What's the trick to making it stick?

May 20, 2017

 

Supporting staff and students with the knowledge demand of the new Linear A-Levels

 

Knowledge. The elephant in the room. I could not have agreed more with Christine Counsell as she opened the West London Free School History Conference this year. For it serves everything we do and yet, we rarely isolate the matter of knowledge for conversation. I think that is partly due to how difficult it is to define what ‘knowledge’ actually is. Without delving too far into the matter of Epistemology, there is an extensive academic debate as to the form that knowledge takes and we find ourselves hard-pushed for a definition. Within the history teaching community, a distinction is often made between ‘fingertip knowledge’ (that which is short-term, topic-based and specific) and ‘residual knowledge’ (that which is long-term, period-based and more widely applicable to other study). The discussion then becomes what kind of knowledge progresses pupils (Fearn, 2017) and what process enables the transition between fingertip and residual knowledge. Then there is the professional debate as to whether the focus at any given time should be on ensuring that pupils retain knowledge, can apply knowledge, can transform and manipulate knowledge, even question what is presented to us as knowledge for the study of interpretations.  I think it only fair that if, as professionals, we are so bold as to make statements such as “Knowledge is Power” (indeed it is), name pedagogical tools as ‘Knowledge Organisers’ (appropriately termed) and place emphasis on the need for pupils to produce work that is ‘substantiated with knowledge’ (so we should), that we do wrestle with the term and do, if tentatively, attempt to define it. So, let’s be bold – what is knowledge? 

 

I would like to make a distinction between information and knowledge[1]. Here I refer to Wineburg (2002) and the danger of equating knowledge with information. His argument is that the breach between school and academy exists all the time that the reader cannot make the distinction between reading the text as literal (mining it for ‘fact’) and appreciating the text as a ‘shell’ that encompasses other considerations (such as argument). Academics can comfortably distinguish between the two because we operate with a number of schemata that allow us to recognise different features of the text. We are constantly, and for the most part subconsciously, testing the features of the text against our own criteria that we have developed through our own experiences and understanding of our subject discipline. The outcome of these tests then allow us to distinguish between whether the text can be read as literal and is therefore a fact, or whether it bears further consideration (such as the context of an argument). Let’s consider an extract of historical scholarship that I used with year 10 recently an example: 

 

There was little to celebrate at the end of the Korean War. The United States had lost more than 54,000 men; a further 100,000 were wounded. The other nations of the UN force lost more than 3,000 men, with nearly 12,000 wounded. The South Korean army lost 415,000 men, and it is estimated that the North Korean army suffered nearly a million deaths. The Chinese, as the price for their relentless human-wave assaults, officially claimed to have lost 112,000 men. The figure was almost certainly double that, and possibly as many as half a million men. But the real losers in the war were the Korean people. There were terrible civilian losses from the US bombing of the North, and at least 5 million refugees were homeless in the South. Seoul, Pyongyang, and most of the major cities had been flattened. The North would never fully recover under Kim Il Sung; it would remain a low-output agricultural society. The South, under Rhee, who was finally deposed in 1960, and his successors, would undergo dramatic change. A generation after the war, South Korea emerged as one of the dominant growth economies of the region. Jeremy Isaacs, The Cold War

 

[1] I use the terms information and evidence interchangeably, this is because information takes the form of evidence for the subject of history: The casualty figures suffered as a result of the Korean war, for example, is a matter of fact. This is what pupils present as evidence, substantiating the claims that they make. 

 

There are features of this text that can, in the first instance at least, be read literally as fact or information. The casualty figures suffered as a result of the Korean war, for example, is a matter of fact. This is what pupils present as evidence, substantiating the claims that they make. If I asked Pupil A to ‘prove’ that the United States suffered heavy losses due to their involvement in the Korean war, he would reply that ‘the lives of 54,000 American soldiers were lost’ and ‘a further 100,000 were wounded’. The reliability of this source of information may then be questioned, but not in this instance. We are content that the historian Jeremy Isaacs has conducted his research into the Korean war appropriately and that these statistics have been taken from official documentation using appropriate data collection methods. We are also content that Isaacs has no agenda to understate or exaggerate these figures and that as a result of this, these statistics are completely accurate. Although I would like to point out that already, we see the kind of schemata that academics operate with comfortably and often subconsciously concerning the provenance and reliability of the text that we read.

 

So we have mined for fact, now we proceed to consider argument, the ‘shell’ of the text. This is where we consider how this fact or information has been processed into what I am willing to more readily associate with the term knowledge. This process began the moment that I asked Pupil A to think about ‘heavy losses’. That is an aspect of argument that I imposed on Pupil A from the very beginning. For who is to say that the lives of 54,000 American soldiers and 100,000 wounded represent heavy losses? Where have I gained the confidence to associate this term, or at least historical language, with this information? Again, we are operating with a number of schemata. With reference to Hammond’s Substantive Knowledge Model (2014) I would suggest this to include the general knowledge of human experience (what if a town that population size was to fall?) and relative comparison to other events (not necessarily war but other disasters in which large numbers of people have lost their lives, including disease and other natural disasters). This would also include a sense of period concerning the nature of modern warfare during the Twentieth Century and topic knowledge concerning America’s involvement in the Cold War, the proxy wars for which were fought in Asia. During this process I have also readily applied a set of analytical lenses, for I have selected (from the second-order concepts of historical discipline) the understanding of consequence. I have then taken what have become automatic steps to evaluate whether this consequence, this loss of life and wounding, are indeed heavy, using the schemata I have referred to. I am therefore confident enough to consider that I have now been empowered with the historical knowledge that the USA sustained heavy losses as a consequence of their involvement in the Korean War. The argument of course develops. Isaacs even goes so far as to assert that such consequences meant ‘there was little to celebrate at the end of the Korean War.’ This is the result of a comprehensive evaluation of all consequences relating to the involvement of not just the USA but North Korea, South Korea and China. This is also the result of a comprehensive evaluation of both loss and gain as consequences of the war, not just socially in terms of human lives spent but also economically in terms of increased agricultural output for South Korea. Isaac’s text is laden with argument and I do not have time for a full consideration here. 

 

The point I have tried to make is that there is a difference between information and knowledge; a difference that I do not feel pupils always make successfully, hence the breach between school and academy that Wineburg identifies. Often, I find, they will consider the argument as fact. They talk of there being little to celebrate at the end of the Korean war as evidence, rather than appreciating that this is an argument reached as a result of processing the evidence of casualty figures in the ways we have discussed. As a result, their argument is not substantiated with evidence because a misconception has occurred whereby they believe the argument is evidence. They have made the mistake of reading the shell of the text (knowledge) as literal (information). As a result, they are also unable to process information into knowledge themselves because they have misunderstood its nature[2]. They fail to understand you cannot ‘lift’ knowledge from text in this way. You must own knowledge and that means you must master the process by which it is created from information. For the purpose of my research I would like to propose a working definition that:

 

Knowledge is the result of mastered subject discipline. Information has been processed through analytical lenses, methods, conventions and rules that are true to the academic practice and agreed discipline of the subject. The result is the ability to respond to and engage with questions in a way that is accurately substantiated and presented in the style of accepted discourse. 

 

[2] The misconception continues to manifest itself, for then they lack the understanding that the same evidence or information could be used to challenge the argument that ‘there was little to celebrate at the end of the Korean war’, proposing instead that the USA’s involvement in the Korean war as a victory. This historian would cite the same casualty figures but by an alternative process of evaluation propose them as justification for pushing the communists back to the 38th parallel. However, we certainly do not have time to discuss the labyrinth that is historiography here.

 

So can the breach between school and academy be crossed? I find it exhausting just to communicate the difficulties, let alone address them. I certainly do not have the magic answer. I do not even have a particularly big plan. I just know that for too many pupils, their argument is not substantiated with evidence. Certainly not to the extent required by the new Linear A Level courses. I want to change that. In a nutshell, if I can’t find a permanent way to cross the breach between school and academy, I want to teach them how to pole vault across it. 

 

Now I feel ready to discuss my research project, which was born from a direct response to the challenges of the new Linear A Levels concerning the demand of knowledge and, in particular, the need for pupils to be able to retain fingertip knowledge in order to substantiate their argument. To this end I was intrigued by the practice of the Michaela Community School in Wembley Park, which is centred around the use of ‘Knowledge Organisers’. To me it seemed a progressive step in moving away from the idea that pupils would retain this detailed and specific fingertip knowledge by reliance on some kind of magical osmosis and instead, provide them with a tool that would aid this process. At this point I would like to point out that my teaching practice was not as bad as I make out here. Of course I have always sought to aid pupil retention of fingertip knowledge and strengthen cumulative knowledge through ‘a mixed constitution’ of timelines and other forms of resources andassessment (Carr and Counsell, 2017).

 

But what I found myself guilty of was not placing enough emphasis on the details which would allow pupils to substantiate their work in depth. Pupil A might well argue that the USA’s involvement in the Korean war led to heavy losses, but he must also substantiate this claim with the evidence that 54,000 American soldiers lost their lives and 100,000 more were wounded. My emphasis had been far more heavily placed on the idea of residual knowledge, the kind which has been found most readily to progress pupils in the long-term (Fearn, 2017). Whilst the linear courses demand this emphasis by their very nature, there was a fine balance which I had not achieved. Indeed, the AQA examiners report from summer 2016 had suggested I was not alone. It was made clear that pupil responses had been perceived as ‘quite superficial’ as a result of their failure to substantiate their argument and that ‘this [was] a major area for centres to work on with students.’ To me, knowledge organises offered the opportunity to put the emphasis back on the detail; an addition to the mixed constitution I had created with the aim of balancing fingertip and residual knowledge and the desired result of better retention and more substantiation in pupils’ work.  

 

I am excited that several departments have participated in the pilot scheme of knowledge organisers this year at Saffron Walden County High School. The findings from pilot scheme participants will be used to establish core common principles for the knowledge organisers in addition to the ways in which we can tailor them to our various departments offering Linear A Levels. True to CTSN and IOE research practice, we will carefully analyse the impact they have on pupils’ retention and substantiated knowledge, comparing baseline knowledge tests and work samples to those produced after the strategy of the knowledge organiser has been implemented. There is also a secondary focus on professional development, comparing baseline staff subject knowledge audits and schemes of work to evaluate the impact of knowledge organisers on teaching practice concerning the new Linear A Levels. 

 

Amy Whitehouse

Teacher of History

Saffron Walden County High School

 

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