What does it mean for knowledge to be well-connected?
There has been lots of talk about building schemas in recent years. A schema is usually defined as a well-connected network of ideas stored in a person’s long term memory. Information stored in schemas is said to be easier to recall than isolated facts. This is useful, according to Rosenshine, because, “having larger and better connected patterns of knowledge frees up space in our working memory. This available space can be used for reflecting on new information and for problem solving.”
It’s no wonder teachers have been keen to harness these findings. Who wouldn’t want to make their students more reflective and better problem solvers? The problem with the schema model is that it’s not entirely clear how we should go about building them. What should teachers actually do to develop these networks in their students’ minds?
The problem lies in a lack of clarity about what it means for concepts to be connected. If we can give an account of these connections, and in particular how they relate to the academic disciplines, then, I will argue, we can develop a much deeper understanding of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment for all our subjects.
Connected — but how?
Intuitively, we all know that knowledge must be connected. Knowledgeable people don’t just spew out random arrays of facts; they somehow seem to be able to weave them together into coherent narratives and patterns.
Teachers writing about education have often tried to represent this intuition with diagrams like the one below. A transition takes place whereby something random and chaotic in the outside world becomes neatly arranged and connected inside the brain.
Adam Boxer, in his recent book ‘Teaching Secondary Science: A Complete Guide’, uses a similar representation to map out how knowledge develops. In the chapter ‘What is understanding?’, he gives the following account:
The problem with diagrams such as these is that it’s not entirely clear what they are representing. What are these dots, randomly arranged in the outside world yet joined together inside our brains? What are these lines that join the dots together? What are we talking about when we say that ‘connections start to form’, or ‘new knowledge solidifies’, or that new knowledge ‘becomes a hub for new knowledge connections’?
Connections in practice
These questions are not just academic. How we answer them directly determines the kinds of things we do in the classroom. As I will argue in subsequent blogs, the reason so many useful pedagogical tools become susceptible to ‘lethal mutations’ is that teachers are unable to state clearly what we mean by knowledge, or to give an account of how that knowledge is ‘connected’ in their subject.
To avoid the illusion that by drawing pretty pictures we are ‘dual coding’ or that simply by writing under the visualiser we are ‘modelling academic writing’, we need an account of knowledge that goes beyond the intuitive picture of dots joined together by lines. The aim of this series of blogs is to begin to give teachers a sense of the logical connections between concepts that are characteristic of each discipline.
This understanding will make it much clearer which pedagogical tools are useful at what points in each subject. Thus, I hope to address questions like: “is dual coding relevant to history teachers?”, or, “I’m a science teacher. Do CPD sessions on academic literacy apply to me?” (Spoiler alert: my answers will be ‘not really’ and ‘absolutely’, respectively.)
I also hope to aid curriculum leaders, at a subject and school-wide level, in reflecting on how to map out a meaningful journey for their students. I’ve often heard questions like, “the knowledge in maths is fixed, so isn’t curriculum planning just a matter of sequencing?”, or, “how should I teach disciplinary knowledge in English?’.
My aim is to show that such questions are misconceived. With a better understanding of knowledge and how it is connected, we can design a curriculum that deliberately moves students from everyday to disciplinary understandings, in a way that makes more sense for classroom teachers and that brings learning to life for our students.