Say no to Gradgrind, and Yes to Scrooge and Creativity…

One of the most frequently heard criticisms of a Knowledge-Rich curriculum is that it will turn all teachers into domineering lecturers, presiding over row after row of bowed heads, repeating sentence after sentence after sentence in an attempt to beat learning into reluctant young minds. This image of brutal Victorian schooling often comes complete with a reference to perhaps the most famous exponent of the art: the infamous, mean and dictatorial Gradgrind.

The Gradgrind I am speaking of, of course, is Thomas Gradgrind, from Dickens’s novel Hard Times. “Inflexible, dry and dictatorial” is Dickens’s way of describing the school board Superintendent, who provided the perfect caricature for mocking schools taking a Knowledge-Rich approach.
Dickens’s memorable opening lines provide an extreme example of this:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

Gradgrind has been seized upon by those who would seek to conflate a school taking a Knowledge-Rich approach with an extreme zero-tolerance discipline system, silent classrooms and rote recitation of core facts. Of course, there are some schools pursuing some of these approaches as a response to the challenges that they face in preparing students for the more challenging examinations that they will face, or in trying to turn around schools where there has been systematic and long-standing underperformance.

In the Amethyst Trust, however, we see things very differently.

Nowhere is this clearer to see than in our Creative Arts subjects. My disclaimer in writing this is that I am a Drama teacher, so I’m all about promoting and celebrating the contributions that the arts makes to young people, and have indeed seen dance, drama, music, art and sport be the transforming factor in any number of young lives. In subjects where the assessment is all about the skills and where the onus is on students to use freedom, explore widely and demonstrate freedom, you might well expect me to be a sceptic about the value of a Knowledge-Rich approach in the Creative Arts.

My own teaching has been as far away from Gradgrindian practice as it is possible to be.

But, dear reader, I have had a conversion – I have become a Knowledge-Rich believer.

In the spirit of the upcoming festive season, it is instead to another of Charles Dickens’s most memorable characters that I turn when I think about this transformation: inevitably, it is A Christmas Carol’s Ebenezer Scrooge. But it is not just in the story’s tribute to the power of having your mind change that resonates with me when I think about the importance of the creative arts, but it is also the tale’s complete acceptance of – and indeed insistence on – magic.

In the Amethyst Trust, we believe that great teaching can be a form of magic, but rather than it being the sparkly, in-your-face kind of magic, it is the building of successful learning habits, the use of effective structures, the instilling of a passion for knowledge, and the modelling of high standards of performance that makes the magic. But, we do not believe – as some other Knowledge-Rich schools have sometimes done – that the creative arts need to be curtailed to make room for “more important” areas of the curriculum. The narrowing of the curriculum in this way has been criticised by everyone from the leaders of creative industries, to our leading artists and performers, to OFSTED’s Chief Inspector. And we agree with them. Like the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a little of the sprinkling of the magic of the creative arts can open the hardest of hearts and provide that important cultural capital that all of our students deserve.

Like the guiding ghosts of Dickens’ story, the creative arts can and does turn lives around.

We also don’t believe that a Knowledge-Rich approach can’t go hand-in-hand with great teaching of the creative arts. In the Gradgrindian fantasy of the critics of the Knowledge-Rich approach, there would be no time for children to explore, to create, to innovate and to make mistakes under the beady eye of watchful and cruel teachers determined to batter knowledge into them. But that’s not how we do things in the Amethyst Trust. We wholeheartedly believe that the creative arts should belong in any Knowledge-Rich curriculum.

In fact, what I have come to know – after my own Scrooge-like transformation – is that students produce better, more exciting and meaningful drama when they are knowledgeable about the art form, about the tools of the craft, about the technical terminology, about the contexts and traditions. Rather than stumbling around blindly and hoping for them to strike fortunately upon inspiration, but providing students with high-quality subject knowledge we send them into their creative activities empowered, confident and assured that they know what they are doing, why they are doing it and how to be successful at it, just like the practitioners, theorists and innovators who have gone before them.

This is also true of our other creative arts subjects, and, just like drama, they too have been transformed as part of our Knowledge-Rich journey of discovery. As Scrooge voyages through his past, present and into his future, we too have seen errors of our ways in the past and tried to glimpse the future of the teaching of the creative arts. Now we ask our young people to have extensive experience of art movements, artists, styles and techniques. We ask our dancers to be able to reel off technical terminology and to pirouette around the names of styles and artists as nimbly as they would around a sprung floor. Our musicians come into contact with a vast array of genres, styles and approaches; our students experience sport enriched with knowledge of the biology, psychology, strategy and history of the games they learn to play.
At this festive season of magic and life (and not to mention my absolute favourite time of year), we must never forget that it is pleasure, engagement and passion that makes students successful, and in our Knowledge-Rich journey we are aiming to support teachers with the ability to instil these qualities to students who are equipped to take advantage of the opportunities provided. Great learning can feel like magic, and I believe – biased, as I am – that it is in the creative arts that this magic is the strongest of all.

We at the Amethyst would like to wish you a Merry Christmas at this the end of an exciting year of educational transformation in our Trust. And at this reflective time of year when resolutions are made, we ask only one more transformation of you: when you think of what we are trying to achieve, think not of Gradgrind, but of Scrooge. Because Scrooge at the end of the story is a changed man – passionate, engaged and determined to make the best of his life, and that is all that we can ask of our teachers, and all we can ever ask of our students, too.