Putting knowledge to work remotely

Introduction
With the current COVID-19 lockdown having pushed much of the school curriculum onto remote learning platforms there has been much discussion about how schools might best tackle this. A whole range of considerations have been blogged, tweeted and discussed, including important issues such as:

  • Safeguarding during live streamed lessons.
  • Synchronous vs asynchronous approaches.
  • The merits and pitfalls of open-ended project work.
  • Making decisions about how much new content to introduce.
  • How and why consolidation of prior learning might be undertaken.
  • How to limit the widening of achievement gaps.

I don’t propose to talk about any of those here. Rather, I want to take a look at something that, counter intuitively, is often at risk of being overlooked even in these heady days of ‘knowledge rich’ curricula: knowledge itself.

What I mean by that is that there tends to be far more discussion of how we teach knowledge rather than what we teach. And this is not a point just about curriculum planning at the level of ‘end points’ and ‘sequencing’; it’s about how teachers use, connect and take apart knowledge in the normal course of their teaching, how they think and talk about knowledge, and the implications for remote learning.

In part this blog is inspired by a recent and fairly uncharitable analysis of an online lesson hosted by Oak Academy. I won’t repeat the analysis here, but it seemed to be taking the view that Oak’s pedagogic approach was one of ‘traditional’ direct instruction, and that this was problematic.

Now, the trad/prog binary is not something I identify with personally, and this piece is not seeking to take a position in this debate. Rather, I want to offer another lens through which we might view teaching, including video lessons such as those generously hosted by Oak, in the hope we might develop a different/deeper understanding of what is going on.

Quite rightly many people pointed out that the very existence of Oak is a credit to the schools and teachers who have collaborated in extremely challenging times to develop something to support schools, children and families. This point stands.

However, a second argument in Oak’s favour is to be found, I believe, in the pedagogic work that Oak’s teachers, and many others across the system, are undertaking – something that is too easy to miss if we don’t know what we’re looking for. It is this I would like to draw attention to in this blog.

Semantic waves
The means of analysis are taken from LCT’s dimension of semantics. In short, this is concerned with two aspects:

  • The range or condensation of meanings (semantic density)
  • The extent of a meaning’s context dependence (semantic gravity)

There is a lot of theory underpinning LCT, and it’s probably unhelpful to get too deep into it here. But you can find out more by following this link. I’ll aim to give you enough of the theory for this piece to make sense.

As a brief summary, analysis of knowledge practices using LCT’s semantics framework suggests that achievement in educational fields tends to be characterized by movements between knowledge that is (i) abstract, condenses a range of possible meanings and is not tied to a particular context, and that which is (ii) concrete, condenses relatively few possible meanings is tied to specific contexts.

In LCT terms these are expressed as
i) strong semantic density (SD+), weak semantic gravity (SG-)
ii) weak semantic density (SD-), strong semantic gravity (SG+)

I wrote about these concepts in a previous blog in relation to leadership knowledge.

Semantic waves in teaching

This can all feel a bit removed from everyday practice, but it needn’t be the case. It’s worth thinking about the educational requirements most subjects tend to place on pupils in the classroom and in exams; that pupils know key concepts and can apply them in particular contexts. A common example from my time as a history teacher is that I might teach pupils the concept of ‘revolution’ in abstract terms (SD+,SG-) and then teach them an example of a revolution, such as the French revolution. In doing so I am reducing the range of possible meanings (SD-); fewer meanings are captured by the ‘French’ revolution than by the more generic term. I am also strengthening the semantic gravity (SG+) as I am anchoring the term in a particular context (France in 1789). In doing so I am helping pupils to bring knowledge together, I am helping them to build knowledge.

This diagram from Paul Curzon at Queen Mary University of London is a useful and accessible illustration of how a semantic wave might look in practice, showing how knowledge is unpacked and repacked, as in the examples in this blog.

Semantic waves in everyday discourse: Sonic The Hedgehog

So, by thinking in terms of LCT’s semantics, we are able to see how knowledge is woven together and how it is dismantled as we move between the abstract and the context specific. LCT characterises these movements as ‘waves’, and once you know they exist you start to them everywhere.

For example, take this synopsis of the Sonic The Hedgehog movie by Empire:
Hollywood has a less than stellar history when it comes to video-game movies, but there have been recent signs that filmmakers are getting closer to figuring out how to make them work. The Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage was dumb fun, Tomb Raider did well enough to get a sequel, and Pokémon Detective Pikachu killed us with cuteness. Now comes Sonic The Hedgehog, whose journey from video game to live-action movie has been far from smooth. The negative response to the first trailer — specifically Sonic’s disturbing, excessively realistic look — led to the film’s release being delayed and a promise of a redesign. But while the new look is a big improvement, the finished product is, by and large, forgettable.

You’ll note how it begins with a rather zoomed-out criticism in general terms of Hollywood’s back catalogue of video-game movies (SG-). It then zooms in a little on more recent successful examples, citing them specifically, before delving into the details of the Sonic film, such as the look of the hedgehog (SG+). It finishes by zooming out to a one-line summary of the movie review, in fairly broad-brush terms, thereby weakening semantic gravity (SG-).

We can illustrate these movements as semantic profiles. The example below shows how a semantic profile for the Sonic extract above might look.

In the (virtual) classroom

If we observe teaching we can see the same sorts of things taking place. The LCT literature contains numerous examples. But what if we look at an example from remote teaching?

I took a look at a History lesson from Oak and peered through the lens of LCT’s semantics. What I found was interesting. What we see is that teachers might well be doing some pretty heavy lifting in pedagogic terms, challenging the somewhat simplistic criticism you sometimes hear of ‘traditional’ teacher talk.

Take, for example, this extract from the teacher’s instruction (she is referring to a speech made by Bismarck, which is provided for pupils on an accompanying slide):

What do you think is being suggested here in this speech? How are decisions in our country made today? And according to Bismarck, who’s giving this speech, how will decisions be made?

A really interesting speech here then with regards to our country today; big decisions are made kind of using the thing mentioned here in the first sentence, through speeches and people discussing and debating and decisions being made by the majority. Bismarck, who we’re going to kind of come across in this lesson today, talking in 1862, talks about how decisions will not be made by the majority anymore, but by iron and blood; the people who are kind of ‘the powerful’, the people who are nationalistic and the few rather than the majority. Now, the reason for introducing this is because this quote is very closely associated with the term ‘militarism’. So, I would like you to pause here and copy down this definition of militarism in your notes. When you’re done unpause.

Okay, militarism. We’re introducing this really early on into our Germany course because it becomes a really key feature of Germany. This is connected to do with its creation. It’s connected to events prior to World War One, during World War 1, post-World War 1, and underpins a lot of the thoughts and feelings of the German people and German leadership that we’re going to be coming across. So, militarism, the belief that a country should maintain a strong military, be prepared to use it when needed.

We can see some interesting things going on here. Note how in the first paragraph:
• The teacher begins with reference to a specific speech from Bismarck, provided in the accompanying slides (SG+).
• The teacher then switches to a different context to compare with ‘our country today’, broadening the discussion to explore generalized notions of democracy (SG-), before returning to the context of Bismarck and the concrete decisions he has made (SG+).

This forms a mini semantic wave.

In the second paragraph we see another wave take place:
• The teacher returns to ‘our country today’ before broadening once more to generic aspects of democracy (SG-, SD+).
• Having set this up for pupils in the abstract she then walks them down the wave into the specific context of Bismarck in 1862, quoting his speech (SG+, SD-). In doing so the teacher contrasts the more abstract ‘our country today’ with the specifics of what Bismarck is proposing. This roots Bismarck’s speech within a broader conceptual meaning in a way that simply reading Bismarck’s speech on its own would not.
• Then she does something else really interesting, which is to leap back up the semantic scale with her reference to the abstract term ‘militarism’ (SG-, SD+) before helping pupils to define its meaning and tying that same term to the specific context. In fact, she doesn’t just tie it to the context of Germany but she cites it as being important within the context of the GCSE course.

Semantic waves in other educational materials

So, we can see there is pedagogic work going on here beyond things like, say, the type of activity or the style of instruction.

Moreover, if we contrast it with how similar content might be encountered elsewhere by pupils we can see why Oak’s approach might be helpful for children. While other approaches can also facilitate ‘waves’, I wonder how explicitly these will take shape and what the range of the semantic waves would be.

For example, Wikipedia carries a section detailing similar content to that explored in the Oak lesson:

German unification had been a major objective of the revolutions of 1848, when representatives of the German states met in Frankfurt and drafted a constitution, creating a federal union with a national parliament to be elected by universal male suffrage. In April 1849, the Frankfurt Parliament offered the title of Emperor to King Frederick William IV. Fearing the opposition of the other German princes and the military intervention of Austria and Russia, the King renounced this popular mandate. Thus, the Frankfurt Parliament ended in failure for the German liberals.
On 30 September 1862, Bismarck made a famous speech to the Budget Committee of the Prussian Chamber of Deputies in which he expounded on the use of “iron and blood” to achieve Prussia’s goals:
“Prussia must concentrate and maintain its power for the favorable moment which has already slipped by several times. Prussia’s boundaries according to the Vienna treaties are not favorable to a healthy state life. The great questions of the time will not be resolved by speeches and majority decisions – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”

You can see that this extract tends to stay rooted in very context specific terms and content (SG+). Where abstractions and specialist language exist (SD+) they are left hanging, rather than explicated into more everyday language, making it harder for the novice reader to locate their meaning within this piece and to repack into other possible contexts. For example, look at how it mentions the ‘constitution’ in the context of 1848 but does not provide a generalized meaning of this term (definition) in the way that the Oak teacher did in relation to ‘militarism’.

That’s not a criticism of the piece as an account of history, but evidence from LCT suggest that a semantic ‘flatline’ (be it at the top or bottom of the semantic scale) may be less effective at building knowledge than the sort of wave we saw more explicitly in the Oak lesson.

This, I think, is worth considering in the context of remote learning. When we are collating or creating materials are we thinking about how we help pupils to move between abstract meanings and those tied to particular contexts? My hunch – and it is only that – is that many teachers do this intuitively as part of their classroom teaching practice. Thus, the advantage of video instruction, like that done at Oak, may be that teachers are more readily able to deploy the pedagogic practices they are used to because it is more similar to ‘normal’ teaching than, say, setting a series of disconnected worksheets.

Where this sort of approach is not available, or another method is preferred, we might do well to consider how teaching approaches and materials might create these ‘waves’ in order to build knowledge.

Let’s also consider the humble textbook. Some of these do this work very well, moving between the abstract and the context-specific. Others not so much.

In a classroom setting teachers are often skilled at using textbooks, even relatively poor ones, as a tool for learning. Where explanation of a concept or a more concrete example is required, skilled teachers often step in and do this heavy lifting, or they might draw upon a resource or activity which achieves the same purpose.

In a remote learning environment where the pupil has access only to the textbook and no opportunity for the teacher to supplement their understanding, then arguably the quality of the textbook matters even more. And it just might be that semantic waves provide something for us to consider when selecting textbooks or other resources for deployment in remote learning contexts.

However, it is also worth finishing on a wider cautionary note. The argument I’ve made here is that video lessons might provide a medium through which semantic waves can be formed. But this is not inherently the case. Plausibly, a school could direct its teachers to carry out video lessons or live streaming only to find that the semantic profile flatlines in either the abstract or the context specific, limiting the knowledge building potential.

In which case, this serves to further illustrate the point I made at the start. It is not just the delivery approach (instructional videos/worksheets/textbooks etc) that should concern us; it’s the work they are doing which matters most.

How are your lessons, materials and explanations helping pupils to build knowledge by moving between the abstract and the context-dependent?

Conclusion

None of the analysis above is to say that video lessons such as Oak’s are the same as classroom teaching as we knew it before Covid19. But it doesn’t seem a huge leap to suggest that this approach might more closely mirror certain aspects of effective classroom practice than approaches which operate with a very different sort of pedagogy.

This is a very limited (one lesson) sample so I don’t make broad claims, but this evidence from Oak Academy suggests their approach is enabling teachers to build semantic waves. Evidence from LCT suggests this is likely to be beneficial for pupils and is likely to be much more important than whether we characterise it as ‘traditional’, or any other obfuscating label for that matter.

I’ve written previously about why consolidation of prior learning might be an important curricular aim during this period. But the longer this goes on the more likely it is that teachers will need to find ways of introducing new content.

If teachers are finding remote ways of helping pupils to unpack and repack knowledge, including difficult concepts, that’s to their credit and not something we should overlook in this challenging teaching context.

You can read more about LCT and its ‘semantics’ dimension in:
Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers. Routledge. Oxfordshire

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