Low Stakes quizzing for High Stakes cultural capital

 

A few weeks ago, I got lost in Andy Tharby’s excellent blog posts on knowledge acquisition and literature here:  https://reflectingenglish.wordpress.com. The observations he makes about skills without the requisite cultural knowledge rang particularly true about this year’s year 11.

 

November mocks 2016: the text was Macbeth and the quote was:

Image result for swan and goose“The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!

Where got’st thou that goose look?”

And the analysis went something like this: “The word goose has deep meaning as in literature geese are the opposite of majestic swans, who were protected by the monarchy. What Shakespeare is showing here is Macbeth’s narcissism as he believes himself to be a swan due to his villainous ambition.”

As you can imagine, this brightened up our day considerably. It was like a glorious parody of everything we have taught the students to do: the writing was focused on language, the interpretation was certainly imaginative and it drew on wider cultural knowledge to inform understanding of the text. The only problem was that this is absolutely not what Shakespeare meant. Does this matter? Possibly not to Roland Barthes but I’m hazarding a guess that an argument about Literary Theory won’t hold much sway with the AQA helpdesk come August 2017.
It was this sort of well-taught, well-intentioned muddle that sprang to mind when I read Andy Tharby’s Reflecting English blog over Easter – surely a clear example of application of skills without sufficient knowledge.
What has become abundantly clear throughout year 11, is that skills at the expense of knowledge is not enough for the new English Literature GCSE, even for really able students. The fact that the students have no choice of question, the fact that it’s a closed book exam, the fact that they need to know three substantial literary texts in detail and 15 poems mean that skills without knowledge are of little value in the exam. In fact, for lower ability students, if it’s a choice between one or the other, more knowledge with less skill is probably more advantageous.
This is because, in order to apply their analytical skills effectively, students need a substantial body of knowledge behind them. Clearly this process of knowledge acquisition needs to begin in Year 10 and slightly more controversially, we need to be using our subject knowledge to direct them towards what is important in a text.
With this in mind, we altered our year 10 scheme of work for Macbeth and taught the text in the first instance, using this fantastic Macbeth Quiz: macbeth-comprehension-questions  which @Miss_E_Miller had uploaded to twitter. First we filled it out as a class, expanding on the answers orally. I drew explicit links between questions in Act 2 and questions for Act 4. Crucially, having done some research on memory and practice, I drilled students, dropping heavy hints (and some ridiculous miming) to encourage them to dig deep into their memories, emphasising that the effort of recall was what was embedding the knowledge into their long-term memories.
Erin Miller’s quiz is an excellent mixture of quotation, comprehension and subject terminology and what is more, the students really engaged with it. Finally, after years of “no right answers in English”, here are some answers! Students could learn them and they could get them right (or wrong) and crucially, this built confidence.

We watched the film and filled in the quiz, using it as a springboard to pose questions about the text. Because the quiz draws out minor key characters who students often overlook on the first reading (Malcolm, Macduff), we had a number of discussions about why these characters are important to the play. At the end of this process, students requested a lesson where we made character timelines for each character (I adapted the linked resource from Teach it).  Now students began to make meaningful structural connections between Macduff and Macbeth or Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth. It was really exciting to watch them make these connections and for all students, regardless of ability, to be able to track the key points at which Malcolm or Banquo appear in the text and explore why this might be. These students were applying skills effectively within the safe context of a substantial body of knowledge.

 

There is also a more serious point to be made here about knowledge acquisition and cultural capital because all knowledge is not equal. The Micheala School literature makes this point very eloquently. Young people today are drowning in information. They have access to more information in their pockets than I had in my entire university library. Nevertheless, without the skills to ask the right questions, without the memory to retain key information to make meaningful connections and without the discernment to know which pieces of information matter, they have nothing.

 

It is our job, as educators to teach them some discernment –  to help them understand that “the devil damn thee black” is more significant than “goose look”. My own children are more familiar with geese and cream than they are with devils and damnation. That’s because they’ve spent their childhood feeding ducks in parks and being told not to squirt whipped cream straight from the can into their mouths. They’ve never been to church, never worried about devils or damnation and they’ve never been taught that black means bad.  It turns out, they have this in common with most of my year 11. These children are reliant on their education to learn that from a cultural perspective, in a Jacobean play, devils, blackness and damnation will always trump cream and geese. And yes, it is problematic that black is associated with devils and almost all of the English literary canon is written by white protestant men, but not teaching this doesn’t make it any less true. In fact not teaching this to our children means that they will never know enough to understand that much of the cultural reality they experience is a construct.

 

But I’m getting carried away. Back to the classroom and my year 10 who have just figured out that Malcolm is Duncan’s son and brother to Donalbain.

 

The key things that this process has taught me as a practitioner is how easy it is to assume that the students’ knowledge of the text is better than it is. I was surprised by the level of misunderstanding some able students showed after a month of studying the play but the constant drilling of the quiz enabled students to identify these misunderstandings and for me to correct them. It was also very straightforward to monitor who was engaging and who was not, and also easy to enforce sanctions to ensure that students learn the quiz. However, the buy in from students was considerable. They enjoyed learning something tangible and they enjoyed using their new knowledge to start deconstructing ideas about kingship and social order. The whole experience completely challenged my ideas about how to teach literature.

 

And finally, for the first time, and I’m saying this very quietly because I don’t like to agree with Gove at all, I began to understand the merit in what I was teaching in this new GCSE and, that though it has different merit to what went before, it still has merit.

 

In my enthusiasm I have created similar quizzes for Jekyll and Hyde  and Lord of the Flies and also this revision resource. To support students I created revision resources on quizlet for all these quizzes.

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