This article was first featured in the wonderful Teach Primary. If you yourself ‘teach primary’ then I couldn’t recommend it more. It has thinky pieces like this one, but also planning and book reviews and things. It’s great.
Knowledge has got an image problem in primary schools. The very mention of the word is enough to draw battle lines in staff rooms, with images of Victorian classrooms and dreary rote learning springing to mind. Children’s minds should be set alight, not just filled like an empty bucket, the saying goes. Some more radical opponents to facts contend that knowledge has become obsolete, since children can just look up anything they need to on Google.
I once believed all that too. I believed that learning should be centred around fun, engaging activities and projects, which excite children and allow them to ‘lead their own learning’. But in doing so, I think that I sold a lot of those children short. A lot of them, and especially those who already lacked the sort of cultural capital that wealthy children take for granted, left my lessons without really knowing anything new. In short, I let them down.
We need to make knowledge cool again. So here goes, in my best Justin Timberlake voice: I’m bringing knowledge back. Ooh.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. After all, everyone argues that they ‘do’ knowledge, really. They just contest that coming that a pub quiz model of education is hardly something that we should be aspiring to. And we all know that knowledge languishes at the bottom of Bloom’s learning pyramid, when what we really should be striving for are those ‘higher order’ skills like ‘synthesis’ and ‘evaluation’.
But there’s a problem with Bloom’s pyramid: it was never supposed to be understood that way. Knowledge was always set as a precondition for the other skills. To put it another way, synthesis is really the result of different things that you know dancing around in your brain. The more you know, the more you can play around with ideas and make insights. Facts aren’t some discrete and far-removed foundation for the ultimate aims of education, they’re the rocket fuel.
Don’t just take my word for it, though. Professor Daniel Willingham, who has spent his life applying principles from cognitive psychology to the classroom, is unequivocal about the importance of knowledge:
“Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable…the very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory.”
So now, when planning a unit, I don’t start with the activities that children will complete. Instead, I begin by meticulously listing all of the key facts that the children should know by the end of the unit. Lessons begin and end with low stakes quizzes, which research indicates improves long term retention. We’ve all been in the situation where the children can answer key questions one lesson, and look baffled before earnestly insisting they’ve never heard of a “noun” just 24 hours later. Being clear about what you want the children to know allows you to prioritise and repeatedly test, giving all of your pupils the best chance at remembering the linchpins of the topic.
That’s not all knowledge buys you, though. In his book, Curious: The Desire To Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, author Ian Leslie argues that (after IQ) a person’s levels of conscientiousness and curiosity are the most important factors in their success. The type of curiosity Leslie suggests is most important, though, is not the fleeting sense of wonder that we see fizzle in children in primary classrooms.
No, Leslie is more interested in ‘epistemic curiosity’, that effortful, sustained but ultimately more rewarding thirst for knowledge. Epistemic curiosity is cognitively demanding and hard work on the thinker. However, it leads to a much deeper sense of satisfaction than the short dopamine hit we get from thinking, “That’s a cool leaf, I wonder why it’s red,” before becoming distracted by the thought of what will be for lunch. More than this, it is epistemic curiosity that put us at the top of the food chain. As Leslie puts it, initial wonder “makes us want to know what is on the other side of the mountain; epistemic curiosity arms us with the knowledge we need to survive when we get there.”
This all sounds well and good, you may be thinking, but what on earth does it look like in the classroom? It’s an excellent question, and I’m delighted you asked. Here are three quick (and, dare I say, fun) techniques you can roll out tomorrow.
1. Write a ‘knowledge organiser’, listing all of the key facts about your topic on one sheet of A4 paper. This can be sent home so children can learn it, and parents can get an insight into their child’s learning.
2. Start your lesson planning by writing a quiz which you will give to the children at the end. This will ensure you think carefully about what they need to know which is new to them.
3. Play some ‘knowledge games’. These short games push children to recall everything they know about a topic. A great example is the popular radio game ‘Just A Minute’, in which children have to talk for one minute on, say, Romans in Britain, without hesitation, repetition or deviation.
4. Start the lesson with an ‘ink waster’ in which children have 30 seconds to write down everything they know about a given topic.
5. Create a big ‘knowledge map’ on the wall and end every lesson by asking the children for one single fact that they think should be added to it, watching it grow as the unit rumbled on.
Give it a try. You never know, by filling up the bucket, you may well end up setting it on fire.