Review by Jon Hutchinson

Assistant head, Reach Academy Feltham, and visiting fellow at Ambition Institute

16 Dec 2019, 5:00


Jon Hutchinson’s top edu blogs of the week, 09 December 2019


(don’t) Forget About It: Activating Background Knowledge with Retrieval practice in ELA


Retrieval practice is in danger of falling off the edufad conveyer belt, mandated through policy without meaningful consideration of how it can be implemented intentionally. Thank goodness that, in this blogpost, US teacher Jasmine Lane gets stuck into the nuance of the shiny new strategy within the context of teaching Macbeth. The depth of thought shows that “activating prior knowledge” will only get you so far; to truly transform learning requires a skilful teacher considering what, how and when pupils are retrieving knowledge, as well as how it is then integrated into “organised knowledge structures”. Of particular utility is how Lane begins with the theory before giving concrete examples of identifying which knowledge items are crucial to answer specific questions comprehensively.


The Curriculum: What to cut?


This is essential reading for any senior leadership team considering what they should – and shouldn’t – be asking of their teachers. Whilst everyone is busy reviewing their curriculum content, it is easy to forget some other aspects of schooling which have a significant impact on teachers and pupils. Mary Myatt identifies three main areas in this punchy blogpost: school feedback and marking policies, the use of data, and performance appraisal. Each of them carries the risk of generating huge amounts of workload and stress, with very little gain. There will be cheers as Myatt condemns common practices of the bad old days: “Carting truckloads of books home doesn’t provide timely and helpful feedback.” There is plenty of practical guidance for what we should be focusing on instead (“We need teachers talking together about the features of high-quality work and how to support all pupils to get there.”)


Lead well – or die trying.


I have long admired Old Primary Head, and gained much from the wisdom of his writing, which is always characterised by integrity and a brutal honesty, often self-directed. This blogpost is no exception, and deals with how the current hilariously (not that hilarious) unrealistic demands on school leaders can negatively impact health. One insight from this piece challenges the prevalent narrative of short-term superheroes: “I keep saying that our longevity in our profession is the biggest measure of the success we have.” People are not superheroes, and pretending they are is folly. If we don’t heed OPH’s advice, we may well find ourselves sleepwalking into a headteacher crisis, just at the time when we need them most.


Cultural Capital: an exploration


Sometimes blogposts make you think, sometimes they make you laugh, and sometimes you just take out a notepad and learn. This piece on cultural capital is the latter, with Penny Rabiger providing a thoroughly comprehensive analysis of this slippery and often unexamined term. The design of British education as a kind of ‘sorting hat’ is challenged, alongside traditional views of what constitutes ‘essential knowledge’. The very terminology that we use to discuss culture is unpacked to reveal the biases underneath. If you want to inject cultural capital into the lifeblood of your school (and you should) this piece will take you beyond the superficial, bolt-on tick box approach and towards something far richer and more meaningful for all.


Where is the evidence for reading comprehension strategies?


We end with a remarkable opportunity. The chance to win a million pounds*. How? Simply solve Solomon Kingsnorth’s challenge. After taking a magnifying glass to the research in reading comprehension strategies, it’s fair to say that Kingsnorth is less than satisfied. In this piece, he challenges the cherished belief that ‘comprehension skills’ can be taught or developed independently of a particular text. This is more than an academic concern, since “the intense focus on reading comprehension strategies” he contends, “has completely distorted the teaching of reading and has minimised understanding of the greater role of background knowledge and vocabulary in reading comprehension”.


*there are a few caveats…

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