I Love Joe Kirby—and You Should Too

by Guest Blogger
June 25th, 2013

Maybe it’s just my view from across the pond, but CK appears to be rocking the UK. Hats off to Michael Gove, of course, but the real excellence- and equity-inducing power of building students’ knowledge and skills comes from the teachers who embrace a content-rich curriculum.

Joe Kirby is one of those teachers. I’ve never met him, but I know he’s a great teacher because he’s teaching me about core knowledge (yes, the lower-case form, aka, knowledge that’s essential for all of us to share).

Kirby’s outstanding unit (to use the term loosely) on core knowledge started June 15th when he posted “Which ideas are damaging education?” It’s a review of Daisy Christodoulou’s new book, Seven Myths about Education. E. D. Hirsch lauds Seven Myths as “a book from a practitioner that gets the science and the rhetoric right, with an effective organization and a super clear writing style.” For a substantive preview of all seven myths, see Christodoulou’s blog. For a compelling review, let’s turn to Kirby:

Some time in the late 20th and turn of the 21st century, the educational establishment in England took a historic and disastrous wrong turn. Knowledge became mistrusted as limiting and elitist. Facts were branded as useless for the future economy and obsolete due to new technology. Teacher-led instruction was pilloried as passive, boring and ineffective. Subjects were denoted as oppressive constructs and arbitrary middle-class inventions that risked indoctrinating students, reproducing hegemonic values and entrenching social inequalities….

The extraordinary working-class efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to gain knowledge through great literature documented by Jonathan Rose in his book, The Intellectual Lives of the British Working Classesbelie the notion that high culture somehow belongs to an elite.

Seven Myths gathers the evidence from cutting-edge cognitive science about the vital importance of knowledge in memory and cognition to uproot an entrenched status quo and concludes: ‘there is nothing elitist about powerful knowledge: what is elitist is the suggestion that such knowledge belongs to an elite… It’s sometimes said that those who want to teach knowledge want to take us back to the 19th century. In fact the reverse is true. It’s those who don’t want to teach knowledge who want to take us back to the 19th century. For when we consider the 19th century, we see that for many of the elites at the time were extremely reluctant to teach knowledge to the masses, on the grounds that it would make them ‘refractory and seditious’. Combining historical analysis with modern scientific research, this should strike a resounding chord with anyone who wants to see education become more equitable.

On June 18, in “How knowledge is being detached from skills in English, Kirby began sharing his own experiences as an English teacher in London:

As soon as I started teaching English, I was told categorically that ‘English is a skills-based subject’. It was stated in no uncertain terms that students ‘don’t need to know the text, they need to be able to apply their skills to any text’. Knowledge of the rules of grammar didn’t matter as much as transferable skills like writing for purpose and audience. What they read and the content they wrote about wasn’t, apparently, very important. So in many English departments, Cirque du Freak was much more likely to be taught than Oliver Twist….

When teaching a text, I didn’t set out a coherent sequence of concepts for pupils to learn and be tested on. When teaching writing, I didn’t specify the underpinning concepts of grammar in a logical way. When teaching speaking and listening, I thought harder about how to improve their debating skills than how to increase their understanding of the topic’s content. When teaching non-fiction, I was thinking less about persuasive and powerful examples of language that have endured over time, such as Churchill’s and John Bright’s war and anti-war speeches, and more about was directly relevant to my pupils’ immediate concerns, letting them choose their own Great British heroes, and ending up hearing about Ed Sheeran and Wayne Rooney.

I was then shocked when, for instance, I asked pupils about World War II poetry, and was in return asked: ‘Sir, does that mean that there was a first world war?’ It wasn’t that they didn’t know when it was, or between which nations it was fought; it was that they didn’t know that it happened at all.

Many teachers were simply doing what I was doing: teaching and assessing skills, neglecting content, and then wondering why so few of our pupils seemed to know very much.

In his next post, “Why teaching skills without knowledge doesn’t work,” Kirby described what his teaching experiences revealed:

Take as an example the way we read and teach even short novels like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This completely baffled my class the first time I taught it to Year 8, because I failed to specify the prerequisite and deep knowledge necessary for an enduring understanding of the text. Any meaningful interpretation sadly eluded my pupils, because they needed contextual, historical knowledge to make their own meanings of it. The context of twentieth century dictatorship, concepts like communism, capitalism, socialism and fascism, and the biographies of Orwell, Churchill, Stalin and Hitler are rarely specified and tested in English departments nationwide while teaching Animal Farm – yet are completely central to a strong understanding of why the novel was written, what it is about and why it has endured. When my class struggles to think critically about a text, it’s often because I’ve starved them of the deep knowledge they need….

All the evidence shows that reading well depends heavily on general knowledge. Over the last three decades, cognitive science has come to a conclusion that is scientifically robust: critical thinking skills require broad background knowledge. This is the reason why teaching abstract skills devoid of facts such as ‘evaluation’, generic strategies such as ‘skimming’ and unchallenging content like celebrities, TV, Twitter and Cirque du Freak doesn’t help academic achievement: the opportunity cost. Whilst students could be studying the most challenging content, reading authors of books with astonishing depth and complexity, and wrestling with their contradictions and ambiguities, instead we feed them an entertaining diet of stuff they’re already interested in….

Why can’t poor kids benefit from reading Dickens, Orwell and Duffy? Nothing about their writing is inherently elitist. Dickens wrote about poverty and slums; Orwell fought in a civil war as a socialist; Duffy combats gender and class prejudice. There’s nothing elitist about teaching these writers; what’s elitist is reserving them for selective schools…. This divergence is not uprooting inequality in education; it is entrenching it.

On June 20th, Kirby followed-up with “The Double Helix: How knowledge is vital for skills in English,” giving us a striking metaphor:

I want to go into detail now and give one example of a ‘double-helix unit’ that integrated knowledge and skills that really worked. My department gave me a blank slate to design a unit of work on Oliver Twist for a Year 7 class. I sequenced the core knowledge about Dickens’s biography and upbringing, and the experiences that led to him writing the serialised novel in 1837, aged just 24, just as a young Queen Victoria came to the throne. I specified what pupils should learn about 1830s London, its poverty, criminal justice system, capital punishment, the 1834 Poor Laws and workhouse conditions. They learned about street gangs and gender inequality in detail. They learned about prejudice against Jewish merchants and the fever that Dickens’ sister-in-law died of in 1837. As we read Oliver Twist, it hit me how useful all this knowledge was for unlocking the layers of meaning in the novel. They understood why Dickens chose a poor orphan as his hero. They understood why Rose Maylie almost dies from a fever, and why Dickens ensures his character survives in fiction as he could not ensure his beloved sister-in-law could survive in life. They understood why the workhouse existed, and unraveled the mystery of why Oliver’s mother abandoned her baby to the workhouse….

So in my English teaching now, whenever I’m planning a scheme of work on any text, this is my approach. I specify in precise detail the hidden bodies of knowledge that make up student mastery of the text. I decide exactly what I want them to know about the context, plot, characters, themes, language and form. I sequence this valuable knowledge systematically across lessons. I test them regularly on whether they’ve understood and mastered the content I think is essential for them. A look at their interpretations at the end of the unit will tell how big a difference knowledge makes.

Kirby’s unit on core knowledge ended on June 23rd, with a fantastic post titled “What makes a great school curriculum?” Hopefully you’ll read Kirby’s whole unit, but if you’ve only got time for one of the posts, read this one. In The Making of Americans, E. D. Hirsch explains why it is so critical for the people who share a nation to also share some values and knowledge. In this post, Kirby outlines a strong curriculum. He also gives a tragic example of what can happen when people occupy a land without sharing even the most basic values or knowledge:

I was trekking in the Rift Valley, the cradle of civilisation, in Kenya in 2007 when electoral and ethnic violence erupted, killing almost 1,500 people, sparking such horrific events as the 300 unarmed Kikuyu civilians burned alive in a Church on New Year’s Day. Ethnic tensions between Luos and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley had exploded during previous Kenyan elections, such as 1992. When I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on the Tanzanian and Kenyan border, I asked one of the guides why there’d never been electoral violence in neighbouring Tanzania. In one word, he said, ‘education’. Premier Julius Nyere went to great lengths to ensure that from 1960 a national curriculum forged a powerful sense of Tanzanian national identity rather than tribal or ethnic identification. By contrast, no such national curriculum existed in Kenya. Kenyan politics is now disturbingly divided long ethnic lines. Tanzanian politics is not. There are clearly myriad other factors, but one thing’s for sure: it made me realise how much the curriculum matters.

Thanks Joe! Summer school is a great time for enrichment courses. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed yours.



  1. As a proponent of Core Knowledge, I cannot read enough of your blog posts… wonderfully written and the references make great additions to the ideas. This is completely off topic, but I wanted to suggest adding some sore of picture to this blog. Often, I want to pin the post to Pinterest in the hopes of sharing and spreading this thinking to teachers. Unfortunately, I cannot because there are no pictures to grab. I’d love the idea of Core Knowledge spreading its thinking across the country.

    Comment by Tyler — June 25, 2013 @ 10:16 pm

  2. Hi Tyler,

    Thanks for your kind words and your support for Core Knowledge. I should be adding images to the posts and I will try to do that in the future. For now, that’s yet another reason to take a look at Joe Kirby’s blog–he has a great array of images.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — June 26, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

  3. One more reason why we have to build the system with a solid base of content and teaching:

    Children’s Math, Reading Gains Don’t Survive High School

    Comment by DC Parent — June 27, 2013 @ 12:16 pm

  4. I am one of Joe Kirby’s students and I can tell you that when we were reading “Animal Farm”, I did not struggle to understand the class struggles between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in Russia and I certainly did not struggle with the allegory to Stalin, Lenin, the Tsar, Churchill and Hitler in the story. I can also tell you that he has all these ideas online but never converses them with us. Not once have I talked to him about a different lesson structure, a new learning style etc. One thing he struggles to command in this quest for intelligence and literacy is authority, you cannot try to teach a class if you cannot control them.

    Comment by lagjvv — July 1, 2014 @ 1:30 am

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