Thursday, 10 August 2017

Assumption is the mother of all...

Penn: Ryback's gone, Dane. 
Travis Dane: Did you see the body? Assumption is the mother of all F*&% UPS!
Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995)

It can be easy to assume many things. Doing this in schools, like for those up against Steven Seagal, find out that it generally ends up badly. 

This is one of the reasons I am working towards a more knowledge focused curriculum. Students need to be acutely aware of what they need to know... I firmly believe much of the rest will then come. I want to get Knowledge Organisers published for Year 7s arriving, and then for each KS3 unit. This will then benefit students in KS4. I don't want to just assume they know the right things, I want to identify these things and then ensure that they do know.

It is commonplace to reference something in a lesson and enquire, "You studied this last year?" "No we didn't"

Often they did, and just don't remember (a whole other issue...). However sometimes they have not for a variety of reasons: staff absence, student absence, teacher deviation etc. Gaps end up existing for many students, we have to then try fill them... annoying, time consuming, but vital if we decide that particular knowledge is important. The more we can empower students to fill these gaps, the better.

The more dangerous assumption of knowledge, is that students have certain information already, without us - or indeed anyone else - teaching them. This is part of the rationale behind my Year 6/start of Year 7 Knowledge Organiser (see <here>)

In my GCSE textbook, for one particular spec point, students need to know two pieces of Catholic artwork. I thought long and hard about what to include: 'classics', personal favourites, something a 'bit different'? I settled with the 'classics': the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

I have since had one or two teachers moan that 'other books' (including those for other specs, not just our direct rivals!) pick more contemporary art and artwork more "off the beaten track". This is apparently "more interesting" as they have studied those 'classics' so many times before. To one, I said, "That's a shame as I still think these two have so much to offer..." - the conversation went on and it transpired that actually my critic knew very little about either, particularly The Return of the Prodigal Son. 

Firstly, it's vital to remember we are teachers, and by necessity, we have 'done it all before'. I will teach these two pieces of artwork every year, perhaps to two classes. This is totally unconnected to their religious or cultural value or significance. It is also unconnected to my students knowledge and familiarity of the artworks.

If I had picked two more obscure, but perhaps interesting pieces, would I have been denying students knowledge about two key pieces artwork? These are the kind of questions we don't like - what knowledge do I prioritise? After all, as a teacher, that's what you do. You are not neutral, you are not without bias. 

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper was my third choice (after all, we don't need to teach to the spec, and teaching 3 pieces may be beneficial if time allows... or more if you don't like my textbook choices!). Despite being hugely well known, actually it is more commonly seen in jokes or modified form. How can you understand these if you don't know the original? 

I have to admit, I do have personal investment in these two artworks. The Sistine Chapel is at the heart of the Catholic faith; it is the very room where conclave takes place, and popes are elected. This for me, is a valid reason for it's inclusion. It's also breathtaking, and relatively unusual - my parish church certainly doesn't have a ceiling like it! When I visited the Vatican, this was not even up for discussion on the visiting list.

I have also been fortunate enough to see The Return of the Prodigal Son. When visiting the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, I was walking down one of the the main rooms when I saw this huge painting (2.5m by 2m). I didn't know it was kept there (my ignorance!), nor did I know it was so big - every copy I've seen is A3/A4 in school halls, parish halls etc. I stopped in my tracks. It was also possible to get close enough to study the father's hands for myself!

So what do we do? How dangerous is it to assume students have knowledge of the 'classics'? Does it matter if they don't? There is a typical argument for not studying classic literature - does it really matter? Dickens, Shakespeare, Austin, Bronte.... 

When I have to decide, as I do, what knowledge to impart, I need to be confident I am sharing the best of the best. I can't take risks. I can't assume students know these things already. That's why we picked the Sistine Chapel and Rembrandt's masterpiece.

Oh and of course Casey Ryback wasn't dead - he is Ryback!

Image courtesy of Grantland


  1. I think you're right to choose the pieces you did. 1. even if the kids do know them already, it's hardly going to do their education any harm to look at them more closely and consider them in relation to a particular question, i.e. the ways in which art can be used to convey religious ideas 2. if they don't know them already, these pieces are an important part of their cultural heritage, they should know them, just as they should know Austen, Bohemian Rhapsody, who the two Ronnies were and how to make a Yorkshire pudding or a round chapati or whatever ... 3. it's your textbook, you can do it how you like. If you find these pieces fascinating then your enthusiasm will come across to the kids. If there are people who would rather their kids looked at different artworks, then they can show them different artworks instead - what's stopping them? nothing - and/or write their own textbooks. :)