“I am really enjoying doing Of Mice and Men with my year 8s, but what exactly am I supposed to be teaching them?”
This was the question I was asked this week by a colleague teaching English for the first time. It got me thinking and I realised it linked in with recent conversations I have had with other teachers who will freely admit to not enjoying teaching Key Stage 3. Let me explain.
Back when I was a Head of English I would plan out my Key Stage 3 curriculum by essentially deciding on topics – Romeo and Juliet, persuasive writing, World War 1 poetry – then setting up some sort of end-of-topic assessment or piece of writing to take place when it was finished, and I think that this is what many heads of department still tend to do. The problem is that it all ends up feeling a little directionless; once the topic is over, it is kind of forgotten about and we tell ourselves that students have improved on their ‘skills’ in some way but ultimately nothing tangible really comes out of it.
The topics that we deliver to our younger students – Jack the Ripper in history, Kindertransport in drama, Aboriginal painting in art – have no real bearing, content-wise, on our subjects’ GCSEs, and key stage 3 therefore becomes a period of ‘treading water’, despite it being the second-longest of the key stages, until GCSE courses start. Many of us are coming round to the idea that teaching ‘skills’ in isolation does not really work, and that showing year 8 students how to ‘analyse’ sources about The Black Death in year 8 won’t really make them better at ‘analysing’ sources about The Cold War in year 11, making key stage 3 feel even more redundant.
And this leads to many teachers not enjoying teaching younger students – no-one enjoys doing anything that they can’t really see the point in! Now I am not saying that there is a teacher in the land who thinks teaching any child is pointless, but if there is no clarity around what should come out of the other end of a unit of work, then there is going to be a problem.
For me, the answer to all this lies in Knowledge Organisers, which when I first came across I saw as a great teaching and learning tool but I have come to realise can solve the problems described above, which are primarily curriculum issues.
Anyone can download a Knowledge Organiser for a huge array of subjects and topics. They can be photocopied and distributed to an entire year group in 24 hours and teachers can start setting self-quizzing homework as soon as they are in their students’ hands, but that’s not really the point, because they will only be effective if they are used to provoke important conversations about our curriculum at key stage 3 and crucially, to give it purpose. Dumping Knowledge Organisers into a school and presuming they will affect change – what Durrington refers to as them being used as an “isolated pedagogical tool” – is counter-productive and can even be dangerous if Heads of Department and SLT are not prepared to look carefully at the topics from which they are derived.
Asking a department to look at each topic they teach and decide what the key takeaways are from it is really powerful, and at my school have led to entire units of work being removed, new ones being introduced and topics being shifted from year 9 to year 7. They make heads of department look at exactly want they want to have been achieved by the end of year 9 and how that can be spread across the three years and through which topics. Much that students come across during key stage 3 doesn’t really need to be taken forward, and this adds to its directionlessness; in ethics there might be a strong focus on some parables but often the content of these is not really important – by working out what important knowledge we want to use them to teach, suddenly there is a shared purpose leading to improved motivation for teachers to teach and for students to learn! This doesn’t mean just spreading GCSE content down to year 7 – it means deciding what students need to know to access GCSE content and skills in the future.
I said that when I led an English department I used to decide on my topics, but the use of Knowledge Organisers at my school has meant that teachers are starting to work out what they need students to know first, spreading that over the three years and then laying topics over that. It is a long journey, but we are on it. So ‘Of Mice and Men’ might lie over contextual knowledge about 20th century tragedy and some grammatical knowledge of, say, prepositions, determiners and different types of adjectives. Teachers can deliver the unit with the freedom to go down whatever route they want with this rich, enjoyable text and teach students lots of wonderful stuff linked to it, but know that the ultimate goal is to use it to teach those things, and when they move onto the next topic, they might not be talking about George, Lennie and the American Dream any more, but they will continue to talk about prepositions, determiners and tragedy, in the same way a geography teacher might move on from a topic about work around the world but will carry on referencing primary, secondary and tertiary industries if that was the key knowledge delivered through the unit. It’s not to say that the knowledge allocated to the topic is the only important thing about it but it is the most important thing about it and the thing that, if students forget everything else about it (because they will – think about all they are learning in the different subjects they are studying every day; it simply won’t all stick) they should be supported in remembering
Some subjects – maths, science and languages spring to mind – will of course be teaching a much higher amount of content that students really will need at key stage 4, and Knowledge Organisers can support them in identifying what needs to be repeated and gone back to – interleaved, in other words – again and again and again.
If you are a key stage 3 teacher delivering a topic without a clear idea of what the point of it is, then I urge you to get that conversation started with your colleagues. If you are a teacher with a vehement dislike of teaching key stage 3, then think about whether it is linked to the lack of purpose that you get in key stages 4 and 5 and if so, raise that with your head of department, and don’t accept answers about the lack of public assessments; that is not the issue. If you plan topics first and then try to decide what students should get out of it then you are doing it the wrong way round. Scratch it all and start again: knowledge first, topics second. This post is not really about advocating Knowledge Organisers, although I think they are a fantastic tool; it is about using key stage 3 wisely and being absolutely clear on what the ultimate point of it all is – because the silver bullet in improving student and teacher engagement in the younger years at secondary school is a coherent, purposeful curriculum.