PTE’s Wonder Years Conference – My Takeaways

I came back home yesterday afternoon after attending the PTE Wonder Years conference, thinking that it was money – and time –  well spent. I was already a convert to knowledge-rich education, although convert is probably the wrong word to use. I have always been for it. So I went to the conference curious to see what was being done in those knowledge-rich schools and to learn from their experiences.

The day started with a rousing keynote speech from Amanda Spielman, with which I agreed wholeheartedly. The speech is available on the link above, so I won’t paraphrase it. In fact, what I want to do in this blog is to highlight the conclusions I have reached since attending the conference.

Getting buy-in

We need to get more buy-in from the teaching community and the public at large for the knowledge-rich approach, and this means countering the many misleading tropes that get put out by its opponents (rote learning, regurgitation of facts, elitism, lack of relevance) and replacing it with a powerful counter-narrative. I very much liked John Blake‘s phrase “Knowledge is not an imposition, it is an emancipation”. We need to keep highlighting the emancipatory power of knowledge and keep hammering that message in. It is not the knowledge-rich schools that hold back the poor and disadvantaged. Quite the opposite.

It is knowledge-rich education that, quoting Clare Sealy this time, “changes a mirror into a window”. Through a knowledge-rich curriculum, “Great teachers lead the child by the hand from where they are to somewhere else” –  this from the fabulous Christine Counsell. We need to keep very much on message when it comes to this important point. Just like Leavers kept telling us about “taking back control” during the referendum, we need to keep talking about knowledge being freedom, knowledge being power, knowledge opening up wide vistas of opportunity. Knowledge is not a bad word.

ITT is the missing piece of the puzzle

One thing that was quite evident in several of the sessions I attended was the importance of subject knowledge for teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum. Matt Burnage suggested that teachers should have knowledge of the subject they are teaching at a key-stage level above what they teach. So if teaching the Norman Conquest at KS3, they ought to have at the very least GCSE-depth knowledge of it. If teaching the Cold War at GCSE, then they need to have A-Level depth of knowledge. And so on.

Nearly all the speakers I listened to spoke about the need for subject-specific CPD when changing over to a knowledge-rich curriculum, in order to equip teachers to teach at that level of depth. I couldn’t help but wonder if this had implications for Initial Teacher Training (ITT). I braved a question about it to John Blake, and he responded with an impassioned call for universities to do more. (This came with a rather good impression of a university academic lecturing teachers about their shortcomings – could it be David Starkey?)

I do agree. Universities, and school-based ITT, need to do more. There are pockets of excellence here and there, but the picture overall is not a good one. There is too little subject-specific training and too much genericism. Instead of devoting a whole lecture on the subject of creativity, my university tutor could have got us delving into different interpretations of King John or of the Third Reich, sharing expertise, sources, texts and pedagogy specific to these topics. Perhaps the assumption is that we already have the knowledge, because of our undergraduate degrees. But here, John Blake was very clear. Undergraduate knowledge of a subject is not the same as knowing how to teach it.

So yes, universities need to do more, but are they willing to? My distinct impression is that many of them are still very much in thrall to progressive education ideology. Much of the criticism I see on my Twitter feed directed against knowledge-rich education – those tropes about rote learning and regurgitation of facts – has come from university academics. How do we effect change in this sector?

This leads me to my final point.

Institutional memory has been lost

There was a time when knowledge-rich education was considered the norm. I was lucky enough to go to school on the last cusp of that era, before schools went down the road from which we are now trying to veer. In the thirty plus years since, personnel change in schools has been such that most of the senior leaders, the people with power to change their schools, are steeped in the previous orthodoxy and don’t even know what knowledge-rich education looks like. Why else did we need to have a conference about it last Saturday? Why is it we need to preach the gospel of knowledge-rich curricula? It’s because that institutional memory has for the most part been lost. It will be a long road to bring it back, but yesterday felt like a positive start.

Speaking to Stuart Lock during lunch, I voiced my fear that we were in a bubble, preaching to the already converted. He responded with optimism. “A few years ago, you would have got only 50 or so people to attend a conference like this [as opposed to the 300+ attendees that came]. I was expecting to see the same people but looking around, there are so many new faces here today”. The word is spreading. Let’s keep up the momentum and not let up.

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