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  • Writer's picturecoombeamy

What knowledge is most versatile?

‘We must ensure that we hand down our great literary heritage to our pupils, explicitly and carefully, so that even the most disadvantaged are given the knowledge they need to develop personal responses.’ The Trouble With English and How to Address It, Zoe Helman and Sam Gibbs

Personal responses in English literature rest on a body of knowledge; it would be tricky for our students, who are novice learners, to develop an informed personal response to a text without explicit teaching of carefully-selected knowledge by expert English teachers. Making these selections, though, is challenging. As I’ve explored here, one of the big questions we grapple with when approaching our English literature texts for GCSE is: what do students most need to know? We must grapple with this question in order to reach informed decisions about the most versatile knowledge within each text, so that every student in every classroom is taught the knowledge they need.

Our English curriculum that we are co-developing is highly selective and highly specific.

What do we mean by being selective?

We discuss and debate what to teach, recognising that there are almost unlimited possibilities.

We discuss and debate what not to teach, recognising that there is limited time.

We select versatile knowledge, which enables students to think deeply and write in multiple contexts.

For example, a versatile quotation for Sybil Birling in ‘An Inspector Calls’ (GCSE) is ‘girls of that class’. Students can draw upon this quotation to comment upon Priestley’s portrayal of class, responsibility, age and gender, alongside drawing meaningful comparisons with other characters in the play. Both Sybil and Sheila show prejudice against Eva Smith due to her class. Whereas Sheila is open-minded and willing to learn from past mistakes, Sybil stubbornly maintains her prejudice throughout. The actions of both Arthur and Sybil are rooted in prejudice: Arthur refuses a pay rise due to a deep-seated belief in the social hierarchy; Sybil refuses help to those most in need due to her moral superiority. A less versatile quotation is ‘her husband’s social superior’. It would be tricky to utilise this quotation in the same way to make insightful connections with each of the major themes, or effective comparisons with the other characters.

What do we mean by being specific?

We list knowledge using precise wording, definitions and examples.

For example, we don’t simply list responsibility as a one-word key theme in our unit plans. We specify what specifically about responsibility will be taught and revisited (alongside study of characters and methods):


Priestley promotes social responsibility as a way of tackling inequality in society.

  • In 1912, if people fell ill or unemployed, there was no benefits system to help; they had to turn to private charities.

  • In 1945, the socialist Labour party came into power and established the welfare state - a system in which the government looks after the poorest in society.

  • Through the characters’ actions, Priestley demonstrates that many wealthy people were irresponsible; they did not think enough about other people, which led to great inequality in society.

Why do we need to be selective?

Overload: our students are novice learners, study 9+ subjects for GCSE and are easily overloaded.

Forgetting: we forget easily. Being highly selective frees up time for revisiting to fluency.

Why do we need to be specific?

Make better decisions: specifying knowledge in advance avoids sub-optimal in-the-moment decisions.

Leave nothing to chance: agreeing on the most versatile knowledge means all students access the same.

How do we make decisions?

‘Collaborative planning within subject teams is one of the most powerful ways to drive professional development.' Kat Howard and Claire Hill, Symbiosis: The Curriculum and the Classroom

We need to involve our expert English teachers and our wider subject community in our decision making process, making sure that we:

1) Know our subject: know what excellence looks like, know the knowledge that underpins it, know the pitfalls.

We scour the best student essays and discuss what knowledge underpins this writing. We learn from being examiners, finding the bright spots and spotting the pitfalls that we want to preempt and avoid.

2) Read and learn: know who the best thinkers are in our subject community, and learn from each other.

We share our GCSE English literature knowledge with others in the subject community and seek out constructive feedback to shape our thinking. Thank you to Peter Tse for the great suggestion of one-line thesis statements attached to each theme!

We learn from the writing of great thinkers in our subject community: David Didau, Zoe Helman, Sam Gibbs, Kat Howard, Tom Needham, Andy Tharby, Joe Kirby, Chris Curtis, Elisabeth Bowling, Peter Tse, Lia Martin, and Daisy Christodoulou, among many, many others who generously write and share each week.

3) Discuss, debate: collaborate, discuss, debate and make decisions together about what knowledge.

We share time as English leads and within our English teams, dedicating subject CPD to curriculum development.

We make knowledge selection decisions together, comparing options and choosing the most versatile knowledge.

4) Test it out: write essays, create resources, teach, and feedback, helping us improve over time.

We write essays to test out our knowledge selection, checking if it enables students to complete in-depth analysis. Some examples of where we've started can be downloaded here:

English Literature Knowledge Testing_ Top Grade Essays
Download PDF • 208KB

We invite teachers to give feedback on units as they teach them, learning from our approaches and fine-tuning our selection and sequence to improve it over time.

In summary:

  • Highly selective and highly specific curriculum planning helps us make better decisions in the classroom and leaves nothing to chance.

  • Highly collaborative curriculum development helps us build our knowledge together.

Curriculum planning is an adventure! It is a journey that we embark upon together and is a process of continual improvement and refinement. It would not be possible without the time, dedication and thinking of my brilliant English colleagues and others in the community who I look to, and learn from, continually. I am ever grateful for the time others share to help me improve my thinking.

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