I posted a blog back in October about my view that perhaps there is something more we could take from the ‘mastery’ model of learning that would apply to English. Since then I have worked with the idea and am increasingly feeling that the way in which the average primary school teaches Writing objectives could be better organised to provide a cohesive programme of learning for students.
Two key threads have run through my thinking in the past few months: ‘de-contextualisation’ and ‘transferability’.
Firstly, many primary school teachers are happy with the concept that learning objectives ought to be ‘de-contextualised’, as widely promoted by Shirley Clarke and others. Now, it happens that I don’t always and entirely agree with this. In fact, I very rarely agree with any systems that stipulate unbreakable rules for teaching. Nevertheless, there is much to value in the idea that learning objectives should focus clearly on the intended learning of knowledge or skills, rather than simply learning ‘about’ a theme. Examples often stated include ideas like replacing “To write instructions for making a sandwich” with “To write instructions”.
I happen to think that such a change is generally positive. It focuses the child (and teacher) on the particular teaching and learning that is intended. After all, the sandwich-making really is just a context in which to develop knowledge and understanding of the instruction genre itself.
However, one of the arguments in support of such a change is that it develops transferable learning. Others more knowledgeable than me (Daisy Christodoulou, Daniel Willingham, Harry Webb, etc.) have discussed and demonstrated frequently the challenges of transferring learning, and it seems that the cognitive evidence is clear that transfer is considerably more difficult than it might appear. So if the learning cannot be transferred, is ‘de-contextualising’ objectives worth it?
In fact, I think we need to go a step further – at least as children get older. I think we can take the advantages of ‘de-contextualising’ learning and combine it with some of what we know about mastery to try to build up more secure knowledge in our students about how to write well.
Currently, it seems that the vast majority of primary schools organise the curriculum around ‘topics’ or ‘themes’. For example, I will be teaching “Victorians” after half term. Teachers go to some lengths to select writing opportunities and genres which fit well with the theme, presumably in an effort to provide some sense of cohesion.
However, this leads to that same problem of valuing context over content. Inspectors and Senior Leaders are now well used to asking children “what are you learning?”, and while in an individual lesson a student may be able to point to specific objective, over the half-term or term, it is very much the context which dominates. In Writing this can often mean students tackling 4 or 5 different genres across a half-term which leap from one technique to another, while providing only the cohesion of a humanities theme.
What I propose, and indeed have started to do in my own class, is that we need to adjust the balance. Not throw out topics – far from it – but think a little more carefully about how we provide a clearer picture of learning for our students. After all, if a child writes a persuasive advert for a schoolbag in the autumn term, what hope have they of applying those common skills in a persuasive argument about Victorian child labour, if we haven’t made clear to them that persuasion has some common features whatever the context?
I have tried to focus all of my over-arching Writing themes on writing for a purpose, in the sense of affecting the reader in some ways. I think this is useful because it can link so clearly to their own reading, but also because I feel that purpose is at the heart of understanding how to write effectively.
So, back to my Victorians theme. Rather than selecting writing genres which provide nice topic-links, I have selected topic-links which provide effective learning links. I have selected as my over-arching theme “Influencing the reader”. We will teach four main writing texts, all of which focus on affecting the viewpoint of the reader, with some common strands regardless of the specific outcome. Of course, this may change as we progress through the unit, but the intention is that it will include:
Persuasive Article – extolling the virtues of a “new” Victorian invention (perhaps in a competition for best invention of the 19th Century?)
Descriptive Writing – based on aspects of Oliver Twist, using vocabulary particularly to create a sense of place (such as on entering Fagin’s Den)
Formal Persuasive Letter – applying for a servant’s position (based on our visit to a local Victorian Manor house)
Informal personal letter – writing home about the hard labour of being in service
Each of these texts would often be found in a “Victorians” topic, so the change is not radical. What is different is the selection of the texts around a common theme. Over the course of the half-term, we will be able to clearly draw out the common threads of writing to influence the reader. It means that by Easter I expect children to both know and apply their knowledge of how to affect the reader’s point of view. They should recognise that they can do this through well-selected vocabulary to accentuate positives/negatives accordingly; that they can use connective phrases to add further evidence, or contrasting detail to support their point; that selection of the appropriate tone is important in achieving your intended effect.
Hopefully this knowledge will be related more closely to the purpose of the writing than the specific genres, so that a persuasive newspaper article, or leaflet, or debate argument in the future becomes linked to those “influence the reader” techniques, more than to previous newspapers, leaflets or arguments.
Significantly, by organising writing into ‘themes’ such as this, target-setting and monitoring can become much more effective. I have long been disappointed by the willingness to set targets for students which they either cannot understand, or will not have sufficient opportunity to apply. This structure will allow me to set targets which specifically link to the focus of our work over the half term. For some of my low level 3 writers that might be using adjectives to expand on descriptions in a positive or negative way, while some of those working towards level 5 might begin to use nominalization for effect (This tragedy…) or make use of well-selected purposeful vocabulary. They will all have opportunities to use and apply those skills over the course of the unit enough times to secure their understanding of what is being asked of them.
What’s more, where intervention is needed for those students who are not picking up the learning, there will be scope for quick identification, intervention and perhaps most importantly, further opportunities to apply and embed that learning before racing on to something completely new.
Of course, this isn’t going to transform writing overnight. But hopefully it might go some way to tackling the challenges of transferral of learning, as well as securing much clearer understanding of what has been learned and how and when it can be used again in the future.
As schools prepare for changing their units of work to meet the requirements of the new curriculum, perhaps considering how the focus on Writing can move from topic links to genre links might help to support students in mastering the skills of good writing across a range of genres.