This blog explains why I regularly draw on Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) as a tool for understanding and analysing matters of education policy. I’ve found LCT to be a powerful and insightful lens for understanding education and the discourses that run through it. Of late I’ve been pondering how we can develop education policy that builds and iterates over time and that avoids a pendulum-like swing between binary oppositions. This blog explains how three dimensions of LCT (Specialisation, Semantics & Autonomy) can help us to see how and why these dichotomous positions play out, and how they might be overcome. It’s not a simple route map to better education policy, but it’s a vantage point from which we can at least get a better view.
Binary positions within education policy often appear as stark contrasts: academic vs vocational, STEM vs humanities, traditional vs progressive teaching methodologies. These dichotomous stances, while potentially useful for debate, may oversimplify the complex realities of educational practice. Education, after all, is a complex ecosystem that entails a dynamic interaction of myriad variables, practices, and stakeholders. Oversimplified, dualistic viewpoints risk missing this nuanced complexity.
Legitimation Code Theory (LCT), a conceptual framework devised by Professor Karl Maton, provides a method to reveal and understand the principles through which knowledge practices – and thus policy – become legitimate. It’s a powerful lens through which we can scrutinize education policies and their potential impact on various stakeholders. In applying this perspective to the binary positions often found in educational policy, we can construct a strong argument for why such dichotomous approaches must be avoided.
LCT’s dimension of Specialization uncovers the basis of achievement within any practice, considering the balance between the epistemic relation (what is being studied) and the social relation (who is doing the studying). When education policies favour one over the other, as seen in binary positions, the resulting imbalance could lead to unintended and possibly detrimental outcomes. For example, prioritizing epistemic relations (e.g., in STEM-centric policies) might overlook the equally vital role of the social context of learning (social relations), resulting in disengagement or lack of inclusivity among students.
On the other hand, when dichotomous policies favour social relations (e.g., in progressive pedagogical strategies), there’s a risk of devaluing the knowledge (epistemic relations) itself, potentially leading to a lack of rigour or depth in education. Clearly, a balance is essential, and LCT encourages a nuanced, non-binary perspective that considers both aspects in harmony rather than opposition.
Moreover, LCT’s dimension of Semantics also serves as a potent counter-argument to binary policies. Semantics examines the extent to which knowledge is context-dependent (semantic density) or condensed into symbols, terms, or phrases (semantic gravity). These two elements should not be seen as a dichotomy but as a dynamic duality, both necessary for effective learning. For instance, a policy heavily favouring context-independent knowledge (high semantic density) might neglect the importance of grounding knowledge in real-world contexts (low semantic gravity), leading to abstract learning devoid of practical relevance. Conversely, a policy exclusively emphasizing context-dependent knowledge might hinder the development of overarching concepts and deep, transferable understandings.
Finally, LCT’s dimension of Autonomy, which explores the extent to which practices are insulated from or dependent on other practices, further illustrates the perils of dichotomous thinking in educational policy. The world of knowledge is a complex ecosystem of interdependent disciplines and practices. Dichotomous policies that separate academic and vocational or STEM and humanities limit opportunities for cross-fertilization and mutual enrichment, thus curtailing the potential for holistic and interdisciplinary learning.
In conclusion, through the lens of Legitimation Code Theory, it becomes evident that binary positions in education policy may oversimplify the complex dynamics of teaching and learning. To build more effective, equitable, and inclusive education systems, policy-making should avoid dichotomous perspectives. Instead, it should strive for a nuanced understanding of the synergies and interdependencies between various aspects of educational practice.
LCT provides a powerful framework for achieving this goal, underlining the need to consider the complex interplay between knowledge, social context (social relations), semantic gravity, semantic density, and the interdependence of different knowledge practices.
By doing so, educational policy can foster a comprehensive learning environment that appreciates the value of different disciplines, teaching methods, and learner experiences. This could pave the way for a more robust, flexible, and forward-looking education system that prepares students for the multifaceted challenges of the future. Avoiding binary positions and fostering a more nuanced approach can ensure that our education system is inclusive, equitable, and attuned to the complexities of our evolving knowledge landscape.
We often talk about the ‘practice’ of teaching, which can be a helpful term because it invokes the sense of ‘doing’ the job often involves, be that instruction in the classroom, enacting behaviour management policies, leading professional development or any of the myriad of things that go on in schools.
But there are other aspects of ‘practice’ that we ought to consider too, particularly the notion of practice as being the shared (and sometimes contested) knowledge and ways of knowing that underpin the profession.
Let me illustrate what I mean. If we look in the Cambridge dictionary we see several meanings of ‘practice’, including:
Action rather than thought or ideas. Eg ‘How do you put these proposals into practice?’
Description of what really happens as opposed to what you think will happen. Eg ‘It seemed like a good idea before we started, but in practice…”
Something that is usually or regularly done, often as a habit, tradition, or custom. Eg ‘It is common/standard practice.’
The first two speak to the sense of ‘doing’ I mentioned above but it’s the last meaning I want to focus on here because it reminds us that practice also speaks to the knowledge that is held between groups of people; it is also the knowledge and ways of knowing that can exist as habits, traditions and customs, as well as how we think and act – both individually and collectively – as professionals. This reminds us that as educators what we know, what it is to ‘be’ and what we do are not necessarily arbitrary; they are shaped by something, or someone.
But who and what shape the practice of teaching? This is the question that I’ve been grappling with and I’ll be honest – there isn’t a single answer. And whatever answer that might exist is quite complex. But this complexity needn’t stop us from addressing the question. Indeed, you might say that it’s precisely because of its complexity that we need to grapple with the problem.
Fortunately, there are others with much greater intellect than me who have plotted something of a path we might follow if we’re to try to address this question. Among others, I tip my hat to Bourdieu, Bernstein and Maton. In their own particular way, each has theorised that practices, such as teaching, can be thought of as existing as ‘fields of practice’. That is to say that there are, similar to sporting fields perhaps, players, rules and means of succeeding. These things shape what ‘counts’ in the field, or in our specific case what ‘counts’ in teaching.
This might seem like intellectual navel-gazing, but I think it has important implications. For example, it goes to the heart of thinking on the curriculum. Important books like Ruth Ashbee’s ‘Curriculum’ lay open for analysis how school subjects as fields are constructed. She illustrates how subject disciplinary knowledge helps us to work our way through truth claims within subjects, and explores how this works differently in subjects. The headline is that by knowing how the subject works teachers and leaders are better able to design meaningful curricula that are appropriately faithful to the parent discipline (although not the same thing).
But what lies beyond the curriculum? How does a leader who is, for example, designing a school or Trust’s CPD programme work out what to include, and what not to include, from the many thinkers, books and approaches that might be drawn upon? How does the leader work out ‘what counts’ in relation to, say, behaviour management or instruction?
And what about leadership development? How does the field of practice affect the way schools and training providers select and structure training, and how do we identify the ‘better’ knowledge and who are the legitimate knowers?
My suggestion is that by conceiving of teaching as a field of practice we get closer to at least asking these questions, if not perhaps always answering them easily. But I think it matters for another reason too: it reminds us that we’re in this with other people. And that opens the door for us to build knowledge together. We can situate ourselves as part of a wider field of practice and by doing so bring ourselves into relation with other knowledge and other knowers.
This, I believe, is essential in the area of school improvement – something educators talk about a lot but perhaps don’t always appropriately theorise. The result is that we can sometimes focus on activities (the first part of our definition of practice, above) as disconnected ‘strategies’ and ‘interventions’. They become disembodied from their origins, or vexed by poor proxies, and perhaps evade scrutiny in some ways.
My argument is that, just as with curriculum, we have to situate our ‘practice’ within the field so we more explicitly consider what is legitimate knowledge in relation to school improvement, and what is not. Of course, this isn’t necessarily simple but while there may not be a easy answers (eduction is complex), this needn’t stop us from engaging with the problem.
If we think about school improvement as a field of practice we unlock powerful questions. For example:
What is the ‘better’ knowledge about school improvement? On what basis is this agreed/contested within the field?
Who are the legitimate school knowers about school improvement? On what basis?
And most importantly, how does this affect what we do in the name of school improvement? For example:
Which external speakers do we use and on what basis?
Which courses do we send colleagues on and on what basis?
Which schools and Trusts do we visit and on what basis?
What do we need to know about X, and on what basis would we deem that to be ‘better’ knowledge?
I’ve got more to say on this and will be publishing next week a CST paper exploring the underlying theory in more detail. For now though, I hope I might have piqued your interest in the notion of school improvement as a field of practice.
Odds are that if you’re reading this blog, whether you realise it or not, you’re part of that field in some way. I wonder, as you see it, what counts?
Just when you thought there couldn’t be any more blogs about Gareth Southgate’s leadership and what we may/may not learn from him about school leadership, here comes another one. Apologies in advance.
In the interests of transparency I shall say at the outset I am not looking to advocate in this piece for a particular conclusion to the ‘Southgate question’. Rather, I want to try to expose a little of the underlying principles in play and suggest why I think there may be some problems in the way the debate is playing out.
(I should also declare an interest: I once stood next to Gareth Southgate in the queue for breakfast, so we’re basically friends now, right?)
Abstraction is key, in specific circumstances
Some ideas are more abstract than others. Most of the claims being made about the lessons of Southgate’s leadership – eg ‘good leaders do X’ – are at quite an abstract level. They tend to focus on things like integrity, process, communication etc. These concepts, by their nature, tend to sit at quite a generalised/abstracted level precisely so they can be applied in a range of fields/professions/practices. We’ll call these notions ‘A+’ (‘A’ meaning abstract, and ‘+’ signalling it is ‘strongly’ so).
What is interesting though is that often when making the argument for particular leadership ‘approaches’, this is accompanied by specific examples – often things which by their nature make sense in particular context. These are less abstract so we might call them ‘A-’. In some ways this makes a lot of sense: examples can illustrate and add power to a claim. But it also creates a problem too, because at the point you move to the specific you are changing the thing you are talking about. You have moved from the abstract to the concrete: it’s a different thing.
So, as an illustration, let’s take a look at the ‘lessons from Southgate’ debate, and the sort of claim that gets made. As an example we’ll look at a claim like ‘Southgate shows us that communication is the key to good leadership’ (A+).
We might then expect this claim to be furnished with illustrations of Southgate’s communication (A-). Perhaps we highlight that he briefs his players in the buildup to a game on the opponent-specific detail of each of their roles during attack, defence and transition, supported by video footage (I’m making this up but it sounds plausibly like what Southgate might do and hopefully you get the idea).
The argument then goes that because this activity, which has been filed under the banner of ‘communication’ (A+) works for Southgate, this is evidence that communication is the key. What gets missed is that the argument stopped being about the general/abstract notion of communication and was actually highlighting very context-specific actions (A-) that Southgate might undertake. So, what is it that’s making the difference here? The abstract notion of communication (A+) or the specific enactments of it by Southgate and his team (A-)?
This nuance often gets lost in the discussion. What we see instead is the claim that communication is key for Southgate and thus it must be key elsewhere. And here is the thing: ‘communication’ in a broad, abstract sense may well be key across a range of contexts, but what that looks like in each context will differ, potentially very significantly.
For example, we might find consensus on the importance of communication as a key part of successful school leadership, but we wouldn’t necessarily expect a headteacher to play multi-angle TV replays to children of how they walk into assembly in order to communicate how they should behave on the way into assembly. And we might not expect a disappointing lesson from a member of the science department to be followed up by the head of department staring at them determinedly while pointing at their head – “think about what you are doing” – in the style of Harry Kane upon conceding to Denmark. Or maybe you would in your school, and that’s fine. But the point is that we shouldn’t assume that meaning is consistent across contexts.
When we take an abstract notion like communication and unpack it into its component parts we do so in a particular context. And when we unpack that same abstract notion in a different context it has the potential to be different.
The A- in football probably looks very different to the A- in school, and yet the claim is made that it’s analogous somehow because we think we’re comparing the A+ with the A+ (which might be the same because they are by their nature A+ concepts are abstract and thus reach across a range of contexts).
Level of abstraction
‘Communication is key’
Might mean same as…
‘Communication is key’
Briefing players in the buildup to a game on the opponent-specific detail of each of their roles during attack, defence and transition, supported by video footage.
Probably does not mean same as…
The table above illustrates the problem. A+ Southgate and A+ School might be analogous (because they are at a high level of abstraction), and therefore it is not necessarily wrong to say in abstract terms that ‘communication is key’ in both contexts. But that level of abstraction is very limited in describing what’s actually going on. The moment we depart the abstract and move into the concrete we see difference.
What problem are we trying to solve?
So, does this mean that all abstract ideas are useless? No, I don’t think so at all (more on that in a bit). But I do think we have to consider what problem we are trying to tackle. Often the debate in education about generic/domain-specific knowledge gets off on the wrong foot by not first explaining what is that we are trying to achieve. What is the problem we are trying to solve?
Much of the debate, I think, is about trying to better understand what effective leaders do so that we can make more high quality leaders: it’s developmental in nature. Therefore, if we are trying to unpack the knowledge, behaviours and perspectives of successful leaders we must move downward from the abstract to the concrete in order to reveal the nuts and bolts of what effective leaders do. This is because we can’t meaningfully construct a curriculum for leaders that consists only of top-level abstract words and phrases. For example, if it were enough to simply say ‘good leaders communicate well’ and for this to have a transformative impact, by the time you’d read this sentence your leadership would be transformed. But just in case it is working for you, here’s another: “good leaders have an effective strategy.” You’re welcome 😉
As with the Southgate example above, the argument that draws on abstract concepts MUST be unpacked. In fact, even proponents of the generic leadership narrative probably don’t realise they are often doing exactly this and in doing so are baking into their argument a fundamental category error: they may begin their paragraph arguing the abstract point but it’s not possible to do so convincingly unless specific examples are deployed. So they risk thinking they are talking about one thing when actually they are talking about the other.
It seems inescapable to me that if we are trying to address the problem of ‘how do we improve leadership’, our argument hinges on the concrete stuff, whether we realise it or not.
In defence of abstraction
But this doesn’t mean that abstraction is useless. Quite the opposite in fact, depending on what it is we’re trying to do. Moving from the concrete to the abstract is powerful and often essential. It gives us the language for a shorthand and the concepts to move beyond describing the world only in face-value as we experience it and, therefore, avoid talking/writing/thinking in a prose of infinite length. It is after all the power of abstraction that allows us to reach beyond the everyday and to make predictions and so forth.
So, if we already had a good idea of the specifics of what made school leaders successful and we wanted to draw all of that together into some sort of high level shorthand then it might be useful to say ‘good leaders communicate well’, or ‘good leaders have integrity’ etc. Abstraction gives us the tools to repack and take a zoomed out view.
The problem I think though is that it’s often not an upwards escalator to abstraction (A+) that we need when trying to work out how to shape highly effective leaders – we already have quite a lot of that. What we don’t know so well are the specifics (A-).
To summarise, it is tenable that we can agree with A+ statements like “Southgate’s leadership shows us the importance of communication” while also recognising that such a comment is of limited use if the problem we are trying to solve is to better understand what effective leaders in schools do. It just doesn’t take us there UNTIL we unpack it in a school context (A-).
So, let’s marvel at what Gareth Southgate does, let’s use the power of abstraction as a useful shorthand where it adds explanatory power, and let us contemplate too the specifics of what he does in his context. But let’s also recognise that the specifics of what school leaders do may well be quite different, and not make the mistake of thinking that because the A+ looks the same that the A- will too.
Most importantly though, let us hope that Gareth Southgate’s impressive leadership holds out for just one more game…
Note: Unfortunately England lost the game on penalties, but Southgate and the team remained impressively dignified. Even though the game was lost we can be proud of the way this young team conducted itself throughout and we might celebrate that by representing a modern diverse Britain so well, they did something more important than win a football competition.
The analysis in this blog was informed by the dimension of semantics in Legitimation Code Theory, specifically the concept of semantic gravity. In the interests of this blog I simplified it a little and used an alternative term (A+/-).
The language of curriculum is awash with fabulous concepts and terminology. ‘Sequencing’, ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ and ‘disciplinarity’ are just three ideas that in one way or another seem to have moved to the front of the curricular consciousness over the past few years.
However, as we turn our attention towards the summer and, after that, September, it might be prudent to think about another concept that we may not always associate so readily with the curriculum: resilience.
Given that we don’t yet know what the future holds for Covid-19 and, therefore, education over the coming academic year, it is worth thinking about how schools and subject departments might give themselves the best chance of navigating these uncertain times. Thinking about how we can create resilience in our curriculum and its surrounding structures might be one part of this. (Please note, this is not a blog about nurturing resilience as a pupil characteristic, it’s about how we might help our curriculum to flex with whatever comes its way over the next few months).
In this short blog I offer two rather straightforward ideas for schools to consider. As you’ll see, they are rather simple and not steeped in complex theory. Indeed, they are not really curriculum ideas as such, being more concerned with structures that might support teaching of the curriculum. But that needn’t be a bad thing. Sometimes the obvious things are easiest to overlook, and sometimes the ideas we generate as byproducts from debating these things can yield otherwise obscured insights, leading to helpful action.
1) Consider teaching KS3 teaching groups in mixed prior-attainment groupings.
It’s fairly common that pupils at KS3 study the same curriculum (unlike at key stage 4 where particular options are chosen). This means pupils could be taught in the same groups, such as tutor groups. Doing so might provide extra flexibility for short notice changes brought about by unforeseen circumstances, for example, such as an unexpectedly absent member of staff. Where groupings of pupils are consistent across subjects this might afford more leeway for the school’s curriculum to flex in a particular direction if required.
There is some evidence that such an approach might be advantageous for some pupils. However, this might not suit all schools and subjects. For example, some schools are committed to setting in maths. Plus, if staff were used to teaching sets grouped by prior attainment they might require significant training to move to a mixed prior attainment approach. And you’d have to consider whether a global pandemic is the right time to embark on such a shift if staff weren’t sufficiently confident and skilled in it. Should this be done across all subjects? A smaller cluster of subjects? No subjects?
I don’t suggest this as something schools should do, but it could be worth exploring whether it is something that might work in your school, even if only for this period of time.
2) Closer alignment
Given there could be a local or national return to remote learning as a result of further lockdowns, schools might find that resilience can be found in teaching groups being more aligned than usual in terms of the content and sequencing of the curriculum.
In some departments this won’t be a big deal and it might already happen, but in others it might not necessarily be the case. For example, do your art classes in Year 7 cover the same topics at the same time, in the same sequence, or do individual teachers tend to go their own way a bit? Do you know how this looks across the school, across the range of subjects?
Having greater alignment between teaching groups might make it easier for teams to share resources at short notice, or to share curriculum overviews with parents. Equally, in the event of, for example, a TA having to take a lesson this alignment might make it easier to support the colleague concerned.
One other aspect of this might be following a curriculum map that enables classes or year groups to switch to online learning at short notice. For example, it might be that following the Oak Academy curriculum maps means a cover teacher can easily be pointed in the direction of an appropriately sequenced learning resource that could be used with the class in the event of an absent teacher. Or, if a particular child was at home, a corresponding resource could be relatively straightforwardly deployed online.
That said, this would need to be balanced against the need for teachers to be able to respond to the pupils in their class – what they know and don’t know – as this might mean groups moving at a slightly different pace. This might, therefore, be worth exploring at subject level and maintaining some flexibility around it so that there wasn’t an absolute expectation that classes were at exactly the same place.
While school leaders will be looking at whole school implications for September, this sort of curriculum resilience is something that subject leads and teachers could be thinking about and working towards at the tail end of this term, where possible, so that some of this burden is relieved for September. Teachers may need some support with this and leaders might want to consider if any training would be helpful.
The more I read about Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) the more I seem to be find myself applying it across a wider range of educational questions and debates. In fact, my use of LCT has seeped subconsciously beyond my professional life and into my home life – such as the time I spent wondering which specialisation codes my children were oriented towards. Truth be told LCT has even permeated my dreams, including one in which I moved to Sydney to work at the LCT Centre, which in my dreams at least was a shimmering contemporary structure of steel and glass.
Today my LCT reflections were prompted by yet another excellent tweet by Jonathan Mountstevens in which he asked what people really meant by the notion of ‘curriculum coherence’ (you should follow Jonathan on twitter if you don’t already). Several people posted responses, many of which quite rightly emphasised the importance of sequencing. Teaching knowledge in an appropriate order surely must be a significant part of coherence. Without this building knowledge is likely to be harder or at least less efficient.
But here’s a thought: what if we’re sequencing well but sequencing the ‘wrong’ stuff? Imagine a teacher in that nightmare scenario of teaching the wrong GCSE specification. They might have sequenced the taught content perfectly but that wouldn’t escape the reality that come exam day the students would be unprepared and, most probably, unsuccessful. We wouldn’t claim that to be a ‘coherent’ curriculum would we? Or, what if content was sequenced correctly (eg the right lessons in the right order) but it just didn’t hang together over time, appearing more of a succession of unrelated snapshots? Would that be coherent?
So, in response to Jonathan’s question I turn to LCT, specifically the dimension of autonomy.
Autonomy in LCT does not refer to autonomy in the sense of a school’s ability to make its own decisions. Rather, it refers to the relationships between knowledge and the purposes it is turned towards (link here):
“Autonomy explores relations among different sets of practices, such as different forms of knowledge (e.g. disciplines). It conceptualizes insulation between their constituents (positional autonomy) and between how those constituents are related together, such as their purpose (relational autonomy). These concepts come together as autonomy codes. These concepts are particularly powerful for showing the basis of integrating different forms of knowledge.”
As ever, the LCT theoretical foliage is dense and hard to traverse in a short blog. Moreover, I’m still wrestling my way through much of it, so I offer some glimpses I’ve acquired with the honest caveat that I might be wrong.
For the sake of brevity I’ll trim it down but hope to preserve something that is accurate and, as I’ll hope to show later, potentially useful to the question Jonathan raised about coherence.
Among other things autonomy in LCT can help us to theorise how teachers bring together knowledge relating to a particular ‘target’ they want pupils to learn. This might sit at a granular level, perhaps a specific concept, at a broader topic level, across a curriculum, or anywhere on such a continuum. The point is that there is particular knowledge that is to be taught by the teacher with the intention that pupils learn it. Autonomy codes are a way of thinking about how knowledge is, or isn’t, integrated and brought to bear in the pursuit of this.
In simple(ish) terms ‘positional autonomy’ relates to where the knowledge in question is from. Is it from inside (stronger positional autonomy) or outside (weaker positional autonomy) our object of study? Is it from the context we are trying to get pupils to understand or is it from elsewhere?
‘Relational autonomy’ is to do with the purpose underpinning our knowledge practice; are we using it to teach a specific ‘target’ or is the purpose up for grabs? Have we intended to use it for one purpose but inadvertently shifted the purpose towards something else?
Varying strengths of positional autonomy (PA) and relational autonomy (RA) can be plotted on a cartesian plane and be described as one of four codes:
I won’t go into the details here but it’s worth a look at this paper if you want to know more.
To illustrate how we might use LCT’s autonomy dimension let’s take a particular curricular item as our target, such as ‘The English Civil War’. Knowledge that is from that particular topic (roundheads, cavaliers, Charles I, parliament etc) can be said, in LCT terms, to have strong ‘positional autonomy’ because it is from the same context as our intended target. If we integrate knowledge about the English Civil War for the purpose of pupils learning about that particular topic this is strong ‘relational autonomy’. This is a fairly straightforward idea – using content from the topic for the purpose of pupils learning about the topic. This is a ‘sovereign’ code.
However ,this could be contrasted with us teaching about the execution of Charles I for some other purpose, for example as part of a comment on the history of art (there are a range of paintings and illustrations about his execution) – a ‘projected code’.
This is not to say that our teaching of the English Civil War should be limited only to content from that particular context (content with strong positional autonomy). Teachers often skilfully weave together knowledge from other contexts (weaker positional autonomy) to illustrate and exemplify, sometimes through analogy or by drawing temporal and spatial links with the target knowledge. For example, it’s not uncommon to see History teachers using material previously studied, such as medieval monarchs, or from children’s own experience, such as modern democracy, in their teaching of the changes and continuities that followed the English Civil War. In the history curriculum this helps pupils to place this event within a wider chronological and conceptual framework.
More troublesome in a school curricular context can be when knowledge inadvertently takes pupils on a path away from the teacher’s intended target without it being brought back and integrated therein. LCT research characterises this as a ‘one-way trip’. You can sometimes see this in open-ended research lessons where the focus of the lesson can end up being drawn more towards generic research skills than the target knowledge, or indeed pupils end up researching the wrong thing! I might set my pupils to work to research the New Model Army but lose my pupils in information about a rock band of the same name. This would seem to fall under the banner of incoherence.
Note, this is not to say that necessarily nothing would be learned by pupils in such a situation, but the knowledge practice is less closely related to the teacher’s target and as a result there is the possibility that pupils will not learn what the teacher intended. This might have consequences down the line when the teacher assumes pupils would have learned that intended item. The point here is not to make a value judgement about pedagogic practice but to illustrate how knowledge can be woven together, or on occasion be allowed to move in a different direction.
You can see this too when a teacher tries to relate a target to knowledge from elsewhere, such as an analogy from popular culture, and pupils disappear down a rabbit hole about that particular thing (the movie/song/tv show etc).
The point here is not to advocate that knowledge from other contexts, such as analogies, should not be used (these trips into an ‘introjected code’ can bring extremely useful collateral to bring to the table, particularly when we need context-specific examples that children are familiar with). Rather, we need to be mindful and deliberate in how we help pupils to integrate such knowledge. I think it’s in this area of how we bring together knowledge that we might find some of what we refer to as ‘coherence’.
Returning to Jonathan’s question about coherence
If we zoom out a touch and return to Jonathan’s question about curriculum coherence, I think LCT’s notion of autonomy provides an interesting lens. Is it that coherence resides only, or primarily, in sequencing – the order in which things are taught? Or, might it be that one aspect of coherence is the extent to which knowledge is brought to bear and integrated towards particular intended targets?
In many subjects these ‘targets’ might look like core concepts, or perhaps the aims and objectives specified in the national curriculum or a GCSE specification. But it might be something else too. In my subject, history, a key target over time is the development of chronological understanding. But building this requires more than sequencing; it’s not just teaching events in the right order, it requires weaving them together in an ongoing iterative back and forth.
Whilst we have to ensure that we give proper attention to sequencing it is possible that without integrating knowledge effectively we hit all the right curriculum notes in the right order without bringing them together to play the right tune.
So, what might it look like to use this insight from LCT to help us think about curriculum coherence over time? Some ideas:
We need clarity over our target. This will usually be in what LCT terms a ‘sovereign code’. We have particular knowledge from a particular context we want pupils to learn. If we are fuzzy on what this is it’s difficult to turn knowledge towards this purpose.
This does not mean that every lesson or sequence will be turned towards the same target. But, where it is appropriate, we should be explicitly and proactively helping pupils to bring knowledge together so that, over time, more granular targets can be integrated within broader curricular aims. In the example above this means not just teaching the English Civil War but bringing it together within a wider understanding of substantive concepts like ‘democracy’, developing such narratives over time. Approaching our curricular thinking in this way forces us to look for the stories that span long chunks of curricular time and should help to avoid the segmentalism in which each lesson or topic sits in isolation from one another. Arguably, this way of thinking about knowledge also affords us the space to think about how we can bring together seemingly diverse ranges of knowledge and avoid succumbing to instrumentalism or narrowing. Straying from the specification might seem less of a big deal if we have a way of theorizing the integration of knowledge with our intended target(s).
Sequencing can often seem to reveal itself more readily in subjects which are hierarchically structured: in subjects which are concerned with the ongoing integration and extension of integral concepts. In subjects where progression is more cumulative appropriate sequencing can be harder to infer from the content itself – more contestation can appear. Thinking along the lines of LCT’s autonomy might be a helpful complement to sequencing in this respect. Asking which knowledge we are selecting and for what purpose is likely to provide fruitful discussion and insight. It won’t necessarily solve contestations but might help us to be better at probing, debating and explaining the curricular decisions we make.
Much of what I’ve written about so far has been to do with the internal coherence of the curriculum. But what if we situate ‘coherence’ within a wider frame of reference and ask ‘coherent with what’? What exactly is it that our curriculum should be coherent with? We might position local/national frameworks or other facets of professional and disciplinary intent as our target. We can then read across from our curriculum at the highest level to assess how well it is oriented towards these. Does the knowledge we teach come from within that context (eg the discipline), or does it come from outside? Is it oriented towards those purposes (eg the national curriculum objectives), or are we consciously or otherwise working towards some other purposes?
It might be argued that the notion of coherence was most succinctly captured in the mantra Ofsted used when training its inspectors for the Education Inspection Framework: ‘why that, why then?’ Such a prompt is powerful because it encourages us to think about not only sequencing but also selection: for what purpose are we teaching that?
As important as sequencing is, it’s only one part of what makes our curriculum hang together. LCT’s autonomy dimension suggests coherence is also to be found in the purpose(s) to which we put knowledge to work. LCT suggests that we may move around the autonomy plane, dipping into other knowledge as we make links, draw analogies and so forth, but what matters is that we ‘bring knowledge home’ – we turn it to our intended target(s) – thereby not falling into the trap of only making a series of ‘one-way trips’. In doing so we stand a better chance of avoiding the curriculum fracturing into a series of standalone lessons which, whatever the sequencing, fail to be more than the sum of their parts.
Jonathan – By no means do I believe this to be the last word on curriculum coherence but I hope it is a useful contribution to the discussion (with the caveat that I might be wrong and banished from the LCT community forthwith!). Keep asking good questions – you do make me think!
Maton, K. & Howard, S. (2018). Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building. LCT Centre Occasional Paper. 1.
There’s nothing like a national crisis to challenge existing structures and catalyze change, and COVID-19 appears to be no different. Several commentators have already summoned analogies with WWII and post-war changes to Britain, outlining how COVID-19 should lead to significant changes in the education system.
And perhaps it should. Most working in our education system recognized long before COVID-19 that changes needed to be made. Indeed, some of these were already in train.
The early career framework and the proposed Ofsted ITT framework are just two examples of things which are seeking to create meaningful change. None of this to say that these alone are sufficient in addressing the issues within education.
We know, for example, that the pressure of accountability has not gone away because of the changes Ofsted has brought in – there are good arguments around why and how we might go further in reducing the weight of accountability. We know there are deeper issues too regarding the recruitment and retention of teachers, some of which are emergent from long term changes in the public perception of the profession.
However, as we look optimistically towards a post-covid future we need to be conscious of the path we choose. As we think about what might come next we need a sharper understanding than ever of where we are and where we have been. In part this means being aware of the systems of meaning and values that underpin the discourses we have.
Cosmological analysis is an aspect of Legitimation Code Theory (Maton 2014) which seeks to expose the relationships that exist between knowledge, meaning and values. It can show how particular views and terminology align in complex constellations, often set up in binary opposition to one another, and how these influence what is and is not – and who is and is not – deemed to be legitimate within a field.
The terms ‘cosmology’ and ‘constellation’ are useful because they immediately draw to mind their conceptual basis. Just as celestial bodies seem to cluster together in solar systems and galaxies, so too do ways of thinking about and being in the world.
Doran (2020) writes, “by choosing, valorizing or emphasising any particular word or concept involved in a constellation…other meanings in that constellation will likely be invoked. That is to say, depending on how tight the constellation, if you indicate that you hold one set of values, it will often be assumed that you also hold a range of others.”
In this study Doran explores a complex network of associated meanings, assembled in constellations, illustrating how meaning is built and layered over time through the complex and sometimes subtle integration of texts.
I think this has particular importance for policy making. What might appear superficially to be disparate and unrelated positions on a range of policy ideas often seem to, at some subconscious level, cluster together so that it is often assumed that if we think X on issue 1 then we probably believe Y about issue 2. We are encouraged by the cosmology to think in particular ways. This is what Bourdieu (1991) referred to as ‘the space of possibles’.
We’re used to how this feels in the discourse – the twitter spats and blog tennis – but I’m not sure how explicitly we actually see it as it really is.
LCT’s concept of mapping constellations gives us a way of revealing these for analysis and, therefore, potentially moving beyond some of the binary positions our established cosmologies encourage us to take.
This explains, I think, why Michael Young’s (Young & Lambert 2014) idea of ‘Future 3’ was so provoking and interesting when I first read it. It challenges some of the long established binary constellations in education which make us feel like we have to choose between, say, teaching conceptual (academic) knowledge and the humane vision of a curriculum that is socially negotiated (Jonassen & Land 2000).
Young’s notion of powerful knowledge is born of deep thinking into the nature of knowledge. However, as Young (2020) notes, the meaning of powerful knowledge has sometimes become distorted, in some cases misunderstanding the characteristics and potential of the ‘power’ he is referring to.
My supposition is that some of this might be because Young’s work straddles aspects of two dominant binary constellations in our education system; it is subject to a form of axiological and epistemic pull which allows it to be claimed by either side and viewed as part of its own constellation, when perhaps the promise of Young’s work is in helping us to form a different way of understanding and valuing educational knowledge.
Thinking in terms of constellations requires that we are clear about what it is that we are looking at, in terms of its scope and its characteristics, and how it is related to other phenomena – some of which work in combination to shape what we deem to be legitimate stances. This might allow us to get closer to understanding what Maton (2014) describes as the ‘rules of the game’. Exposing these for observation and analysis might open up space for new policy possibilities.
We will inevitably want to think about changes to education post-COVID-19. But the cosmology of our education system will almost certainly pull the policy discourse towards the dominant binary constellations and it will be to the detriment of our ambition if we unconsciously drift back to things that we know have let children down before.
Big questions will inevitably be on the agenda over the coming months. What should accountability look like? What should a curriculum do for young people? How should we assess pupils and what should an examination system look like?
This is not an argument against reform; it’s a call for us to have clarity about the stances we take, why we take them, and for us to ensure any reforms are the right ones and that we try to look beyond the old binary arguments.
By identifying the dominant constellations and understanding what they consist of then we might be in a better position to broaden the ‘space of possibles’, make better policy as a result and avoid the pendulum-swing we all know only too well.
Bordieu, P. (1991) The peculiar history of scientific reason. Sociological Forum 6(1): 3-26
Doran, Y (2020) ‘Seeing Values’ in Martin, J.R, Maton, K. & Doran, Y. (Eds) (2020). Accessing academic discourse. Oxfordshire: Routledge.
Jonassen, D.H. and Land, S.M. (2000) Theoretical foundations of learning environments, London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers. Oxfordshire: Routledge
Young, M. & Lambert, D. (2014) Knowledge and the Future School. London: Bloomsbury
Young, M. (2020) ‘From powerful knowledge to the powers of knowledge’ In Sealy, C. (2020) (Ed) The researchEd guide to the the curriculum. Woodbridge: John Catt
It’s an often repeated claim that within-school variation is larger than that between schools. This tends to refer to achievement data but is sometimes heard in relation to qualitative aspects of school provision too.
I wonder if the same holds true at the current time? Has the lockdown-dictated period of remote education and partial opening led to a reduction in the differences of, say, effectiveness of teaching & learning within schools, or has this increased? And what differences are there now between schools?
At policy level the potential for variation in the quality of provision has undoubtedly been considered. Indeed, several high profile figures, such as HMCI Amanda Spielman, have voiced concern about the absence of a national expectation for the quality of remote education.
In reality such a statement may only be of limited use. In order to be applicable across the diverse phases and practical contexts of every school it would have to sit at a fairly generalized level. Moreover, it would have to be mindful of the significant limitations that schools and pupils are operating within, including the lack of sufficient technology and connectivity experienced by some of our most disadvantaged pupils. Setting a stretching level of expectation centrally would require the resources to make delivery of it possible.
But there are other problems too. For example, a truly ambitious ‘national expectation’ would likely require significant amounts of training for those staff who need support. This might include learning how to operate remote learning platforms but could equally apply to building a better understanding of components of effective teaching – perhaps things like Rosenshine’s principles – as we know that effective remote provision is likely to be built on the same principles that underpin effective classroom teaching. As the EEF’s recent rapid review states, “ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – for example through clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when lessons or support are provided.”
So, does this mean that establishing some sort of ‘expectation’ is a waste of time? I’m not sure that it does.
There are several benefits to having a clearly defined and shared set of expectations, providing it is sensible and has the support of those involved:
It underlines the central tenet of our education system: education is an entitlement for all children. By codifying this in our expectations for remote learning we help to enshrine and protect the place of education, on behalf of young people, in the midst of an all-consuming national crisis.
It allows us to set out the key features of our approach, providing a reference point for staff, pupils and parents. This should be built on the best we know about how pupils learn and what they should be taught. Having to codify expectations might force us to consider what matters most and the opportunity cost of the decisions we make.
We can establish the right level of ambition during what is undoubtedly a very challenging time for schools and pupils, balancing what we want for pupils with the best we can reasonably achieve for them, and with them; an important aspect of any set of expectations in this context is likely to include how we look after their wellbeing.
It provides provides a transparent means through which leaders, teachers, pupils and parents can be more certain about their roles and responsibilities during this unique period of education. This is particularly significant because there are aspects of these roles and responsibilities which have shifted as a result of COVID-19. For example, the demands on parents are in many cases greater than in more ‘normal’ times, especially parents of younger children whose assistance with remote learning tasks can be the difference between the child making progress through the the curriculum or not.
But just because a case can be made for the importance of a codified set of expectations does not mean the agency and appetite to do this lies only with central government. In fact, what I have outlined above may be most effective if it is not the work of central government.
And the best thing is that schools are already familiar with the mechanism through which it might be achieved: the good old home-school agreement.
Although not a legislative requirement since 2016, many schools continue to share a home-school agreement with pupils and parents. For some schools this is little more than a tradition of Year 7 transition but in other schools it is a more sacred document which is referred to routinely in school life, including when parents have questions and concerns about an aspect of the school’s expectations, procedures and routines.
Setting out expectations for remote learning at the start of this crisis was hard. Back in March few had a sense of how enduring and pervasive this challenge would be. Moreover, few had the experience of trying to teach a remote or blended curriculum on this scale. Some twelve or so weeks later my feeling is that schools are better placed to dissect and define the approach they feel will work best in their context. They will know better what they need from their teachers, pupils and parents – and understand better the barriers they face.
Therefore, I wonder if the home-school agreement should find a new lease of life in these troubling times. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to frame it as a home-school partnership as never has the term ‘partnership’ been more appropriate than at present. We all know the old phrase that ‘you can lead a horse to water…’, only COVID-19 has meant we can’t even get those horses close to the watering hole without the support of parents and others, let alone take on the drinking.
Aside from it’s external use it may also help schools to raise the bar a little internally as well, where this is necessary. We know that teachers have done a fantastic job throughout this crisis. But we also know that some find the technical aspects of remote learning difficult, and others are continuing to develop their pedagogical and curricular understanding. Perhaps the clarity of expectation encoded in an appropriate home-school agreement might help to sharpen the focus for this development, leading to appropriate training and support – beneficial for teacher and pupil.
There are simple but effective ‘rules’ that benefit everyone. And these can be easy to overlook for busy teachers having to teach in new ways. For some good work in this area we can look to Oak Academy. Take, for example, their key principle that all Oak lessons should be device-agnostic. This is so powerful as it reduces the likelihood of frustration and disengagement from the outset.
And yet I sometimes hear of schools out there where teachers are recording narrated PowerPoints which pupils can only access if they have that specific program. Frustrating if they have to use dad’s laptop to view these PowerPoints. Terminal if the child is trying to access it on the average smartphone. And this can easily be avoided by establishing clear expectations for staff – in this case that narrated PowerPoints must be exported as videos.
Clarity, not criticism
Note, none of this a call for greater monitoring. The home-school agreement is not a stick to beat anyone with. It’s about building greater levels of clarity for teachers and parents about how they can best support children.
And if the government decides to outline a broad national expectation, that needn’t be a problem (as long as it is sensible). It can be viewed alongside, or located within, the school’s existing home-school agreement, acting as a useful benchmark against which the school’s own partnership document can be checked to see if anything is missing. My guess is that most school’s agreements would go far beyond what the DfE can serve up nationally in any case.
But one of the most compelling arguments for schools refreshing their home-school agreement is that it will bind them into an evaluative process. They’ll need to give deep thought to what seems to be the best approach to take. Which things will the success of their approach absolutely depend upon, and which are less essential when teaching remotely? What does evidence and experience suggest they should do?
And this evaluative process can stretch beyond school leaders too. It might give a useful focal point for staff to contribute their growing experience, further developing that sense of shared endeavour.
For multi-academy trusts this might form a piece of work that draws upon and consolidates experience from across a group of schools, leveraging their collective insight for the benefit of their communities of teachers, pupils and parents.
And perhaps the most interesting aspect is the opportunity to engage with parents, possibly through stakeholder engagement groups, to listen to their input on the barriers they face and how the school might be able to support. Whether this is about parents wanting more certainty about the amount of work pupils will receive, or the form that feedback might take, gathering the views of parents is likely to be illuminating. It might also help them to engage with the school in the spirit of partnership. Of course, there may be some with tough messages or views about remote learning that we don’t agree with, but this isn’t new territory for schools and it often provides opportunity as much as consternation.
Finally, the home-school agreement needn’t be seen as something immutable; it may evolve further as the needs of education change – such as a move towards a blended or hybrid approach. Indeed, it may be better to position a remote learning home-school partnership as an addendum to the ‘normal’ agreement, rather than its replacement. If further periods of lockdown are required after September, having something ready to go that you can reach for might be helpful.
In short, it is not surprising that various people (including policy makers, leaders and parents) might consider the extent of variation within and between schools in terms of how they are meeting the challenge of COVID-19. However, regardless of any government intervention in this area, it is schools themselves that hold the key to securing the best remote learning within the constraints they are operating within.
The home-school agreement is one tool they might use to do this. And it’s one that schools and parents own – not government. Maybe it’s time to dust it off…
Running a school right now must leave even the most experienced leaders feeling breathless. As fast as schools tackle one challenge there’s another along promptly, all the while punctuated by an endless stream of government guidance and updates. All the while many of a school’s ‘normal’ tasks still need to be done. Such as the timetable.
As a former timetabler I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the current COVID-19 challenge if I were leading a school.
I imagine that there is many a timetabler out there who is, as in every previous year, currently drawing together a version for 2020/2021 ready to commence in September. It’s often a curious labour of love that goes through many iterations and crises before victory is snatched from the jaws of a scheduling defeat, or at least that’s how it can look from the outside.
On the inside, timetablers know two important truths. Firstly, we like timetabling (even though we might pretend not to). Secondly, it essentially boils down to a series of trade-offs: making X work will make Y more difficult. The key question is always: what do we want to prioritise? Once we are clear about that, things fall into place a little easier.
Given we don’t know how schooling is going to take shape over the rest of this term, September seems a long way off. But of course, it’s not in terms of school weeks (maybe 7 or so). Teachers have always called for the timetable to be finalized and published as soon as possible, ideally before the final day of term, so they can do any necessary planning and logistics before the summer holiday rolls around.
And that was when what teachers expected to teach in September might look largely like what they would have done in any other year. Except this September it might be very different. If COVID-19 continues to disrupt education and wider society it is plausible that even in September we will still be looking at a very different normality.
For example, it could be that sizeable numbers of pupils are still being educated remotely. Or, it could be that there are further periods of lockdown, either nationally or locally.
Many schools have found out this year that the ‘normal’ school timetable can be difficult to adhere to in the context of remote learning. The exceptions are those schools which have stuck to the timetable in their online schedule, delivering live lessons and so forth in regular slots. However, I know of several schools which started this way but found the rigidity didn’t work for their teachers or pupils. As ever, some things will work in some contexts but not others.
So what is a timetabler to do?
I think it’s helpful to see this in terms of scenario planning. No school will want to be scrambling to put together a timetable at the end of August, so having one prepared, as I know most schools will have, seems a sensible action.
But it’s also worth thinking about other scenarios, including if substantial numbers of pupils continue to require remote education from September.
I know of some schools which have decided to roll over the current timetable into next year, maintaining consistency of teachers and pupils groups as far as possible and using the old year 11 time to teach Year 7s. Then, as and when we know more about what lies ahead, they can bring a new timetable into play at, say, half term or Christmas (or later?!).
This might work for some schools, but not all. For example, constraints such as the availability of new staff might make this more difficult. It may also be that a school wouldn’t want to create the sense of pupils being held back in some way. Again, it might work for some schools but not others.
I have another thought I want to float though: whether creating a new timetable for September or rolling over the existing one, does the timetable as we’ve known it previously matter as in previous Septembers? Should we be thinking more explicitly about the rhythm of our pedagogy as well?
If we know that the standard timetable is hard to maintain remotely, or even undesirable for some schools, should we be approaching this from a different direction? Does this give us an opportunity to make structures for remote learning work more effectively from September?
I know that some teachers have found it difficult to juggle the competing demands of catering for different classes, setting work for across a range of year groups while trying to find time to assess what pupils have understood and address any issues and misconceptions. And that’s as well as dealing with anything else they might have going on in their lives, including caring for their own children or perhaps someone who is shielding.
The risk here is that teachers are paddling so hard to keep up with the generation of resources, the time taken to set remote work, create videos etc that the vital part of assessing what pupils have/not learned and responding to this are missed out. Pupils can lurch from one set piece of work to another, with limited insight from the teacher about whether the work is being understood, therefore leading to insecure learning and shaky foundations for the future.
Is there an alternative pedagogic approach that could make it easier for teachers to assess and respond?
For example, imagine a pedagogic framework in which for subject X all pupils in Year Y were given a common instructional video on a Monday, created by one teacher but used across the whole year group for all classes, in which key content was introduced with some limited opportunities for practice.
Then later in the week (let’s say Wednesday) class teachers held seminar sessions, eg through video conferencing or a Teams chat, probing pupils’ understanding and addressing misconceptions. This could then be followed up later, sharing further practice materials or whole class feedback, helping to ensure that what has been taught that week is well understood and properly connected to what pupils have previously studied, perhaps even providing the means for them to discuss it with each other. On a related note, Mark Enser’s fabulous blog is worth a read if you haven’t already. Drawing on evidence he explains, “The EEF also points to the importance of continued peer discussion in remote learning, something that can be achieved through the use of forums.”
The evidence of the efficacy of spaced repetition suggests this approach could also play a useful part in remote learning, particularly for pupils preparing for exams. Should we build this into our thinking as we turn our attention towards September?
The sort of approach I’m exploring here is interesting to me mainly because it foregrounds the important work that teachers do in helping pupils to build new knowledge into their schema, and to do it without misconception. It makes teaching and learning a more dialogic practice – something that is easily lost if remotely taught content becomes fire and forget.
I don’t claim that this process mirrors Rosenhine’s principles but there is an echo of it in adopting a pedagogic approach which makes explicit the need for teachers to check for understanding and guide practice.
It might also help with teacher workload in that you don’t have all the teachers in a department frantically reinventing the wheel for their own class. They could take responsibility for creating a high quality, step-by-step weekly instructional video for all pupils in a particular year group and after that their job is to help their own classes understand and practice the curriculum content for that week, deepening and extending as appropriate.
If the curriculum stars align, it may even be that some of this initial instructional leg work is being done by teachers elsewhere in the system, such as those at Oak Academy.
None of this is about trying to lock teachers and pupils into cumbersome mechanistic approaches to teaching and learning; the mutated remote version of the three part lesson.
Rather, it’s about thinking through what will best help pupils to understand and remember what they’ve been taught, especially in the challenging context of remote learning, and how leaders can help to facilitate that.
The more time teachers spend crafting resources in isolation, the less time they have to help pupils learn it. This is really about opportunity cost. Or, in the language of timetabling that I mentioned above, it’s about priorities.
And for that reason, at a point where time is such a precious commodity, we want to ensure that what we do has the most bang for our pedagogic buck.
And it is vital to make this manageable for teachers who may find themselves teaching some pupils face-to-face while still having to teach some remotely.
There is a great deal of useful material out there which provides evidence-informed frameworks to help teachers think about how they structure learning sequences. Tom Sherrington and Oli Caviglioli’s new ‘Walkthrus’ book is one such example and might well be a useful resource for teachers and leaders to dip into.
The needs of subjects might be different so it might be that some sort of generic whole school approach is undesirable. But at subject level a common approach across teams might be helpful and worth discussing with subject leaders.
Given that remote learning seems likely to extend beyond September in one way or another, any time that can be spared making it more effective is likely to be time well spent.
All of which brings me to this: have a timetable ready for September by all means – you may need it, or parts of it, for September. Indeed, you might need to adapt it through further iterations when we know more about what we’ll be dealing with in September.
But also know that the most important frameworks a school builds, particularly in relation to remote learning, are likely to be pedagogic.
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?
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
One of the first pieces of curriculum advice I gave leaders as the Covid19 crisis descended on schools was for them to think carefully about the balance between introducing new content and the consolidation of prior learning.
It was reassuring to hear Dylan Wiliam make a similar point on stage at ASCL’s annual conference in March, just days before our schools were closed to all but the children of keyworkers. It was only a passing comment but he reminded the audience that remote learning might be more effective if it leaned more towards consolidation than would normally be the case.
There are two main reasons why I think consolidation should be an important (but not the only) part of remote learning over the coming weeks:
Ploughing through a lot of new content can be difficult to do remotely. Consolidation gives us another avenue to explore.
In teachers’ normal practice when they are introducing new content they are in a constant dialogue between what it is they want pupils to learn and how best to help pupils learn it. Sometimes without even noticing, teachers do important pedagogical work such as:
A) Explaining concepts.
B) Highlighting and resolving common misconceptions.
C) Providing analogy and metaphor.
D) Drawing out links with prior/future learning.
E) Requiring pupils to recall what they’ve already learned.
F) Giving feedback.
It’s not that these can’t be done remotely, it’s just that they might be harder to do because teachers are less likely to pick up and respond to the non-verbal cues and classroom dynamics that many teachers do so intuitively.
This is particularly important when introducing new concepts, where we have to help pupils traverse the distance between abstraction and context-specific examples. This can look different depending on the subject but evidence (Martin et al 2020) suggests that the form of knowledge teachers draw on and how they relate it to other knowledge can be crucial.
For example, over the years I’ve watched a number of history teachers introduce the feudal system only to find some pupils struggled with the term ‘hierarchy’. And kids don’t always say it explicitly: “I’m sorry, sir, but I am unfamiliar with the term hierarchy. Could you explain it to me in a way that I can understand?”
More commonly teachers pick this up through the half answers and misconceptions they spot following deliberate ‘checking for understanding’ or, as noted above, through non-verbal cues. But, in any case, how do they deal with it once they’ve spotted it?
Well, I wish I’d had a pound for every time that history teacher followed up by shifting to a context pupils are familiar with as a way in, often referring to the school’s staffing structure. Having rooted the concept within such a specific, often familiar, context the teacher then moves the concept to a greater level of abstraction, in this case perhaps identifying how power is manifested within the notion of hierarchy. The teacher then returns pupils to the original context of the feudal system having given them a foothold in their understanding.
Now, historians will tell me (correctly) that we don’t want pupils thinking the school staffing structure is the same as medieval Europe! So, a skilled history teacher might go on to explore the limitations of this analogy, but the principle of relating knowledge in this way is one that teachers use routinely across the curriculum when helping pupils to build knowledge. And what it reveals is that teachers tend not to teach knowledge in some sort of sterile knowledge environment. Rather they manipulate knowledge, pulling it together, breaking it apart and mixing it up, sometimes with this acting as a welcome catalyst. It can of course be a harmful pollutant too – such as when a teacher introduces a bad analogy and it becomes absorbed into schema (a misconception in the making) or when they link to something that simply causes a distraction (there’s a really good example of this in the LCT literature when a teacher tells pupils that Italy looks like a boot but the comment goes nowhere and pupils end up being distracted by boots for ages!).
Why am I labouring this? Just to demonstrate that the part of teaching which is about the manipulation of knowledge (which is much of the job!) is tough. Just ask those parents who now find themselves at home trying to explain concepts to their children.
All of this means teachers need to think really carefully about how they introduce new material, especially tricky concepts. Because my guess is that it’s harder to do all of the above remotely, unless it’s done with this in mind.
It doesn’t mean it can’t be done remotely. There are some really good examples out there of how schools are trying to put in place approaches which allow for this, including Oak Academy’s approach which uses instructional videos so teachers can do some of this pedagogic work to good effect. Is it the same as a classroom lesson? No. But for my money it gets helpfully closer than a pupil having to do that pedagogic work for themselves from, say, a worksheet alone.
So, to return to the point here, part of the answer is to think very carefully about how teachers introduce new content to pupils. But it should also be about the what: recognizing that particular new content may be too difficult to attempt remotely and is better off being covered later in the year. Of course, this will depend on the structure of the subject, but it’s this sort of thinking that is likely to be helpful to teachers and pupils.
And if we are more cautious around introducing new content, this is one reason why consolidation of prior learning may become more of a focus in the remote curriculum.
2. Consolidation is an opportunity to build fluency
If we stop after my first point, we might think the benefit of focusing on consolidation is only that it gets us around a tricky pedagogical challenge. But it’s more than that. Spending time consolidating prior learning is an opportunity to make pupils better at aspects of the curriculum, aspects which are sometimes easy to overlook because of the tendency for the school curriculum to lean heavily towards the constant introduction of new content. If we are forced to row back a little on new content, what opportunity does this give us?
Let’s start with what we know: if we don’t revisit what we’ve learned then we are likely to forget it. I absolutely love Weinstein & Sumeracki’s (2019) ‘Understanding How We Learn’ because it outlines so clearly why this is the case but also what teachers can do to overcome this. As many of you will already know, teaching strategies like spaced retrieval are proven to be effective in helping pupils to commit what they’ve learned to long term memory. This book is a great read if you have the opportunity.
And we can go a stage further still. There is evidence that what we store in long term memory is beneficial beyond knowing the thing itself. Schema theory suggests that the more we know and remember the easier it is for us to learn more because we have the hooks on which to hang new learning. So, to stand a better chance of learning what is to come we can help pupils by ensuring they have got a good grasp of what they’ve already studied. Consolidation, if done well, is not treading water – it’s watering the curriculum garden to allow for future growth.
Cognitive Load Theory takes us another step further still by suggesting that committing knowledge to long term memory is beneficial because it frees up working memory so we can do more complex thinking.
The point here is to show that consolidation can fulfill an important function if it is targeted at making pupils remember, if it makes them fluent in particular aspects of the curriculum. Christine Counsell talks about the importance of pupils developing ‘fingertip knowledge’ for this very reason. Having knowledge at their fingertips makes pupils better placed to think and learn more.
For me as a historian, I think this is a good time to focus on strengthening things like chronology, of which we know pupils can lose their grasp without deliberate practice and repetition. And there will be similar fundamentals in other subjects which are sometimes easy to overlook or take for granted in a cramped curriculum. Spaced repetition apps like Brainscape can be incredibly powerful for helping pupils to remember things.
But our ability to do this depends on clarity of curriculum thinking. We have to know what it is we want pupils to learn. A tendency to wrap the curriculum around ‘tasks’ as a starting point can lead to a preoccupation with making pupils busy as the intended goal.
Instead, if we start with a clear understanding of what we want pupils to learn we are likely to provide something more useful for them in the long term. Consolidation that builds fluency could be an important part of this.
Conclusions and caveats:
I recognize not everyone has the head space right now to think about their remote curriculum in this way. I’m not overlooking that, I’m hoping to outline some ideas that might be useful to you at some point down the line. There’s no judgment here either way – what schools are doing up and down the country is incredible.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t introduce new content. Some subjects and courses will demand a more rigid sequencing and timeline for teaching which might mean you have to keep up the pace of new content. And besides, with this situation potentially lasting for several weeks/months yet, new content will be one way of maintaining the interest of pupils. I’m just saying it might be harder to do some of it and its worth thinking about what the balance of consolidation/new content might be.
I am saying that if you are looking to do some curriculum consolidation then focus on building fluency. This is a deliberate and targeted thing to help pupils remember key content. Consolidation is not the same as treading water.
Everything in moderation. I’m not suggesting the remote curriculum should only be consolidation, or that consolidation can only look a particular way. But equally, with limited time and attention from pupils it’s worth thinking about what the simplest and shortest route is. Sure, we could say that asking Year 7 pupils to build a castle contributes to their historical understanding in some way, and there may be some other benefits of them doing this, but are there other more optimal approaches we could be taking that will leave them better placed six months or a year from now?