KS3: The Wonder Years

I had the great pleasure of hearing Mark Lehain (@lehain) speak at the ResearchED National Conference (#rED18) last week. He is entertaining, charismatic and, perhaps most surprisingly given some of the things tweeted about him, not actually evil. He was speaking on the topic of a knowledge rich curriculum – a topic which has provoked as much surreal discourse on #EduTwitter as anything else. He was keen to point out the emphasis on the indefinite article, though. He wasn’t talking about the knowledge rich curriculum; there was no attempt here to dictate or prescribe what all children should learn across the country. Rather, this was a rallying call for teachers to engage with the question of curriculum, and to develop their own answers for their own students.

Lehain’s examples were drawn from popular culture: did you know that The Lion King is Hamlet? (I did, as it happens.) These examples demonstrated how knowing stuff helps to enrich our appreciation of art and culture, and how valuable it is to build cultural capital. This isn’t about elitism – it’s really the very opposite of that.

Lehain referenced the words of Clare Sealy (@ClareSealy) in his inspiring discussion of The Wonder Years,  a further exploration of which can be found at the Parents and Teachers for Excellence project page:

This project was inspired by a great comment the great Clare Sealy made at our inaugural conference. She said that if we accept that Reception and Key Stage 1 is about teaching pupils “to write and not bite”, and that Year 10 onwards is inevitably driven by exam specs, why can’t the time in between be “The Wonder Years”?

She described a glorious period where children are taught a curriculum jam-packed full of the very best that has been thought, said, and done, so that they enter the latter part of their schools with a broad, deep and rich base of cultural & communal knowledge, to draw upon in later life and, yes, exams.

In 2015, Ofsted published a report titled Key Stage Three: The Wasted Years? which raises concerns about a lack of rigour in both the curriculum and teaching in KS3. Of particular concern to me, this report also noted a reduction of KS3 in some schools, as they begin teaching GCSE in Year 9 and have students choose their GCSE options at the end of Year 8.  These concerns about a narrowing curriculum have also been echoed by Amanda Spielman (@amanda_spielman ) in various instances.

Inevitably, there are those on #EduTwitter who see something sinister in these movements, or those who seem to want to peddle an unhelpful focus on some vague notion of 21st Century Skills which reduces schooling to job training and which provides nothing but propaganda fuel for technology companies.

There are more serious critiques of the concept of a knowledge rich curriculum which draw upon critical pedagogy and wish to question what they see as the ‘dead white males’ standard of curriculum design, as perfectly illustrated by union leader Dr Mary Bousted (@MaryBoustedNEU ). However, whilst there may be valid concerns raised in this sort of critique about the content of exam specifications, what Lehain is talking about is, perhaps, somewhat different. A knowledge rich curriculum in Lehain’s conceptualisation would see no such limited focus on dead white males; indeed, equipping students with cultural capital* would enable them to turn a critical eye to such things as curricular set text lists. In my first lesson with my Year 12 English Literature class this week we discussed the prominence of male names in the poetry anthology, and I have suggested that developing a working knowledge of feminist literary criticism would be serve them well.

Founder of the Midlands Knowledge School Hub, Clive Wright (@Irenaeus1969) told me about his school’s English department which studies Ovid in Year 7. His question about curriculum for all departments now is “what’s your Ovid?”. In other words, what are the foundational bits of your subject that your children would benefit from knowing? For me, in order to prepare them for later study at GCSE, I want my KS3 pupils to know about iambic pentameter and sonnets. I want them to know a bit about Prometheus and the Three Fates. I want them to know about Pandora. I want them to know about Romanticism.

But, perhaps more than all of that, I want them to know stuff. I want them to be able to spot references to stuff in other stuff. I want them to be able to say “Oh! I recognise that!”

I want my children – by which I mean the children I teach, and my own daughters – to be able to participate in the great conversations of human activity, endeavour and thought.



*  A fascinating conversation has ensued on Twitter about my use of the term ‘cultural capital here’, which starts at this tweet. Thanks to @memneon and Peter Ford (@EdSacredProfane).

3 thoughts on “KS3: The Wonder Years

  1. Great article Steve – balanced, fair and reminding us all that these concerns go beyond our politics, preferences and comfort zones. We all need to examine what we are doing with a critical eye and ask ourselves “Why?”. Maybe then we will create curricula of excellence.

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