How to plan a knowledge unit in English

Instructional sequences have the capacity to make students smart or not.’

Siegfried Engelmann

In teaching it seems the focus is often on what makes an outstanding lesson. I think we need to spend much more time thinking about what makes an excellent unit.

In this blogpost I want to explain how we might go about designing a unit of learning in English. What if we coherently sequenced knowledge for cultural capital and enduring memory? Much depends on the curriculum sequence, but I just want to focus on unit design for now.

This approach is a little bit like going through Lewis Caroll’s looking glass: once you go through, it’s hard to imagine going back. Such is the analogy used by David Didau to describe the shift from unit planning that starts from overarching skills, to unit planning that starts from underpinning knowledge.

LookingGlass   Wonderland

Why would we design units with knowledge and memory as the starting points? For two main reasons:

Memory is complex: pupils need to remember lots of complex, confusing things.

Knowledge is vital: disadvantaged pupils lack the cultural capital of their wealthier peers, which inhibits their academic achievement.

In short, memorable knowledge is the best route to academic achievement. This simple insight gives us a very precise diagnosis: when pupils underachieve, it’s often because of insufficient knowledge, memory or practice. It also reveals very clear actions: ensure they know, can remember and practise using the key content and concepts in the subject.

Beyond the why, these questions drive knowledge-led unit design in English:

What is most useful for our pupils to know and remember about the text?

How can we best teach so that our pupils remember what they’re learning?


First, specify the most useful knowledge for the unit

There are four necessary elements you need to decide on in English units:

  1. Texts
  2. Content (plot character themes)
  3. Context
  4. Concepts

These are the sinae quae non of your knowledge unit.


Next, sequence the unit for optimal instruction

The idea of touchpaper questions is a fascinating one. In unit design, I find focusing on the following questions is most helpful. What’s the best way of:

  • … assessing?
  • … interleaving?
  • … recapping?
  • … explaining concepts?
  • … checking understanding?
  • … questioning?
  • … modelling exemplars?
  • … practising?
  • … using feedback?
  • … setting homework?
  • … remembering content?


The idea of ‘multiple working hypotheses’, from Thomas Chamberlain in 1890, is useful in thinking through the optimal answers to these questions. There are no perfect answers, but certainly some answers are more effective than others. So it’s worth keeping multiple competing options in mind and testing them out to find out which work best. So, what would be most useful to have decided up front in advance of teaching the unit? Here are some of the evolving options:


How then do we go about designing a unit in English with coherent knowledge and optimal instruction?  I’d like to share evolving examples of two knowledge units, one on Greek myths, and one on Oliver Twist.

Step One: Specify the most useful knowledge for the unit

As I’ve said, the four vital ingredients to decide on are the texts, content (plot character themes), context and concepts. So, in Oliver Twist I need to select the extracts, as I can’t teach all 53 chapters. I settle on these as the 15 key episodes, one each lesson:


  1. The Workhouse
  2. The Undertaker
  3. The Artful Dodger
  4. Fagin’s Street Gang
  5. Pickpocketing
  6. Mr Fang
  7. Mr Brownlow
  8. Bill Sikes
  9. Robbery
  10. The Fever
  11. Nancy
  12. Murder
  13. The Lynch Mob
  14. The Trial
  15. The Condemned Cell


From hundreds of Greek myths, I can’t teach them all. How do I decide which ones to teach? I choose the myths that have best stood the test of time and endured down the ages. I choose The Odyssey to read in depth as the epic with the highest cultural capital.

  1. Prometheus and Pandora
  2. Perseus and Medusa
  3. Hercules and the Twelve Labours
  4. Theseus and The Minotaur
  5. Daedalus & Icarus
  6. Achilles and Hector


  1. Polyphemous The Cyclops
  2. Aeolus and The Bag of Winds
  3. Circe The Sorceress
  4. Hades and Teiresias
  5. The Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis
  6. The Sun God’s Cattle
  7. Calypso’s Captivity
  8. Poseidon’s Revenge
  9. Telemachus and Penelope


I now need to select the content: what about the plot, which of the characters (and what about them) and which themes do I want pupils to remember in a year’s time and beyond?

There are around ten characters in Oliver Twist that I most want pupils to know all about, in order of importance: Oliver, Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sikes, Nancy, Mr Brownlow, Mr Fang, Rose Maylie, Noah Claypole, Mr Grimwig, as well as a whole host of minor characters such as Mr Bumble the Beadle and the shadowy Monks. As a starting point for the themes I specify poverty & inequality, crime & punishment, law & injustice, childhood & adulthood, fortune & misfortune, family & friendship, courage & betrayal, murder & evil, death & prison.


Who the characters are (and what they did) is the vital element that I’d like pupils to remember in reading the Greek myths, and reminds me of how useful the Who’s Who books of Greek mythology are when it comes to reading English literature. The great thing about The Odyssey is that it folds in the heroes of the Trojan Wars in the Underworld episode, and secures pupils’ knowledge of Greek gods like Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Hades, Athena and Hermes. If pupils in years to come vividly remember who these are, it would help them succeed in English:


The themes as a starting point are the Wrath of the Gods; Heroes & Monsters; Death & The Underworld; Tricks & Transformations; Battles & Quests; Prophecy & Curses; Trust & Betrayal. Of course, the best pupils will go far beyond this; this is best thought of as a minimum entitlement.


I now need to decide the context. There is almost limitless knowledge of Victorian London and Dickens’ biography, and the Greek civilisation and gods to know about. They can’t know everything, nor is all of it vital; on the other hand, there’s no point limiting the amount they should know: so a baseline that everyone should understand and remember seems the right approach. Beyond that, it’s about their own independent study when it comes to context. DickensContext

Victorian CharlesDickens

 We then need to decide the subject-specific concepts that we want them to grasp. Much depends on when this unit is taught in the sequence of the curriculum: for instance, Year 7 might only be taught a handful of concepts, whereas Year 9 might consolidate far more. Assuming this is being taught to Year 7, the handful to focus on might include dialogue, narration and syntax in Oliver Twist and questions, imperatives and adjectives in Greek myths. The point is to decide a few that all must grasp, and teach others in a more ad hoc style.


Deciding on the extracts, the content, the context and the subject concepts is an iterative rather than linear process: it requires going back and forth between them and adapting each so the whole unit coheres. A useful tool to capture the context, content and concepts is a knowledge grid. Katie Ashford came up with this and it is a brilliant idea. On one slide you specify exactly which parts of the context, plot, characters and themes (in novels) all pupils have the entitlement to remember.


Whilst this is evolving, it is important to clarify three extra pieces of the puzzle: the aim of the unit; the assessment questions and rubric; and the sequence of lesson questions week-by-week. Far from being a step-by-step process, this is highly dynamic and iterative.

Clarified aim

Frontloaded assessment  (interim & end-of-unit questions and rubric)

Selected texts & extracts

Specified knowledge grid (context plot characters themes)

Sequenced lesson questions


If the grid above captures the knowledge, those three extra pieces of the puzzle are put together in the grid below: the aim, assessment and lesson questions.


Step Two: Sequence the unit for optimal instruction

Planning and resourcing a knowledge-led unit, with its careful specifying and sequencing of the tiny chunks of knowledge that make up deep understanding, is undoubtedly labour-intensive, although the upstream time invested actually saves time downstream.

For optimal instruction, numerous resources are pre-planned before teaching the unit:

  1. Multiple choice questions & options
  2. Comprehension questions
  3. Hinge questions & options
  4. Actionable feedback questions
  5. Planned homework tasks
  6. Worked exemplar models
  7. Essay structure of sub-questions
  8. Drill questions on context and content

Examples from the Oliver Twist Unit

1. Multiple Choice Questions

These questions diagnose who has misunderstood and what their exact misconception is.

What were the 1834 poor laws?

  • a)     Laws to create workhouses with terrible conditions to discourage poverty
  • b)     Laws to create a police service
  • c)     Laws to give welfare to poor people
  • d)     Laws to prevent murder with the death penalty
  • e)     Laws to prevent thievery with jail sentences


What does Mr Grimwig promise to do if Oliver doesn’t return?

  • a)     He promises to eat his own head – and Oliver’s
  • b)     He promises to eat his hat
  • c)     He promises to eat his hat – and Oliver’s
  • d)     He promises to pay Mr Brownlow ten pounds
  • e)     He promises to give Oliver ten pounds

2. Comprehension Questions

These questions can be asked verbally while reading the text as a class.

The Workhouse

  1. What happened when Oliver was born (and how)?
  2. Who named Oliver Twist (and how?)
  3. What does Oliver ask for (and why)?
  4. What does the workhouse decide to with Oliver (and why)?
  5. What do the gentlemen think will happen to Oliver (and why)?


3. Hinge Questions

These questions check which pupils have understood what they need to grasp in each lesson.

What happened to Dickens as a child?

  • a)     His father was jailed for debt and he went to work in a factory
  • b)     His father was jailed for debt and he went to work in workhouse
  • c)     His father was hung for murder and he went to prison
  • d)     His father was jailed for street robbery and he became a chimney sweep
  • e)     His father was jailed for house burglary and he went to a workhouse


What is capital punishment?

  • a)     The death penalty of being executed, often by hanging, often for murder
  • b)     The punishment of being shipped to Australia, often for murder
  • c)     The punishment of being jailed for life, often for murder
  • d)     The punishment of hard labour, often for murder
  • e)     The punishment for being in charge of a workhouse, often for murder

4. Feedback Questions

These questions encourage connections between knowledge of for instance, character and theme, or plot and context.

  • How does Mr Fang represent the law in England?
  • How does kidnapping link to 1830s Victorian London?
  • Why did Dickens decide this ending for Sikes?


5. Homework Questions

These questions encourage independent enquiry into the novel between lessons.

  • How is Dickens presenting the character of Fagin in the novel so far?
  • How has Dickens shown the theme of injustice in the novel so far?
  • Create and answer your own enquiry question into a character or theme in the novel


6. Exemplar Models

These are designed (for Year 7) to show examples of clear, cogent analysis:

Mr Fang is a bullying, impatient and rude judge in charge of a London law court, who puts Oliver on trial. For example, he interrupts the old gentleman and says, ‘Hold your tongue sir! How dare you bully a judge!’ The way he speaks shows that he is sneering, snarling, growling and snapping. Dickens wanted to show how the law was not very just in 1830s Victorian London, as he had experienced his father being put in prison for debt in 1824, when he was 12 years old. The themes of poverty and injustice are shown through the character of Mr Fang, because he is cruel to Oliver, a poor orphan that he accuses of ‘shamming’, and sentences him to three months of hard labour.


7. Essay Sub-Questions

These (designed by Katie Ashford, as much of this unit was) help structure pupils’ introductions for the essay title: How does Dickens present the character of Oliver (or Fagin, or your own choice) in the novel?


  • Who wrote the novel? When and where was it set?
  • What is the novel about?
  • What happens in the novel?
  • What is Dickens trying to show through the character?

8. Drill Questions

These build pupils’ memory of the core content and context with increasing precision.

Week One

  • What happened to Dickens’ father?
  • What were the 1834 Poor Laws?
  • What happened to Dickens’ sister-in-law?

Week Two

  • When was Dickens’ father imprisoned for debt?
  • When were the poor laws brought in?
  • When did Dickens’ sister in law die from a fever?

Week Three

  • What happened in 1825?
  • What happened in 1834?
  • What happened in 1837?

The complexity involved in this cohesive, sequential planning is not insignificant. All of these are just illustrative examples: multiply them by the 15 episodes to get an idea of how much work goes into planning a knowledge unit. Just as qualifying as a driver did not make me an engineer, nor did qualifying as a teacher make me a curriculum designer. This approach (and the choices I’ve made) are very much open to debate, and I’d welcome suggestions for improving these units. There remains a great deal of work to be done.


Most drivers don’t design their own cars

After all, what makes an excellent unit is highly dependent on the units that precede and succeed it – the cohesive sequencing of the curriculum across a whole year and key stage. If Engelmann is right, and the instructional sequence is what makes students smart or not, that sequence should be carefully planned not just across a unit, but across pupils’ entire school journey through our subjects. Their learning depends on it.


Two resources are below:

Oliver Twist abridged from 300+ to 20 pages (with context)

Oliver Twist Reading Booklet + Context

The Odyssey abridged from 200+ pages to 20

The Odyssey 

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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33 Responses to How to plan a knowledge unit in English

  1. Brilliant Christmas blog Joe
    Keep up the good work!

  2. I really like this blog a huge amount. It is highly generative and full of practical advice. The knowledge grid is great. The simple weekly plan is a useful skeleton and my favourite aspect is the thoughtful taxonomy of questions. These are the blog posts we need that will guide the way to better practice in the classroom.

    I am devising the first scheme of our new KS3 curriculum over the holiday and this post is really useful. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: What can we learn from high performing education systems? | Ariadne's Thread

  4. Phil Stock says:

    This is a very good post, and hopefully gets the numbers of reader it deserves over Christmas.

    I agree with Alex that there is a lot of excellent, distilled advice here, which helps to clarify an approach that could potentially be misinterpreted without such clear examples. The timing of this post is also great for me, as I too am putting together a new KS3 English curriculum and assessment model, which I will share with you in the next couple of weeks.

    The multiple working hypotheses model is really helpful in focusing on the needs of the learners over the course of the whole unit – as you say far better planning consideration that isolated lessons. There are also good opportunities for collaborative planning here, such as through the development of hinge questions and multiple choice assessments, which from experience are very time consuming to put together. I am sure I will be borrowing some of the methods and resources for The Odyssey and myths, which we too are aiming to teach at year 7.

    In working through the development of a more rigorous, knowledge-rich KS3 curriculum for our school, there are a number of issues that I am currently wrestling with. The first of this is around differentiation. It seems to me that the ideal goal here would be for students to read whole texts. Whilst the use of extracts is obviously more manageable and focused, I am looking for the students at our school (particularly the more able) to read whole texts, and a lot of them. This obviously puts a strain on resourcing.

    Likewise, to what extent should we limit the scope and complexity of coverage for the least able? We introduced setting this term for year 7 and next year we will for year 8. Whilst I do like the principle of mixed ability, in practice where the level of need in our school has increasingly widened, our ability to meet the needs of all learners has became unsustainable. I would want all students to experience such a rich curriculum, but to actually get something meaningful out of it. Is the priority for the least able students – the ones with really poor reading and writing – such a detailed knowledge of plot, characters and context?

    In talking through our new curriculum with the rest of the department earlier in the week, it has become clear to me that the delivery of the kind of curriculum you and Alex have posted on in recent weeks – and which I am very much in favour of myself – poses two significant challenges. The first is that for many teachers there will be a significant challenge to their own subject knowledge, and developing the deep knowledge of texts likes the Odyssey to give them the confidence to teach them. The second relates to the kind of pedagogical skill required to deliver such texts effectively. Whilst we may no want the likes of Stone Cold taught to our children, you cannot simply pick up The Odyssey and start teaching it to a bunch of year 7s. Curriculum leaders therefore need to build in the time, resourcing and support networks to make teaching canonical texts purposeful.

    My final observations relate to your methods of assessment. As you know, I am becoming more interested in the possible uses of the multiple choice format as an effective tool in English. Whilst I intend to develop the kinds of questions that you have exemplified above, do you think that there may also be an opportunity to use this vehicle to assess more deeply, such as to ascertain students’ ability to infer and interpret at different levels of mastery. In a similar vein, is the overall aim of the unit ambitious enough? Could students not understand the characters, plot and themes of a text and develop an explicit reading and writing goal? This is the kind of assessment model I am trying to work through, but I’m guessing you would argue that this comes later after mastery of the content?

    Another great post, Joe. Your thoughts really help me to sharpen my own approaches.

  5. RCA says:

    I love this, it’s so well put together, exemplary job. Regarding your request for improvement ideas, you may want to include a bit of spaced retrieval practice by having short review quizzes at the start of each lesson. This will ensure you take advantage of all the benefits of the testing effect and get even more value out of your comprehension and hinge questions. Prepare answer sheets so these can be self marking (and means students can all finish at different times). I don’t record scores for these but just take a colour code from the students to keep an eye on progress.

    Keep up the great work,

  6. KB says:

    “After all, what makes an excellent unit is highly dependent on the units that precede and succeed it – the cohesive sequencing of the curriculum across a whole year and key stage.”

    You may very well be right but this post assumes this, it doesn’t argue for it. Lots of people might not agree with the assumption.

  7. Maria says:

    Your posts are always useful and I enjoy reading them; and indeed, sharing them. As a physics teacher I can see many structures and strategies here which are transferable and will just end up with solid, well-thought out schemes of learning. Thank you.

  8. Solocontrotutti says:

    I think it’s great that you are contributing to the educational debate. Of course having said that I am going to disagree with your sentiments. I think you fundamentally misunderstand the concept of cultural literacy and that is the only way you can make any sense of your unit. Cultural literacy is not a “thing in itself” it is simply a way of describing how power differentiates itself. In the 19th century where I think much of this thinking derives, that could have been how to hold a knife and fork or how to ear a wig correctly. It isn’t a body of knowledge. If you taught the working classes to be culturally literate (as you see it). the middle classes would just change the rules.

    I think you are engaging more in politics than education and Govian politics at that. As you rightly say you cannot teach all of a book or anything like all of knowledge. You therefore have to select one aspect of it. The culturally literacy concept is how you justify that selection. But of course it’s nonsense. No, one, Greek myth is more important than AN other. One myth surviving over another could be simply explained by the whims of power at any given time. In the same way that the Gospel of St Thomas was ditched because the early church, which had little use for a gnostic gospels as opposed to one where Christ is crucified. Because early Christians themselves (somewhat co incidentally) were being crucified. Ironically the early gnostics were probably more in line with modern thinking because on the whole Christians are no longer being crucified by Romans.

    So the suspicion is that the peddlers of pointless knowledge need a curriculum to justify themselves. I would suggest that “Polyphemous The Cyclops” is not that important in the overall scheme of things. I’m not sure that society needs to know it other than it was the kind of the thing the nineteenth century middle classes liked to know in order to differentiate themselves from the hoi poloi. So if you are suggesting that we all need to learn pointless dross because 19th century middle class people knew it (as Gove does) then so be it, but don’t be surprised that when everyone has learned it, the middle classes will be celebrating the intellectual wisdom of Peppa pig.

    In truth I can’t remember much of what I learned in school. Largely because it was pointless crap that has never been used again. Cognition not being generous to pointless crap once a teacher has stopped forcing you to re-iterate it, promptly dumps it into some kind of cognitive container that only brief fleeting flashbacks or full blown dementia re-visit .

    Apologies if this comes across a bit brusque I just feel that if you desire a return to the 19th century then we may as well go the whole hog and bring back work houses. Having said all that you may well be right and “Polyphemous The Cyclops” is the reason why we are rubbish in the OECD charts. If you are right and it is the reason then you are going to have to make better arguments than relying on one of Ed Hirsch’s dodgy constructs to make it work.

  9. Phil Stock says:

    The somewhat hostile comments above would be much more credible if they were expressed coherently. Too much Peppa Pig, methinks.

  10. Solocontrotutti says:

    They aren’t intended to be hostile Phil. The usual problem of staring at a blank screen and forgetting the individuals on the other side. I apologise. But it is coherent.

    I think the fundamental problem here is that cultural capital is misued. David Didau does the same thing on his blog. Cultural capital is a means of symbolic exchange. And if you use the economics model then the concept of supply and demand becomes useful. Knowledge that is widely known has little value.

    David Didau uses the concept to try and objectify knowledge because that is how he imbues his knowledge with some kind of veracity. In other words if you empiricse knowledge you can justify teaching it. Indeed If you empiricise knowledge then you can empiricise the teaching of it. In many ways this is a re-hash of the NCLB debate in the States. Bourdieu would be mortified (no pun intended).

    In fact the means of accessing cultural capital is a skill and not a body of knowledge. The body of knowledge is irrelevant. The very concepts used to justify knowledge are based on a premise that really is concerned with skills. Of course teachers who teach English Literature have a vested interest in a knowledge / skills debate. As do teachers of semantic languages such as Math.

    But the point is quite clear. The author makes the argument for knowledge using a concept that is skills based. The only way to make it work is to objectify knowledge and suggest that it has some intrinsic value that is quantifiable and worth teaching. It is a hard argument to maintain, as the author discovers, when he realises that in fact he has to objectify literature or mythology to decide what myth has accrued cultural capital and what has not.

    It’s very 19th century and liberal to presume that somehow rich people know things poor people don’t. It’s very convenient because it also means that society can ignore all the other factors related to power that are much more important such as, who you know, how much money you have and how easily you can move to an area with a school that gets you the qual’ you need to progress (whether it provides a good education or not).

    I think this line of thought travels a very insidious road. Knowledge is culturally laden. It may well be that power knows stuff the rest of us don’t but it is naive to think that the value of it resides in knowledge, as a thing in itself, rather (as Bourdieu) points out, the value of it resides in the value of it. What that knowledge is, to a large extent is irrelevant.

  11. Phil Stock says:


    Thank you for taking the time to elaborate on your earlier comments. I now understand what you are trying to say a lot more clearly, so thank you.

    I would, however, disagree with you about a number of your points, particularly what you think is meant by the term ‘cultural capital’ and how educators like Joe Kirby and David Didau are using it. Whilst I certainly share in the belief that a cultural body of knowledge and values can be understood in economic terms – and I personally think that as educators we should ensure that all our children, especially the most deprived, have access to this resource – I do not agree with you that as more people access this resource its value necessarily diminishes. If as a society we ever arrived at a situation where all children, whatever their social or economic background, had access to the kinds of knowledge and understanding we are debating, then we would be in an enviable position: a very well educated population with shared cultural ties. In your first comment your suggest that if this ever occurred the middle classes would simply change the rules of cultural dominance. Really, to what?

    No doubt you will retort here with an objection to my emphasis on knowledge and offer a critique of the inability to identity a common cultural heritage within a diverse population in a global world. But this, in many respects, is related to the other flaw in your comments about how Joe and David use the idea of cultural capital to underpin their educational thinking. Without wishing to put words in their mouths, I think both are arguing that a deep knowledge and understanding of canonical literary texts, writers and contexts is not necessarily a means to an end. They share the belief that background knowledge (or cultural capital) leads students to be much more effective readers, writers and speakers – in other words more literate. In their thinking, informed by cognitive science, knowledge creates a more genuine ability to understand and be understood. This is surely a tradable set of commodities, whether we are harking back to the last century or looking forward to the next one.

    I also think the term cultural capital means much, much more than a symbolic exchange. To me, the kinds of texts and emphasis upon them that Joe Kirby and David Didau are arguing for, is also about the things that are necessarily tested or reducible to economic pragmatism. Reading, engaging with, understanding and appreciating some of the best of what has been thought and recorded leads to a better understanding of an individual’s place in the world. I would not be an English teacher if I did not believe that in reading about others, we learn about ourselves a little more – that we are more than just bits in a vast, impersonal economic system; that we are human beings capable of producing and appreciating truth and beauty. Why would I not want this possibility open to all the children I teach. Can you really get this kind of reflective capacity with any text? Would reading about Daddy’s Pig’s admiration for his favourite red car really help me to better understand the human condition?

    I simply do not understand your point that it is somehow liberal and 19th century to presume that rich people know more things than poor people. Since when are those two terms interchangeable? More pertinently, surely it would be more perverse and, indeed, more liberal, to argue that poorer children know more than richer children? It seems to me that you are suggesting that it does not matter what we teach our young people, and that we should not try to raise the aspirations of students in state schools by introducing challenging, canonical literary works. I have worked in three different schools in three very different contexts, and I think I can safely say that the best students of English at GCSE and A Level are more often than not those students from wealthier families – both in economic and cultural capital terms. The best students I teach are the ones that read voraciously and have had home lives that where a book culture is valued. Ensuring this kind of culture takes places at school for all students is another facet of the kind of curriculum planning explored in this blog.

    My last comment relates to your misguided suggestion that Joe’s curriculum approach falls down simply because he has privileged one set of myths over another. It does not mean that the whole edifice of his approach to curriculum design is flawed because he has chosen to make the teaching more manageable within the confines of a yearly plan. I would rather watch one series of Breaking Bad than the entire oeuvre of Peppa Pig. As a father of two small children, I think I speak here with some authority.

    Would Bourdieu really be mortified by this kind of thinking about learning?

  12. Solocontrotutti says:

    Hi Phil
    We are on a blog and time is short if I appear brusque then please accept it as a necessity of typing fast. BTW I use the term Liberal in its classical sense and not in the Guardian sense of a sandal wearing hippy.

    Let me deal with the issue of cultural capital. David Didau does use it to objectivise knowledge.

    “For me, the point about cultural capital is that it isn’t subjective, or at least, not very subjective. It’s based on the body of knowledge which collectively and over time we, as a culture, have decided is worthwhile” Learning spy (16/12).

    That is the antithesis of the intention of Bourdieu. It suggests an almost arbitrary body of knowledge that exists external to culture that arises in some democratic way (a very Liberal concept). It is reminiscent of Dawkins idea of a “knowledge meme” that exists external to culture. I’m surprised an English teacher touches that concept with a barge pole.

    I think you’ve misunderstood my point about knowledge and therefore I suspect you have missed the point of the post

    “If as a society we ever arrived at a situation where all children, whatever their social or economic background, had access to the kinds of knowledge and understanding we are debating, then we would be in an enviable position:”

    My point was that knowledge is not a “thing in itself”, its value is based upon its value. If everybody knew the kind of knowledge we are debating then it would have no cultural capital and the argument from the perspective of cultural capital would disappear. In other words the cultural capital argument not only misquotes Bourdieu but is also a straw man.

    If everyone knew what a doctor knows, doctors would have to know something else – not only to become a doctor but also to practice being a doctor. Higher cognitive skills probably like empathy and analytical skills. A good thing for sure but not an argument for knowledge.

    “Reading, engaging with, understanding and appreciating some of the best of what has been thought and recorded leads to a better understanding of an individual’s place in the world.”

    That would be true if you can objectivise the world to such an extent that it models your version of reality. Without the claim to cultural capital all you are really saying is that I think everyone should think like I do. In fact what you are doing is really forcing working class kids to learn a body of knowledge alien to them and at the same time re-enforce the knowledge that keeps them in their place. Somewhat along the lines of Bernstein’s thinking I think rather than teach them pointless middle class pap – we should challenge the pap.

    “It seems to me that you are suggesting that it does not matter what we teach our young people, and that we should not try to raise the aspirations of students in state schools by introducing challenging, canonical literary works.”

    You are not doing that though. You are doing the opposite,which is that you are vindicating the knowledge of the ruling elite and forcing everyone else to learn it. A game the middle classes have been winning since the start of the education system.

    “I can safely say that the best students of English at GCSE and A Level are more often than not those students from wealthier families – both in economic and cultural capital terms.”

    Well exactly. If empathy and imagination were easily quantifiable they wouldn’t be. You are really saying that education is inequitable so let’s make it even more inequitable

    “My last comment relates to your misguided suggestion that Joe’s curriculum approach falls down simply because he has privileged one set of myths over another. It does not mean that the whole edifice of his approach to curriculum design is flawed because he has chosen to make the teaching more manageable within the confines of a yearly plan.”

    I think it probably does.I’m not sure that an article about “myths” that tries to claim that as a body of knowledge they have cultural capital really works. Not when you end up having to select one myth as opposed to another?

    Firstly I don’t think Greek myths have cultural capital and secondly even if they did that is not a reason to teach them. How would we achieve a progressive society if we only value the knowledge of the elite?

    Clearly if you had to choose any subject area that completely undermines the credibility of the argument it is that one. But I stand to be corrected.

  13. Two good contributors to the debate. Thank you. It seems to me that the issue is always: what shall we include in the curriculum? And this is political (in English, at any rate). I guess we all believe that education should set us free; that it is a powerful means of bringing about change. We need to agree what that change is, and then discuss how our proffered solutions would actually bring about the change. This is serious stuff.

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  16. I have found the original blog and also the exchanges that follow extremely challenging – and not merely because they were read in the post-Christmas haze. I do agree that pupils often seem to find the remembering of specific knowledge very difficult, and that addressing this knowledge just once in the expectation that it will be retained forever is a vain hope. ‘Layering’ and re-visiting would seem to be essential. I really like the approach in the model above, as it has a sense of purpose
    However, any amount of knowledge about a text, its context or its themes is useless if the pupil has no skill with which to express it, and the model above doesn’t make it clear – to me, at any rate – where these skills will be taught, or what they are.
    This isn’t a criticism; I wrestle with the importance of content in balance with the importance of skills acquisition – and the need for repeated practice is as important for skills as for the use of knowledge. I wrestle with the undoubted value of the literary canon, since it seems to also suggest a Govian commitment to chronology that I am less convinced about.
    If anyone has the Definitive Answer, please post it and put me out of my misery.
    Not you, Mr Gove.

  17. atharby says:

    Many thanks for a fantastic post, Joe.

    I am currently putting together my plans for next half-term’s An Inspector Calls unit and this post is proving invaluable. The memorisation of content and context is so important, yet, sadly, is lacking from much current English teaching pedagogy. I particularly like the interleaving of fact-based questions, and the knowledge grid is so simple, yet could serve so many purposes; so many new English teachers would find their task so much easier if they had something like this to work from. When I create mine for the AIC unit, I will also include key quotations.

    I will not get involved in the cultural capital debate at this stage; I will say, however, that I feel that knowledge of the content of texts is unlikely to be successful alone in challenging inequality unless it is taught alongside the knowledge of the analytical genre we employ to write about texts. I can see that you have thought about modelling, but I wonder whether the unit could be strengthened by a closer focus on teaching ‘genre’ knowledge alongside textual knowledge (as Lee Donaghy writes about in his blog). I can picture now many a student who would succeed well in the knowledge-based lessons of the unit, yet fall down in the final assessment task because of their writing ability. ,

    What you really need is more time to teach these units. How time is currently used in education is a bit of a bug-bear of mine. I taught Oliver Twist at KS3 some years back – I insisted we read the whole thing, which was a mistake – yet the final outcome was deficient because I had to rush them through the content with spent less time devoted to the written genre.

    These are not criticisms, just thoughts. Thanks once again.


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  25. sezl says:

    An absolutely inspiring blog post – one very small point is that Mary Hogarth (Dickens’ sister-in-law) died of sudden heart attack or aneurysm rather than a fever.

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  29. benleney says:

    Reblogged this on Learning Central and commented:
    Thought this grid in particular was great, but also liked the ideas on the Greek Myths – never really felt I’ve got to grips with these in English!

  30. Sarah says:

    I don’t suppose you are willing to share or swap your actual resources for Oliver Twist? I am about to start teaching it in Jan.

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