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- On October 22, 2018
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We had the outline. We had the skeleton. We even had the will, and the intent.
But still our curriculum hadn’t yet come alive…
Thinking about the next steps in developing our Knowledge-Rich curriculum in the Amethyst Trust led me to thinking about another favourite tale of mine: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, also known as the Martin Scorcese film, Hugo (I know, I know… another children’s book! I’m happy to be a child at heart, though!)
In the story, the orphaned Hugo is left an automaton – an inanimate robot – by his father, and cannot find a way to get it moving. Despite having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the mechanics of the gears, cranks and cogs of clockwork passed on to him by his horologist father, he cannot find any way to get it started up, so it just stares at him with a blank expression on its silver face, inscrutable and unapproachable.
This must be what the school curriculum sometimes seems like to our students, and sometimes even to us teachers, too. An unwieldly and cumbersome system of objectives, outcomes, assessments and skills, making sense of it is a great challenge, one that sadly defeats too many of our young people. In the last episode of the blog I discussed the way we reorganised our curriculum from start to finish, looking at how the pieces fit together and the best order to put them into. This reminds me very much of Hugo staring into the body of the automaton, switching this piece with that, exchanging this chrome handle with this silver cog. But still the automaton did not move, and nor will a Knowledge-Rich curriculum whir into life simply by moving the pieces of it around.
No, what makes the automaton come to life in Hugo’s story is a chance meeting with Isabelle, whose godfather works at the Parisian train station where Hugo tries to scratch out a miserable living every day. As they run from the busybody Station Inspector, Isabelle falls to the ground, and Hugo notices that around her neck is a necklace on which there hangs a heart-shaped key – one that exactly fits the keyhole on the back of the lifeless automaton. It is only when putting this key into the machine and turning it that the mechanical figure begins to move, revealing a secret that will change Hugo’s life forever…
But what would be our key? What could we do to animate our curriculum, bringing forth the mysterious and wondrous secrets of school curriculum in a way that would be similarly life-changing for our students?
In my view, the key to our success with this in the Amethyst Trust is our Knowledge-books.
What is a Knowledge-book? Simply, it is a book of knowledge. At the beginning of each term, students are presented with a Knowledge Book which they will use during every lesson, and which contains all of the key knowledge that they will need to have a rich and detailed understanding of every topic that the subject contains. There is a bank of key knowledge that is shared with students during the lesson, planned recall questions that will help them to embed and retain this knowledge, and planned activities which develop the understanding and application of this knowledge over time. The Knowledge-books are given to all students irrespective of their ability level, thereby ensuring equality of access and provision to all students in the Amethyst Trust, with all students having the opportunity to access a challenging yet enriching level of knowledge, not limited by preconceptions about their ability to handle difficult ideas.
Our Knowledge-books are the perfect way to support excellent teaching practice without removing the opportunity for teacher individualisation and differentiation, and the professional satisfaction to be gained from thinking about how this knowledge can best be applied, tested and deepened. The Knowledge-books were developed by our teachers across the Amethyst Trust, bringing together the best of the expert knowledge that our teachers undoubtedly possess, and they were supported in this endeavour with appropriate INSET sessions during the Summer Term, so that they had been quality-assured and were ready to be delivered seamlessly in the Autumn.
The benefits have been clearly seen already, and our staff are universal in their praise of the impact that it has had so far, not only for our students but also for their own practice and wider lives. Though there was clearly an initial input of a great amount of work to produce the Knowledge-books to a high standard, the reduction in workload since the summer has been marked, allowing teachers to strike a better work-life balance. The Knowledge-books allow for Subject Leaders to clearly know the quality of input that students are getting, and for colleagues to slot in with ease when cover situations arise, as well as for students to catch up when they are absent. And, the level of focus and challenge given to students in lessons has undoubtedly contributed to the significant reduction in conduct incidents at both of our schools this term, with pastoral colleagues and event students themselves attesting to how the Knowledge-books have alleviated the disruption issues present when focus and pace in lessons drop.
So far so good, then… but this brings to mind a couple of other questions: First, why didn’t we just give them text books? And second, why not just use knowledge organisers, like many other Knowledge-Rich schools?
To answer both questions together, I return to the image of Hugo’s robotic automaton, but this time in a different way. We didn’t want our teachers to be automatons, passively taking students through a text book that they had no part in writing, full of obscure content that is not always helpfully sequenced or targeted to the needs of our students. By engaging our teachers in writing the Knowledge-books themselves, we valued their expertise and engaged them in the process of thinking about our students in our contexts, treating them like expert professionals and not like faceless machines themselves.
And knowledge organisers? They just didn’t seem enough.
At the Amethyst Trust we use knowledge organisers as ongoing homework and revision, and during a topic students are supported to regularly engage with it in preparation for testing and recall activities during their lesson. Our best intention is that students would be able to recreate a knowledge organiser from memory by the end of a topic, thus proving that their knowledge is secure, embedded and retained, ready to be re-activated when it is next needed on their educational journeys.
But the knowledge organiser will only ever be a limited snapshot of the wider tranche of knowledge that surrounds any given topic in any given subject at school, and it is our belief that a limited snapshot is not enough – rather like Hugo’s automaton without its special key. All of the key pieces might be in place, but how will it be activated for our students? Alone, it is something to display on a classroom wall, but no guarantee of a Knowledge-Rich curriculum in which the joyous, enriching world of deep subject knowledge is made exciting and engaging for students.
No – in our view it is the Knowledge-books which are the magical key to a true Knowledge-Rich curriculum.
Because, to return one last time to dear Hugo, beavering away over his automaton, I think again of our students. Sometimes they too could be like automatons, passing through their school experiences blankly, facelessly, engaging which the world of knowledge presented to them only sporadically, passively, without genuine passion or engagement. At the Amethyst Trust we believe that school must be more than that, and that it is truly knowledge with is the key that will bring them to life, bringing out the best in them, calling forth the passion and excitement for learning and knowing that is sometimes buried very deep within them. We want vibrant, dedicated students who are ready to take an active part in the world – not automatons.
So, we like to think of our Knowledge-books very much as our incredible Invention – just like Hugo’s.
On Friday 16th November the Amethyst Academies Trust will be holding a conference where we share our journey towards a knowledge-rich curriculum. In addition to talks from colleagues there will be an opportunity to tour the schools and see our curriculum in action. Don’t miss out on a great opportunity to visit and learn from schools that are already 12 months into their journey to a knowledge-rich curriculum. Tickets are £15 per delegate and can be booked through the eventbrite website linked below.