Knowledge Agenda for Macbeth

In my preparations for teaching Macbeth again I’ve collected a number of knowledge organisers created by teachers working in different school contexts in the UK. There are commonalities: they name characters, identify similar themes, list a handful of quotes to learn and offer some vocabulary to learn. All provide a list of terms (some straightforward, some complex [peripetaias, anagnorisis and hamartia featuring on several knowledge organisers!]. One of my favourites is set out like a Monopoly board with a brief description of each scene in the boxes around the edges. Many schools use the “knowledge” on the sheet as the basis of regular retrieval tests.

While I haven’t anything against knowledge organisers in general – and, for some students, they might provide a sense of security – they are reductive and reinforce the loss of a learner’s agency over a literary text. A knowledge organiser for Macbeth, for instance, does little other than emphasise that the play is a static body of knowledge that just has to be (passively) learned and retrieved from memory. The essential aspects – the student developing critical skills to identify what’s significant about the text and entering into a personal relationship with it – get missed. Some students (maybe many students) may believe that the information on the knowledge organiser is all they need to learn.

There’s an excellent blog post by Barbara Bleiman about the issues associated with knowledge organisers. Bleiman insists that learning facts about a text is only the starting-point of a process of knowledge. Understanding and skill (Applebee’s “knowledge in action”) are necessary. For Bleiman, the key element is for students to know what is significant in a text (“It is at the heart of what it means to have genuine knowledge in the subject.”). She argues that it is relevant and significant ideas (“points”) that determine successful exam answers or essays. Apparently, it’s not weak writing skills that cause students to do less well in exams but lack of relevant ideas and points to make. Exaggerating aspects such as literary terms distort a student’s understanding and are irrelevant if the student can’t discuss their effects:

In a nutshell, knowledge of terms and drilling in essay technique are irrelevant if students don’t understand what is significant about a text.

An agenda for knowledge – organising without false limits

Bleiman correctly points out that there remains the problem of defining what is “significant knowledge”. (Indeed, my examination of the Macbeth knowledge organisers suggests that there is a variation in what teachers feel is significant about the play.).

Instead, she offers the concept of the learning agenda which is a means of helping students to recognise what is significant about a text (“to teach students how to make judgements, sift knowledge and decide what to apply to any given text or topic”). Bleiman defines a learning agenda as:

a working document, not a definitive, final summary of key aspects but something to be added to and developed over the course of study, with students contributing to its development. It is introduced early in the study of a text, put up on the wall, on a flipchart, or made readily available on a whiteboard, as a shared set of understandings or ideas for the whole class to refer to in the course of studying the text. It starts with some initial observations, perhaps with the identification of emerging themes and stylistic traits, on the basis of a shared reading of the first chapter, or after reading short fragments from the text. The teacher can, at this early stage, tease out significant elements that students might look out for, think about and be alert to as they’re reading the text. It makes the first reading an active one, in which the students are aware of what is especially interesting about this text, in relation to others. As time goes on, in the course of reading and study, more key elements emerge and are elaborated upon. So for a novel this might include the key themes, aspects of style, narrative techniques, voice, methods of characterisation, symbolism and so forth. The ‘agenda’ gradually fills out, and gaps are filled in, so that by the time students do their exams, they have a great, succinct overview of what is important to ‘know’ about that text. Usually the agenda is no more than one to two sides of A4 of headings but behind that is a huge amount of discussion and reference to the text that has led to this synopsis of key ideas.

An agenda for knowledge – organising without false limits

What I like about a learning agenda is that it enables students to become actively involved to a certain extent with the way in which the text is studied. It provides the flexibility to explore ideas raised in their reading. The teacher remains in charge and responsible for the overall journey but the process of studying the text like this should enable students to learn how to identify what’s richest, key and of importance in a text.

Facts about Macbeth – what happens, who the characters are, sequences of events, quotes and terms – are the starting point but the expectation is that students use this information in action rather than passively “retrieve” the information.

A Learning Agenda for Macbeth

Here’s my first draft learning agenda for Macbeth. I’m mindful that I have around 25 lessons (30 if I’m lucky) to teach the play. The demands of GCSE mean that there is little time to allow students to “explore” the text and develop a genuinely personal response but I’m going to try my best to allow students develop their skills. It’s a great deal to fit in.