course suit some people and some sections of society. When ignorance and apathy persist, the status quo goes unchallenged. That’s fine if you think the status quo is fine. Unfortunately ignorance stops people from evaluating the status quo properly to consider whether they want to change to change it, let alone having the tools to do so.

The relationship between ignorance, apathy and the status quo is especially pernicious though, in that a narrative exists in which people and communities are led to a self-narrative to legitimate inequality. I’ll never forget my late mother telling me that I shouldn’t really be trying to get into politics, because it wasn’t something which ‘people like us’ do. Although I am not a Marxist, I always had some sympathy for Paul Willis’ work, Learning to Labour, which highlighted how a hidden curriculum saw schools mirror industrial workplaces and led to cohort after cohort of disengaged, disaffected boys move from the classroom to the factory floor where they would show a similar apathy and lack of ambition.

It is this unchallenged narrative, where ignorance and inequality are legitimised, which gives all the more reason to use education to tackle ignorance. I say so while defining education in the liberal-humanist tradition. This isn’t explicitly challenging the status quo by telling children that it is wrong. It is giving children the knowledge and understanding to have more choice and power. The power to make up their own mind and then do something about it.

I am not in favour of politicising education. The creeping of government into education since Callaghan’s ‘secret garden’ speech of 1976 has caused more problems than it has solved. The solution to political interference is not politicising the curriculum. The liberal-humanist tradition favours the teaching of knowledge in a critical manner and in a way which enables children to grow up to be politically engaged.

We must be careful when considering Paolo Freire’s view of teaching as a political act. What exactly do we mean by political act? We cannot use teaching to try and replicate our views and opinions, nor the views of the government of the day or any other part of the establishment. This doesn’t mean avoiding controversial or political issues though. Quite the opposite. It means that we have to teach controversial and political issues better. We need to teach children in a way that explicitly recognises where knowledge comes from, how it is contested and the way knowledge is used to form opinions and underpin debate. Then we give children the tools to construct and challenge their own world view, rather than have them inherit ours.

Challenging ignorance so that children can themselves grow up to challenge the world (if they choose to). That is not only a political act free of controversy, but a matter of social justice and a moral imperative.

In the next post, I look at the related issue of cultural literacy. Then in the third and final post, I reflect on the actual process of learning and how we make sure that, having provided a tempting oasis of powerful knowledge, we then make sure the horses drink.

Armchair philosopher

It is a Saturday. The sun is shining, which is something of a novelty this week. I am sat at my desk looking out onto my garden. Procrastinating – or mentally pottering – as per usual, I take a look at the TLS’ website and serendipitously chance across the exact article which reflects my present circumstance: The privilege of boredom.

Descartes’ philosophy was borne out of isolation. Having the time to think has been one of the blessings of lockdown. For some people at least. Anil Gomes, the article’s author and an Oxford philosopher, discusses the relevance and practicality of a philosophy conducted in isolation. How valuable is the thinking we do when detached from life?

This set my thoughts tumbling. We live our lives in layers, or perhaps on different scales. We have our work life; our professional selves. Our social animal (or recluse). Then we have our self, perhaps truest, when we are alone and look in the mental mirror. Like the layers of the earth, or scales of a map, our different lives are of course entwined. Some (im)balance of order and chaos results.

In those moments of reflection, I am sure I am not alone in scratching for meaning. Contemplating. Evaluating. Analysing. Always analysing. Over-bloody-analysing. Questioning. Sometimes filling myself with that existential angst: the clock is ticking and what is there to show for it?

I find myself alternating between the grand, or possibly just allusions to grandeur: embracing life, the universe and everything. Wanting to grapple with and grasp the big picture, the macro, the meta. If all the world is a stage, then what is my role?

And then I revert, or maybe retreat, to a contentedness with the trivial, the mundane, the mediocre, the banal. I find myself happily basking like a frog atop a lily pad, floating on his small pond. The textbook plodder which I hold in such derision when my mind is in macro mode, is suddenly what I myself have become.

Why? Maybe it’s a natural rhythm of personality. Like an intellectual, emotional okey okey. Or maybe it’s because being on the ambitious offensive all the time is just draining of energy. Maybe a balance is needed; it is just recharging the batteries. For I do always switch back. I seem to snap out of the plodding and go back to plotting, asking, in the word’s of The West Wing’s President Bartlett: what’s next?

The curriculum fashion

There’s a brand new talk

but it’s not very clear, oo, bop,

That people from good homes

Are talking this year, oo, bop, fashion

Fashion, David Bowie (1980)

As I reviewed and refined a Year 7 scheme of work on ‘the geographies of fashion’ as part of a(nother) major curriculum overhaul, I felt it offered a really good opportunity to ‘concretise’ some of the heady curriculum challenges which everybody is currently trying to grapple with.

This blog looks at the big picture of curriculum thinking, then looks at how I have applied that thinking into selecting and planning a scheme of work. I also look at how we work with geographical concepts and how this helps with the challenge of making critical geographers.

Curriculum is very much in vogue. Everybody is ‘doing curriculum’. Quite frankly this scares the shit out of me. As Claire Stoneman observes: ‘although there are conversations about curriculum, there aren’t really conversations about curriculum’. People talking about ‘curriculum tools’, such as knowledge organisers, or filling in pro-formas to outline intent, implementation and impact is not people talking about curriculum. Claire is right – curriculum requires deep thinking, it requires us to take a step back, to take our time and to intellectually engage with our subjects.

The big picture

Like, I am sure, a lot of teachers, I have relished the renewed focus on curriculum. It offers some of the ‘intellectual attraction’ which Alex Quigley has written about. This renewed focus has also reemphasised the importance of subject specialisms, not just in terms of subject knowledge but also in terms of subject specific pedagogy. How wonderful it would be if Adam Boxer is right when he writes that ‘teaching and learning is dead’.

In my department, we have largely embraced our whole school’s focus on a knowledge-rich curriculum. As the good cynic I am, I’m always dubious of things that sound like a buzz phrase. This focus seems different though, in that it is based in evidence. Way back in 2011-13, when I was completing an MA which largely concentrated on curriculum, I have been a convert to the concept of teaching ‘powerful knowledge’ in the sense defined by Professor Michael Young. I have also read enough popular psychology to be wary of affirmation bias though. Was I buying into this fad simply because it matched my world view?

For those of you who haven’t come across the concept of powerful knowledge, read my previous blogs on the concept, or better still read David Didau’s excellent Making Kids Cleverer. (David has also generously summarised some of his key arguments on his blog). In one of those serendipitous moments, the lyrics to Bowie’s Fashion state one of the key points – powerful knowledge is the stuff ‘that people from good homes are talking this year’.

Ok, so it isn’t just this year. They’ve always talked about it. It’s the knowledge, including cultural capital, which contributes so much to the disadvantage gap, the vocabulary gap, social mobility and so on. It is the knowledge which everybody has a right to and which, if people are in possession of it, enables them to have a better life. Sadly it is also the knowledge which some educationalists have argued against the teaching of because it seems to favour and perpetuate educational disadvantage. I would argue that it is the failing to teach powerful knowledge which allows inequalities to persist.

Anyway, I digress, we have embraced this idea of teaching powerful geographical knowledge. That was probably the easy bit. Now it is a case of thinking through and planning a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. Despite being a fan of creative destruction, we started with what we had and looked at where the powerful knowledge was. We looked for the gaps. We ended up with a set of topics which would offer a broad and deep geographical education, in terms of conceptual, locational and procedural knowledge.

And fashion made the cut?

We had taught a fashion topic at my current school since before I started, I have always taught a fashion topic and fashion still has a place in our powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. At first glance it sounds ridiculous. Surely this is a throwback to the almost content-free teaching of the noughties, where we tried to teach everything through geography apart from geographical knowledge. I would argue otherwise.

One of the pieces of work (which will, at some point, merit it’s own blog post) is how we explicitly teach big geographical concepts like place, interdependence and scale. Looking at the scope of a topic on the global fashion industry, it is such a fertile topic for grappling with those powerful concepts. So that was the first thing I have done: identifying how each lesson can tie into those big concepts. I’m looking at the idea of a concept map which we can develop over the course of the scheme (hat tip to Simon Renshaw for sharing his work on this with me). A key challenge of teaching these abstract concepts is being able to concretise them (see chapter 5 of Kirschner & Hendrick’s fabulous How Learning Happens). Fashion offers those opportunities. It also offers opportunities to make links between students’ everyday experiences and powerful disciplinary knowledge.

Fashion design

To help us implement (apologies) the powerful knowledge-rich curriculum, I produced a comprehensive curriculum outline. Based on departmental discussions, where we really allowed our inner geographers to break out, it was essentially a list of the detailed knowledge – concepts, processes, locations, procedures, etc – which we wanted to cover in each topic. By mapping it all out together, we could see the big picture and the overall coverage. We could identify the links, which we could then make explicit, and we could also see the progression. Michael Fordham and Christine Counsell are quite right when they say ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ and putting together our outline showed this. Our stated aim is to ‘make good geographers’, not to get students good grades. If we do the former, the latter should take care of itself.

I then set to work on a lesson-by-lesson outline. I did not set out to reinvent the wheel. I looked at what we’d done before and identified what was already good. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was already lots of powerful knowledge. (While the idea of a knowledge-rich curriculum may be made out to be new, it is not replacing a knowledge-free curriculum). Working with pen and pencil, I drafted out what I wanted to do each lesson. I identified the key ideas, the key questions, the links back and forth between lessons: ‘If we introduce this idea here, we can go back into more detail there and then call back on it in these lessons too’. This is the kind of ‘careful thought’ which Claire Stoneman argues curriculum lives on and I agree.

Making the implicit, explicit

I love this phrase, which comes from David Didau’s wonderful book on literacy. The notion also applies to those big, powerful, organising concepts in geography (and no doubt in other subjects too). Place, space, interdependence, scale and so on – as again I’m sure in other subjects, there is no single correct list of these concepts (Richard Bustin does a valiant job of collecting them together in his book on powerful knowledge and capabilities). These concepts are, by nature, abstract. As such teaching them is challenging. On reflection, I’m not sure whether I have ever attempted to teach them explicitly, certainly not below A-Level. And yet, when we think about the students we identify as ‘good geographers’, they inevitably demonstrate an implicit appreciation of these concepts.

So for me, going forward, it is a case of not leaving it to chance. Anybody can become a better geographer. By explicitly teaching them geographical concepts, we are not only providing them with a powerful toolkit, we are also helping them to understand what geography is all about and begin to recognise themselves as geographers.

Interdependence, scale and globalisation

While we may end up touching on other concepts, I have settled on these three as focuses for the fashion scheme of work. I wouldn’t say globalisation was on the same tier of organising concept as interdependence or scale, but I would argue it is crucial to understanding the topic, and the other two concepts.

It is also worth noting at this point that the fashion scheme of work is part of an ‘arc’ of schemes in Year 7, starting with a topic on the UK and going onto a case study of Liverpool (one of our nearest major cities) as a global city. As such, the concepts are introduced gradually and returned to, with as many concrete examples as possible.

Globalisation

The key question for the scheme of work is how are our clothes made? It revolves around the idea that fashion is a global industry. So we introduce the concept of globalisation early on to look at how the fashion industry works and how it has changed. By looking at where students’ own clothes are made, we can concretise the concept. We can then explore how and why are clothes are made in that way.

Interdependence

From starting to understand how globalisation has changed where our clothes are made, we can then introduce the idea of interdependence – that idea that the connections with other places make us dependent, them on us and us on them. When looking at the global supply chain for a pair of jeans, we can see how people in far flung corners of the globe rely on each other, to varying degrees. In later schemes of work, we’ll look at how interdependence can be within human systems, within physical systems and also between physical and human systems.

Scale

Having considered how people and places can be interdependent, we can also introduce the different ways which geographers understand the concept of scale and introduce the different scales from the global down to the local. Not only can we look at how different processes and actions happen on different scales, but also look at how actions on one scale can have an impact on a different scale, just as interdependence shows us that an action in one place or system can impact another.

Critical geographies, critical geographers

I said earlier that the stated aim of our curriculum is to ‘make better geographers’. Unpacking exactly what this means is worthy of another blog post in itself (don’t worry, I’ve made a note). In thinking about that notion though, I am conscious of the challenges around addressing values, ethics and politics in our curriculum. If you’re going to teach about the global fashion industry, you will inevitably cover issues which are controversial to some degree.

So how should we engage with controversial issues? One hypothetical option is to try as best as possible to ‘stick to the facts’; to try and teach the knowledge in a values-free way. This is impractical and arguably not preferable. What is the point of making a better geographer, if we don’t want them to engage with a world in which they will inevitably come across political and ethical issues?

The risk in this area comes from teachers passing on their values, whether consciously or not, to their students in a way that the student cannot identify where objective fact and their teacher’s subjective views start and finish. Again, there is a call for us to make the implicit explicit. We need to borrow the tools from the history classroom and discuss whether things are objective, subjective, biased, contextualised, etc. We need to give students opportunities to form and debate their own views. We should challenge their views and let them challenge ours too.

In short, we need to exercise an abundance of care – we must be mindful of what we say, the resources we use, the questions we ask and the activities we set. I would argue that this is made easier though in a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum, where concepts are taught explicitly. We are effectively giving them lots of food for thought. There is plenty of ‘content’ now, whereas perhaps before we allowed our own views to dominate in, if not a vacuum, a less knowledge-filled lesson or topic. Now, if we present the knowledge and give students an appreciation of how this knowledge is made and open to challenge (again, this is a key strand of powerful knowledge, as I and others have explained elsewhere), we can be more confident in allowing students to form better opinions than was previously the case, not least because they have the means to justify their views with knowledge.

So to go back to David Bowie: fashion may not be a brand new dance (nor is curriculum), but it carries more than enough weight in a powerful knowledge-rich curriculum. Which is the type of curriculum which we need to teach to people, from good homes and bad homes, again and again. Because if they do it over there, but we don’t do it over here, we’re doing our students a disservice and the disadvantage gap will persist. Oo, bop, fashion.

I’m going to try and take a look at the idea of ‘curriculum artefacts’ or ‘curriculum resources’ in a future blog post, looking at how we can marry together the higher-level curriculum thinking with the reality of planning and resourcing lessons. I might also look at the choice of activities we use in the world of a (powerful) knowledge-rich curriculum.

The lyrics of ‘Fashion’ are copyright of David Bowie (1980) and I apologise unreservedly for bastardising them, however I did it for a good cause. If giving young people access to knowledge, regardless of their background, is not a worthy cause, then I don’t know what is. I’m sure David would have agreed.

Quiz biz

Many people have turned to quizzes during the lockdown, either as quizmaster or quizzer. There is probably still plenty of need for socialising at a distance. There will also be a need to help pubs get back on their feet when they reopen. Quizzing is a great answer to both of those problems.

To help in my own little way, I have put together some quiz resources. You can find them all under the quizzing page on this site.

Under that page you will find a link to my complete quiz archive. You can also find a short and partial directory of quiz sites which can help you set a quiz, plus some advice on how to run one.

If you’re reading this and the lockdown is still at large, you’re more than welcome to join one of ours. Find out more on Facebook.

Lockdown Notes #6: my journey as a culinary novice

In true metropolitan elite style, I have sought to better myself during the lockdown. This has involved finally getting stuck in to learning how to cook…

A chicken and leek gnocchi gratin – one of my favourites so far.

It started with a conversation with a colleague in the pub after work on a Friday. I can’t recall how it came up, but he recommended a food delivery service called Gousto. It sounded interesting so I ordered my first box and suddenly four recipes arrived. I didn’t really have a clue what to do.

I hadn’t made much food from scratch before. A bolognese, a fish pie (which, while ultimately delicious, was a stressful experience) and some pasta bakes. Even the pasta bakes involved sauces from a jar. To be honest other than a pretty mean omelette (not that complicated I know, but I am proud of them), I couldn’t cook.

For clarity, I could make food: ready meals, popped and pinged, or anything that just needed heating in a microwave or oven. I’d never learnt how to cook properly. Unlike other households, where I imagine you might learn from helping a parent in the kitchen, my mum’s arthritis meant we simply didn’t have many meals cooked from scratch. It was tins and packages. This wasn’t a problem; I could work an oven and, as anybody who has seen a photo of me would attest, I was never going to starve. Beyond the simple turning of dials though, cooking was a mystery.

Chicken katsu curry – sadly some of the chicken got overdone, but still a very tasty step on the learning process!

In fact, when the first Gousto delivery arrived I realised I didn’t even have a ‘wide-based pan’ which is an almost ubiquitous requirement of Gousto (and many other) recipes). A quick trip to Tesco solved that and the lovely ‘Go Cook’ sauté pan I purchased has well and truly proven value for money.

Gousto didn’t just remove the excuse of not having the right ingredients, the recipe cards are miraculously simple to follow. It’s also fair to say that the added time available during the lockdown has been crucial. Before lockdown, I was missing a number of recipes. The ingredients were going to waste, just as in the pre-Gousto era. The lack of competition from eating out has definitely helped too.

Altogether a perfect storm of circumstances left me with no excuses and in putting the time to good use, I now have a new passion for cooking. I’ve made curries, bakes, paellas, soups, pastas and much more besides, in all kinds of styles and from all sorts of cuisines. I try to order different recipes every time, to broaden my knowledge, skills and confidence. Indeed, the learning process has been quite interesting as I’ve also been reading a lot of educational psychology during lockdown and the experience of a novice, being guided along, is one I feel familiar with.

One of my non-Gousto forays – a delicious cheese and chorizo tortilla!

The journey goes beyond throwing ingredients together though. I’ve reorganised my kitchen, I’m making extra meals from scratch using my newfound skills and I’ve invested in new pans, knives and – unsurprisingly for a bibliophile – cookbooks!

So my cooking has been my most significant lockdown life hack. Like so many of the positives I’ve been fortunate to enjoy during lockdown, the challenge will be maintaining these new habits when things go back to ‘normal’.