Curriculum matters: Part 4 – Shakespeare’s education

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This is the fourth instalment in a 7-part series. Read part one, part two and part three.

Among the many slurs directed at the playwright William Shakespeare, it is claimed he was a plagiarist. The Tempest, we are told, is his only truly original play. Robert Greene famously called Shakespeare “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers”.

Plagiarism software has recently been used to analyse Shakespeare’s texts and has found, among other things, that he “borrowed” liberally from a book called A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels by George North.

“Shakespeare not only uses the same words as North, but often uses them in scenes about similar themes, and even the same historical characters,” explains the New York Times.

Geoffrey Bullough’s eight-volume Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare lifts the lid on some of the source texts from which Shakespeare shamelessly stole. He was inspired by Plutarch’s Lives and Hollinshed’s Chronicles, as well as Montaigne’s Essays and of course by Ovid, Seneca and Plautus.

But his plays were not merely carbon copies, Shakespeare combined them in unconventional ways, subverted them, and made substantial changes to them.

For example, Bullough shows us how Shakespeare entwined two separate tales to make The Merchant of Venice and decided to kill Lear and Cordelia at the end of King Lear when in his chronicle source both characters survived with Lear restored to the throne.

Bullough also shows us how Shakespeare had Othello murder Desdemona, when in Cinthio’s original Italian story, Iago did the devilish deed. He also added an extra set of twins to The Comedy of Errors.

Therefore, to call Shakespeare a plagiarist is unfair: his originality was his ability to transform what he had read, heard recited, or remembered from his school days and make something new and startling from them. Indeed, I’m reminded of TS Eliot’s aphorism: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better or at least something different.”

What’s more, Shakespeare inhabited a literary culture in which imitation of earlier models was applauded rather than derided. In Renaissance creative writing – or “rhetoric” as it was called – invention was highly regarded.

In Shakespeare’s Originality by John Kerrigan, there’s a chapter devoted to Much Ado About Nothing which reveals a play that is “pieced and patched and recycled” out of various Italian tales. It’s “radical novelty” was a matter of the “piecemeal superflux” of reused materials.

As such, Shakespeare’s gift, it could be argued, is the breadth and depth of the foundational knowledge – his cultural capital – upon which he was able to draw to create his original works. It is therefore worthwhile, as we seek to set the parameters of our own broad and balanced curriculum, exploring the curriculum to which Shakespeare was exposed while at school in Stratford.

Shakespeare’s schooling

In Teaching Shakespeare, Rex Gibson says that: “Shakespeare’s schooling provided an excellent resource for the future playwright. Everything Shakespeare learned at school he used in some way in his plays.” For example, Gibson tells us: “Having mastered the rules of language, he was able to break and transform them.”

We believe Shakespeare attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford, although there is no record of Shakespeare’s name on the register. His father’s position on the council (by the time Shakespeare was of school age, his father John was an alderman) brought with it free education for his sons so it’s inconceivable to think he wouldn’t have taken advantage of the opportunity.

Grammar schools like King Edward VI were part of the Tudor educational revolution of which the chief beneficiaries were middle class boys like Shakespeare, who were being groomed to be lawyers and clerks, Church of England ministers, and secretaries to politicians or indeed politicians themselves.

Grammar school pupils didn’t study history or maths, and they didn’t study geography, or indeed science. However, they did study grammar (hence “grammar school”) and did so from dawn to dusk, six days-a-week, all year round. They translated from Latin into English and from English into Latin. At school, ordinary conversation was in Latin and any boy caught speaking English would have been flogged.

The boys also mastered the tropes of rhetoric, from antimetabole (where words are repeated in inverse order) to zeugma (where one verb looks after two nouns). Rhetoric was – and still is – the language of power and politics; it was – and still is – the language of law and government.

Shakespeare would have started school at 6am in the summer months and 7am in winter. In his seven years at King Edward VI, Shakespeare is likely to have spent in excess of 2,000 hours studying which is more than double what a pupil today would spend in school, meaning he accessed the equivalent of 14 years of education.

The Renaissance was the driving force behind the curriculum. Shakespeare would have memorised entire textbooks by heart, and would have studied Aesop’s fables, Cicero, the Geneva Bible, Ovid, Plutarch, Seneca and Virgil among many others. In short, Shakespeare studied the best that had been thought and said.

In tackling the design of our curriculum, therefore, I think we can learn from Shakespeare’s experience of school life.

Curriculum planning backwards

We may no longer regard learning Latin as essential to success, but much of the knowledge Shakespeare learnt is still relevant. The best means of identifying what knowledge should underpin our curriculum, I think, is to start at the end and work backwards.

I will model the process by exploring the foundational concepts – the knowledge and skills – that pupils need to have mastered by the end of key stage 4 in order to succeed at GCSE. I will then consider how we might use these foundations to build our secondary curriculum, starting in year 7 and moving progressively through key stages 3 and 4.

Next, I will consider how to bridge the gap between the primary and secondary curriculums, ensuring that year 7 builds upon the knowledge and skills pupils bring with them from year 6. In other words, the curriculum needs to make sure the transitions between years, key stages and phases of education are smooth and progressive, and that the knowledge and skills pupils bring with them from primary school are consolidated and extended, not disregarded or repeated.

Finally, weaving its way through all of this, and across the curriculum, I will look at how we might make provision for the development of pupils’ language for learning and language of learning.

Deciding what matters

Lawton (1975) argued that the curriculum is “a selection from the culture of a society” and, as such, each school’s local curriculum will be different; it will reflect the community it serves and prepare its pupils for the particular society in which they will live and work. That’s why I said your school’s curriculum vision should be unique. However, there is clearly a bank of knowledge – perhaps dictated by national curriculum and qualifications – that all pupils in the UK should acquire in order to succeed in school, in work and in life.

I will model selecting content for this basic curriculum using English language as an example. I will start at the end of compulsory schooling by examining what pupils need to know in order to do well at GCSE.

However, first a word about tracking GCSE outcomes into key stage 3…

Key stage 3

I am going to advocate identifying the knowledge and skills required at GCSE and to begin teaching them in year 7. However, this is not synonymous with stretching the GCSE programme of study down into key stage 3, thus squeezing or narrowing the key stage 3 curriculum.

Rather, it is about providing the skills and foundations for GCSE success as early as possible and ensuring we teach a progressive, joined-up curriculum. If we do not start secondary schooling with the end in mind, how can we be certain we are best preparing our pupils for success? How can we be sure we’re teaching them what they will need to know and do? And how can we be confident we are planning sufficient opportunities to repeat and reinforce – through deliberate practice – the knowledge and skills that matter most?

Mapping from the beginning of year 7 the foundational concepts required for success at GCSE is not the same as teaching GCSEs in key stage 3 – schools which extend GCSEs into key stage 3 narrow their curriculum and begin teaching the GCSE specification early.

I believe that key stage 3 should provide as broad and balanced a curriculum as possible and should be different to that which proceeds and succeeds it, but at the same time it should provide a bridge from primary to secondary and from key stage 3 to 4 and beyond.

Mapping foundational concepts from year 7 is about teaching a logical, ever-expanding and developing curriculum that best prepares pupils for their current and future schooling and indeed later life.

Some might argue that tracking GCSE outcomes back to year 7 is asking too much of younger pupils and that we cannot possibly expect the same of year 7 pupils as we do of year 11. But this is similar, to my mind, as arguing that we cannot expect children to talk at 18 months because we also expect them to do so as adults. We teach children to talk from an early age and continually improve their ability – both in terms of the biological function of articulating meaning through sound, and their vocabulary and syntax – throughout their childhood and indeed throughout life.

Tracking outcomes back through the years, key stages and phases of education means we begin the process of teaching pupils the knowledge and skills that are essential for academic success as early as possible in order to afford us the time to repeat learning several times and deepen pupils’ understanding of that knowledge over time. In short, we expect the same basic content knowledge but for the depth of that knowledge and the connections between different pieces of knowledge (thus improving transferability) to increase as the pupil gets older.

A cognitive balancing act

The working memory is always trying to balance intrinsic cognitive load (the space in working memory dedicated to performing a task), germane cognitive load (the space in working memory dedicated to trying to understand the task), and extraneous cognitive load (the space in working memory dedicated to understanding and responding to the instructional context).

John Sweller suggests that in order to minimise extraneous cognitive load, instructional design (the way we teach the curriculum) should address the needs of three broad groups of expertise:

  • Novice: “Detailed, direct instructional support … preferably in integrated or dual-modality formats.”
  • Intermediate: “A mix of direct instruction and problem-solving practice with reduced support.”
  • Advanced: “Minimally guided problem-solving tasks … provide cognitively optimal instructional methods.”

In other words, we need to design a curriculum that affords sufficient repetition of content knowledge and to return to prior learning with increasing complexity. In year 7 we might begin by teaching our “novices” through detailed direct instruction and introduce new content knowledge at a basic – though not superficial – level. As pupils return to this learning in years 8 and 9 we might teach our “intermediates” through a combination of direct instruction and problem-solving activities. And then, at GCSE, we might teach the same content knowledge at an advanced level through minimally guided problem-solving activities. In short, the way we teach the same content knowledge as pupils get older necessarily changes as pupils move from being novices to experts. The scaffolds fall away and pupils become increasingly independent.

But we also return to the content knowledge we taught previously and add more and more layers of meaning in order to develop schemata. In so doing, we encourage pupils to practise, not until they solve a problem correctly, but until they can no longer get it wrong.

Next time, I will continue to explore the foundational concepts that are required for success at GCSE and how we can track these back to year 7.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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