Transferable knowledge

By Robert Peal, Head of History
By Robert Peal, Head of History

One of the most pleasing features of teaching at a school which delivers a classical liberal education has been observing how pupils build their knowledge of the world by making links between different subjects.

Teaching Year 7 about the feudal system early on in the year, the pupils took to understanding the nature of hierarchy surprisingly well. After more than one pupil compared the feudal system to the Hindu caste system, I realised that their divinity curriculum was fortuitously aligned with the history curriculum: the pupils had learned about two different, but entirely comparable, social hierarchies in the space of a week.

Later on in the year, during a unit on medieval kingship, we spent two lessons looking at Henry V and the ‘impossible victory’ at Agincourt. Showing the map of the battleground, which was a narrow stretch of open ground trapped between forests on either side, I explained how the terrain funnelled the French troops and neutralised their numerical advantage. ‘That’s a bit like at the Battle of Thermopylae’, one pupil piped up. ‘Great comparison, how do you know about that?’ I asked. ‘Classics lessons’ the pupils responded.

Cognitive scientists have observed how people habilitate new knowledge by fitting it into existing knowledge, known as schema. Once you are aware of this psychological phenomenon, you notice pupils doing it the whole time. Teaching Year 10 about Hitler and the nature of dictatorship, one pupil asked me ‘is it a bit like the Divine Right of Kings?’ The pupil was using her knowledge of Stuart England to understand the Third Reich, and her learning was all the better for it.

Teaching Year 8 about the English Reformation, we spent a lesson considering how the weakening of the influence of the Catholic Church allowed new ideas to emerge. A pupil asked me if that had anything to do with the Renaissance. I was very impressed with the link the pupil made and enquired further: it turned out they had been studying the Renaissance period in music lessons. Such cross-fertilisation has occasionally held the potential to confuse – when teaching Year 8 about the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, they could not help but refer to the Jacobeans – a piece of vocabulary learnt in English literature lessons on Shakespeare. ‘Different word’ I told the class, ‘but same Latin route’.

What is the benefit of pupils making such links between subjects? There clearly comes a burst of satisfaction for pupils when they make a connection between two previously disparate pieces of knowledge. However, I think this represents something deeper. What is happening is the pupils are building the mental architecture to understand different aspects of the world when they leave the school by associating it with their existing knowledge.

Not only does a rich intellectual hinterland, acquired through a classical liberal education, enable you to acquire and understand new knowledge: it also allows you to engage in intelligent debate, which is always ripe with allusion and comparison. Amongst my Year 8 form group, I have got into the habit of photocopying an article from the Sunday Times each weekend for us to read as a class the following week. My form have developed a grim fascination with Kim Jong Un. Reading an article from May 2015 about the North Korean Dictator, we came across the following comparison: ‘Often his face is contorted in a manic laugh, not so much Stalin as Caligula’.

One of the pupils, clearly familiar with Caligula from his Classics lessons, laughed to himself at the analogy. That, I thought, is a very small example of the intellectual empowerment that a Classical Liberal education can offer its recipients.

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