Organising Knowledge: On Triangles and Ts and Russian Dolls.

A curriculum can sometimes seem like one damn thing after another, especially if taught in blocks or thought of as a journey connecting different topics as you go from A to Y with Z being an exam. In an A level course with a syllabus demanding certain topics be studied, end of term exams, a mock or two and the final exam, maybe coursework, the focus on ‘stuff that needs to be studied’ is intense. In many subjects there also needs to be an idea of how to apply knowledge to contemporary problems, which is difficult if pupils don’t really grasp what they are applying to the problem, let alone how to discern what the extent of the problem itself might be.

Andrew Lay wrote a blog post on ‘topicality’ where he looked at the tension between exploring real world problems and the need for understanding the more abstract thinking in his subject ‘Economics’. What interested me was the fact that many economics students are pretty much ‘Novices’ when they opt for the subject. Unlike a Maths student who, having studied maths for many years, might be able to ‘do the Math’ at A level if they opt for that subject but not necessarily the economics if they opt for that. This reminded me of my subject ‘Drama’ as many students were pretty much novices when they began the A Level course. I changed my approach as a teacher due to pupils not grasping the academic, aesthetic or practical rigours of the subject despite them being taught the syllabus. The problem is a syllabus is merely a glimpse at a subject. When taught well, pupils can get good grades in the exam but they can do this without understanding the subject.

For many people this blog post might seem a bit ‘grandmother-sucking-eggs’, and, if so, I apologise, but it is not intended as some great insight, rather it is a story of my journey as a teacher from teaching a lot of content to thinking more about ‘meaning’.

When I started teaching, drama was a heavily practical subject at ks3 and at GCSE, but the A level was a completely different proposition, suddenly we had theory – two 3 hour written papers added to a more ‘academic’ approach to performance. Pupils would go from GCSE thinking they were ‘good’ drama students and many others would arrive on the course having no experience of drama at GCSE at all, having come to it from being in a drama club or a vague idea of wanting to be famous. The subject even had a different name at A level, it wasn’t ‘drama’ it was Theatre Studies. It was more akin to subjects like Economics, Politics, Sociology etc. which pupils were taking for the first time. And like those subjects drama has a topicality issue, students go to see plays, think about them and write about them. In Economics, Politics etc. students look at current issues, think about them and write about them. Added to this, in theatre studies a significant amount of the work was practical and was so topical as to immediately disappear from view as soon as it is created. Live theatre doesn’t hang around. You have to know what’s going on because you can’t rewind a live performance…

This was the time in schools when exam results were becoming far more important – Ofsted and league tables were becoming a big concern and much teaching was becoming fixated on ‘teaching to the test’ – what did pupils need to get a good grade? As exam boards began to publish more detailed criteria – teaching became more focused on what pupils need to write to get a higher mark. The tick-box answer took over.

This reminded me of John Searle’s Chinese room in which Searle imagines that he is locked in a room, he later explained it in the following way:

“Imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a data base) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program). Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.”

John Searle 1999

It seemed to me that pupils were getting the grades in theatre studies as they manipulated the ‘symbols’ (the quotes, examples, ‘criteria’ hitting sentences) without understanding the subject. They had low level knowledge that worked for exams but not for their subject knowledge. On one level, you might say, this is of little concern but when it came to making their own theatre and when it came to them writing about theatre they had seen (the ‘topical’ parts of the subject) they had to rely heavily on my steering as a teacher. In the parlance I had to ‘spoon-feed’ them because they had no real understanding of what was going on, they couldn’t ‘converse’ or reach any conclusions about the work they made or saw beyond ‘it was good or it was rubbish’. I reached the conclusion that it was because they could see the trees but not the wood. (I warn you, you are just about to be hit with a deluge of mixed metaphors).

They didn’t understand context. Breadth. They didn’t know aesthetics. They didn’t know ‘Art’, ‘History’, ‘Culture’, ‘Politics’ etc. etc. etc. So when they were writing about stuff they had to draw on what little they knew and this ‘little’ was all detail with no overarching narrative to hold it all together. They could give criteria-laden answers to practiced questions but they couldn’t apply this knowledge to novel situations. When they saw something new they had no ability to work out where it ‘fitted’ in the overall scheme of things.

And, to make matters worse, the A level was then split into AS and A level. We had to get our students up to speed in, basically, two terms. The temptation was to teach them far less content, spoon feed them more, make their experience far more ‘Chinese-Room’ than it had previously been. I decided this was not the approach to take. Instead of less content, I went for more. But not more ‘exam-criteria tick-box content’, instead ‘context’ became the order of the day. I started to really think about meaning.

This is how I explained it at the time. I called it the ‘upside-down triangle’. I know, it is not an upside-down triangle, but, well, anyway, if you ask most people to draw an upside down triangle this is what they draw:

The ‘upside-down’ triangle

So, ‘top of the triangle’ (the wider bit) is context and the ‘point’ is the detail. The top is Breadth and the journey to the point gives us Depth.

This corresponds to the ‘T’ shaped curriculum where the horizontal line represents breadth and the vertical equals depth. The triangle, however, is more ‘graded’ in that it gives you a way of ‘getting to the point’ which turned out to be helpful in exam answer structure for essays and paragraphs, things are placed in context. More of this later. The question is always what is the balance between breadth and depth and the answer in a short two year exam class with a large number of novices for many teachers seemed to be to go for as much bottom of the triangle detail you can shake a pen at, because it’s what the exam board want. But I wasn’t so sure, I started to teach more of the top of the triangle.

So T or Upside-Down triangle, take your pick. Another way of thinking about it is Russian Dolls, we could spend a lot of time teaching about the littlest doll without focusing what contains that doll, and that doll and that doll…

Knowledge is contained in other knowledge

How did this work? Well, in the original ‘Theatre Studies’ exam, pupils had to study and answer questions on a theatre practitioner and we had a choice of four to study, these were Bertolt Brecht, Konstantin Stanislavsky, Antonin Artaud and Edward Gordon Craig. They had to study two play texts and write about one play they had seen. On top of this they had to perform a monologue and a duologue from two contrasting plays and then take part in a group project in which they were asked to devise a piece of theatre. The practical work had to be supported with a ‘diary’ or ‘working notebook’ and also an examiner/moderator would ask them questions, a Viva.

A ‘bottom of the triangle’, teach to the test, approach would do the following – teach one practitioner, see one play, teach two texts, provide/suggest monologues and duologues and provide stimulus material for the devised piece, heavily scaffold the notebook and rehearse and rehearse the Viva as a ‘mock’. This was where we were, and many other schools that I knew of too. Our children weren’t learning about the subject, they were doing quite well in the exam. It didn’t seem broken to those on the outside but I wanted to fix it.

A ‘top of the triangle’ approach was different. Instead of getting bogged down in detail – we took a ‘see the wood’, ‘don’t get lost in the trees’ approach. In the same amount of teaching time, we covered more content but the way that content was organised led to greater understanding. We taught three practitioners, three texts, went to see numerous numbers of plays, asked the pupils to source and suggest monologues and duologues and had whole class dialogue and working notebooks as central to the teaching.

This ‘moving up the triangle’ approach can be explained most usefully in the case of the three practitioners. The three were, Stanislavsky, Brecht and Artaud. The context, the top of the triangle, was not just for each practitioner it became something that was top of the triangle for the whole course: ‘truth’. What might be the truth of ‘what it is to be human’ and how a theatre artist interprets that and shows that was what brought both breadth and order to our studies.

Because we were covering three practitioners who had contrasting views we were able to cover a large amount of ground, the vast majority of which was beyond the narrow exam remit but rewarded greater study for the amount of understanding students began to have for the subject. This understanding occurred quite quickly. Stanislavsky meant the study of realism and naturalism, Brecht brought expressionism and Marxism to the table and Artaud Surrealism, emotional and spiritual communication, and the Absurd. In order to understand Marx, political history, particularly of Germany and Eastern Europe were explored. ‘Alienation’ – representing underlying truths beyond ‘common sense’ required us to view what common sense might be, the notion of ‘the real’ – is it what it looks like? Stanislavsky and Brecht were pitted against each other, a dialectic, pupils were encouraged to understand both and to argue for and against them in debates and discussions. Artaud was added to the mix, his theatre of cruelty brought another way of understanding the world. Both Brecht and Artaud brought us to Peter Brook and beyond western theatre to Mei Lanfang, to African storytelling to Katakhali dance theatre and back round via Pina Bausch to DV8 and other contemporary theatre companies, most notably, then, Berkoff and Theatre de Complicite. By seeing each of these roots of twentieth century theatre students began to have a great understanding of the why as well as the who, what, when, where and, right at the bottom of the triangle, the how. It was the ‘how’ stuff that carried the bulk of the marks for the exam, yet they were spending less time on the how, more time on the breadth and more time thinking about and arguing about which they preferred and why. This, in turn, led to better, more intelligent theatre being created, better working notebooks and superb Vivas. They could talk the talk because they knew their stuff. The ‘topicality’ issue became about them applying their breadth of knowledge and figuring out how the ‘depth’ of productions seen, studied and made fitted in to the overall picture. Here is where they really learnt how instead of three opposing views it was more of a Venn diagram – some things fitted into more than one viewpoint and some things didn’t easily fit at all. At first sight…

The A level exam that pupils currently study is different to this, it has a wider range of practitioners and is more reflective of world theatre and even more diverse voices. The GCSE is a better preparation for the A level but still, I believe, it requires the ‘top of the triangle’ approach in order to bring the curriculum narrative together and to explore why different approaches are taken and the arguments that this might entail.

In the same amount of time it took them before, paradoxically, to learn less, they were learning more. They were understanding more, becoming able to understand theatre both as makers and as members of an audience.

They also got higher grades, made great theatre and wrote and spoke brilliantly. When it came to writing essays and exam answers the ‘upside-down triangle’ gave them a shape and a way of talking about their essay. Each essay began with a broad ‘contextual’ paragraph and/or a signpost as to what was to follow. The essay and each paragraph would go from top of the triangle down a number of ‘organising’ ideas until they got to ‘the point/s’ this was where the ‘examples’ were, the content that ticks the boxes. I would give feedback like: “You got to the point too soon,” or “you need better top of the triangle stuff,” or “Your point of the triangle didn’t contain enough examples and in this paragraph you missed the point of the triangle entirely,” etc. etc.

It was later I was to discover that I was now, basically, teaching through the Trivium model: teach the ‘grammar’, the knowledge – ensure it is joined up, look for and create meaning. Then ‘dialectic’ engage with the arguments and debates, explore the tensions and develop the pupil’s own opinions and thoughts. ‘Rhetoric’ then gradually help the pupils to become able to express their own ideas, their own art, free of the teacher, eloquently, persuasively and beautifully.

Instead of the instrumental approach of trying to deliver ‘results’ the wiser approach seemed to be to teach the subject as a whole, an idea I explore further in ‘Curriculum’.

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