Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Cultural Currency Is a Sound Investment

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Why Cultural Currency Is a Sound Investment

Article excerpt

Older students are lost without an in-depth knowledge of the history of art, science and literature, so start teaching it young

Ellie was a model student: polite, respectful and industrious. And yet she toiled and struggled to match her peers studying English literature A-level. Only with grinding and determined effort did she secure a place at university. The problem, put simply, was that she hadn't read enough literature. Her understanding was beset by gaps in her knowledge.

I have seen the same scenario play out in different ways across the curriculum. For example, many of our young scientists at key stage 5 (ages 16-18) lack a deep understanding of crucial scientific concepts such as the structure of the atom.

The problem is partly a lack of cultural currency. In a lot of families, you simply don't have the experiences - going to the theatre, reading books, taking educational holidays, talking about culture more generally - that would give you a foundation of the big ideas that underpin core subject areas. Although it's assumed that middle-class students tend to have more of this cultural currency in terms of literary, artistic and scientific knowledge, that isn't always the case: Ellie is from a middle-class background but she missed out.

The curriculum at KS3 (ages 11-14) should fill in the gaps but it doesn't. It is too full already and contorted to meet arbitrary progress measures. At our school, we decided that if we were to help Ellie and students like her, we needed to make changes. So what did we do? We began at KS5. And then planned backwards.

Savings plan

I realise that more planning may be the last thing you feel like doing. Curriculum change feels as ever-present as insipid coffee in a time-worn staffroom. And in England, teachers of every subject are awaiting freshly baked GCSE and A-level qualifications. Even more planning awaits.

Yet if we want to help students such as Ellie we must embrace curriculum planning. Fortunately, the new KS3 curriculum gives us the opportunity to do so: removing national curriculum levels and slimming down content descriptors has conferred a great deal of freedom on teachers.

We seized on that freedom. The starting point was asking one essential question: "What do we want an ideal scientist, mathematician or geographer to know, understand and do as they embark upon their future beyond our school gates?"

We took the answers and planned our way back to KS3, searching for a way of better embedding core knowledge lower down the school.

Take English, for example: if Ellie were a fresh-eyed 11-year-old in Year 7, what would she need to know, do and understand in English by the time she left school in order to be ready for university and more? She would need to have a sound knowledge of the chronology of great literature; she would need to understand the magic of metaphor; and she would need to comprehend and control the infinite complexities of the humble sentence.

From this point, we planned where we would address these "big ideas" and when we would revisit this crucial knowledge and repeatedly hone students' skills. The result: the etymology of English, Beowulf and Shakespeare in Year 7; Restoration comedy and revenge tragedy in Year 8; war poetry, Animal Farm and more in Year 9. In effect, the literary texts that we would traditionally teach students at A-level or GCSE were transported into a more challenging KS3.

Now you may walk into a Year 8 English lesson and hear a student just like Ellie talking about comedy conventions: for example, why poor ladies of fashion wore absurd wigs twice as long as their face, or how semi-colons were a vehicle for Restoration comedy. …

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