Utilising Knowledge – The Ancient Greeks



I’m a little tired of being positioned as someone who is anti-knowledge whenever I question the purposes and practices of education.

Apart from the fact that it is nonsensical that a person with a doctorate despises knowledge, it simply creates a binary divide that is more political than intellectual. So instead of arguing it, I thought I’d share an example. Let’s say I’m teaching a topic – The Ancient Greeks. It’s done all over the place isn’t it?

“We’re ‘doing’ the Greeks. I have to dress up as a Greek for Greek day,” is how it usually goes. In literacy they might study a few myths. In topic, they’ll look at Athens and democracy and if they’re lucky, the Greek Gods. Boom. But what do they learn about life, humanity and values from it? Why does it matter?

My knowledge organiser for The Greeks would have on it at least the following areas of knowledge:-

  1. The different periods from the Minoans to the Mycenaeans to the Dark Ages of Greece to the growth of the Athenians. They will be plotted on a time line. Children will explore how different empires valued different qualities and how this impacted on their stories and societies. We’ll look at figures from myths and history in each. For example Minoan – Theseus and the Minotaur; Mycenaean –  Perseus, Hercules and Agamemnon; Athens – Pericles, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.
  2. The polytheistic beliefs of the Greeks and how the Athenians came to question them, for example through Plato’s Cave of Shadows.
  3. The importance of the oracle at Delphi – where it was and what it was.
  4. The narrative structure of the hero’s journey as seen through the story of Perseus.
  5. The roles of women and children in different Greek societies – comparing, for example, Athens and Sparta.
  6. The development of a direct democracy in Athens and how this differs to our indirect democracy in the UK.

Key words:-

Oligarchy, patriarchy, polytheistic, philosophy, oracle, fate, democracy  and many more…

None of this matters though, without a good how and what. I’m not going to waste mine and the children’s time getting them to dress up as Greeks. I can’t see the benefit and it adds stress to family time at home. I’d rather they read Percy Jackson stories at home instead. But I do want to immerse them in drama. So I start with a story. I plot the start of our story on a timeline – somewhere toward the end of the Minoan empire and the start of the Mycenaean. Because our story concerns the mythical founder of Mycenae – Perseus.

The children are gathered.

What if,” I say (the most powerful words in the world), “what if, you were all advisers to a king in ancient times. The King of a city state – here – (point to a map) – Argos.”

We may have to pause for a moment to consider why a shopping company called itself Argos. It was the name of the founder’s wife. But also the name of a son of Zeus. Who is Zeus? Why do people call their children after gods and characters from stories? Why name cities after them? But shortly, we’ll get back to our purpose. How to speak to a king.

We’d have to be polite”

“We’ll use formal language, like ‘your majesty'”

“We’ll have to be careful not to lose our jobs!”

“OK. Let’s say we’re about to meet him – we’ve been roused from our beds, early in the morning – and he’s back from a long journey – he’s been gone for months…”


“Delphi – he’s been to see the oracle.”

“What’s an oracle? Where’s Delphi?”

“Ahh, well, let me tell you…”

The story is creating curiosity and interest which is in itself forming a vehicle for knowledge. In this very early introduction, the children have been introduced to a place, a time, a belief system and inducted into shifting the formality of language. Not through a lesson objective, but through a dramatic frame – a who, where, when and what of the area of learning.

They meet the king. It is I. And I tell them my troubling news. The oracle has informed me that my daughter, the princess Danae, will have a child. And that the child will grow up to kill me. So I must stop it. I need their help. What shall I do?

And from narrative framing, we’re straight into human dilemma.

As we enter the problem, we learn many things about life at that time. Materials that were available to build a tower to imprison the young princess. Modes of entertainment for her. The children draw upon their knowledge of mythical creatures to guard her tower. They are creating and imagining, but drawing on knowledge to do so.

We can put a telly in her room.

“Telly? What is this telly you speak of?”

Television. So she can watch it and not get bored.”

Television? Far away vision? I know not what you speak of.”

The penny drops. But let’s not let the etymology get away. Pause, dissect, understand. A mistake becomes an opportunity for learning…

We create many moments of dilemma led learning in our story. When her child, Perseus, the son of Zeus is born (an impregnation that needs to be quite delicately handled) her father, King Acrisios, hears the cries of the newborn coming from the tower. What does he do? We create still images and captions.

He kills

He forgives

He despairs

In fact he puts the young mother and her child into a trunk and orders soldiers to throw it into a stormy sea. It’s a P4C moment. Should human beings always follow orders?

And we explore and learn more about the Gods. Who has dominion over the sea? Who can calm the waters? Who will help the mother and baby? We follow the course of the story on maps, learning along the way how far ‘Greece’ extended in those days. From Seriphos to what is now Ethiopia – where the gorgon sisters hid from humanity.

In these ways, we continue exploring the story, right to the very end, long after Perseus has slain the poor, cursed, girl, Medusa. Long after he has rescued Andromeda, married her and founded the great city of Mycenae. Right up to the point where he takes part in the great games in Argos. His terrified grandfather, King Acrisios, disguises himself as a beggar in the crowd. Drawn by curiosity, ruled by fear, he cowers. Perseus takes aim at his target. In some stories a discus, in others an arrow. But whatever the tool, a sudden shift in the direction of the wind carries the weapon into the heart of the old king. The prophesy is fulfilled.

What is fate? Why did many ancient civilisations believe in fate? Did the Athenians?

And we move on…

The talk. They design. They calculate. They map. They add to timelines. And they write, and write and write. Their own myths, reports from battle, proposals for laws, letters to kings and gods and generals of opposing armies. They consider what makes a hero. And what is a monster? Back to poor Medusa…

Through stories, culture, language, philosophy, history. Steeped in knowledge. Wading through dilemma. Driven by ‘what ifs’ and ‘whys’ but never just telling them. Never just telling them.



24 thoughts on “Utilising Knowledge – The Ancient Greeks

  1. A brilliant example of a holistic approach – in which you engage children’s emotions and feelings and start them on the road to learning – laying the basis for fulfilling long-term curriculum aims in several subject areas – non-invasive PHSE – because about imaginary ‘possible’ human experience (encouraging mental balance), showing them history is relevant and can inform our lives – modelling and encouraging pre-reading and writing skills, story development, conveying richness, curiosity and delight in language, enabling focused concentration and co-operative group interaction and so on…….

  2. I am assuming this is in response to the comments on the previous post. You weren’t positioned as anti-knowledge in anyway, you added that on and took offence. People may have said that in the past, but it wasn’t present here. By changing the discussion again you have made it more difficult to have a productive conversation.

    Your post contained a reference to a belief around using knowledge to teach creativity.
    I countered with a more accurate description of how that method works because I felt you had straw-manned the argument. (Something that is difficult to avoid, it is also why rephrasing opposing viewpoints to achieve understanding helps people to articulate both sides).

    The debate around knowledge vs skills (and I do prefer explicit vs implicit, but you had used the term knowledge in your post) is about how best to scaffold and link ideas. It changes how schemes and plans are designed and especially how new teachers (or teachers teaching unfamiliar topics) design the curriculum. These are all relevant points of discussion. ( I am trying to avoid debating relative merits here).

    The idea that people don’t teach knowledge is ridiculous as is the idea that skills don’t exist, however fixing on a bad argument is an example of the fallacy fallacy. Simply ignore and discuss the relevant areas.

    By the way I liked how you structured your Greek curriculum.

  3. Lovely. Humanity, values, curiosity. And they write and write and write. And the use of a knowledge organiser as a planner, not a revision guide.
    Roger Titcombe’s response I think accidentally nailed it … ‘Absolutely Debra’ (or ‘Absolutely, Debra?’)

  4. As one Michela teacher said, “just tell them”! I am astounded when I hear teachers say things like, “we mustn’t spoon feed them, they need to find out for themselves otherwise how will they learn to become life long learners or how will they become good creative thinkers for the 21st C workforce”. Facilitate, don’t teach is the mantra of the day. My view is just tell them.

    As I said I went to a progressive school and we did Theseus and the Minotaur, which is a damn sight better than the rubbish kids get today at primary, however I didn’t learn anything about ancient Greek. I didn’t even relate it to Greece I just had fun putting on a play. So are you saying that you explicitly teach the knowledge part first and then go on a exploration through a drama exercise that makes the content more relevant?

    1. No, I don’t. I think I’ve made it quite clear here what I do, which has nothing to do with putting on a play. I’m glad you enjoyed Theseus and have remembered the story for so long. I’m surprised you are so certain, from the other side of the world, that you know what ‘rubbish’ children are taught in primary school. I know, from your many, many, many comments on my blog that you prefer uniforms/just tell them/traditional education etc etc etc. You might enjoy the blog posts of people like Daisy Christodoulou, Joe Kirby, Andrew Old and others rather than mine.

    2. “As one Michela teacher said, “just tell them”!”

      You can tell students Newton’s three laws of motion as often as you like, but it will not help them understand the principles of force and motion. You see ‘telling’ is not teaching, and ‘listening’ is not learning. It has got nothing to do with ‘teachers as facilitators’, or ‘discovery learning’. You will discover what I mean from my article.


      However you appear to have a ‘fixed mindset’ so I doubt you will read it.

  5. I do enjoy those blog posts you mention, thanks. Have I made many, many comments on your blog? I wouldn’t have said so. However, if you are uncomfortable with any dissent/disagreement, which is what I thought you were actually arguing for in terms of education for our kids, then I’ll leave you to it.

    PS: I was talking about primary schools in Aust.

  6. I am more than happy to no longer share my thoughts if you can not tolerate any criticisms of your views. I’m sorry that being challenged in any way is so unsettling for you.

  7. Thank you. You see , for me, dissent and debate are ok, but dialogue, discussion are better. A conversation that is respectful of other people’s opinions, that works towards consensus, that, in the words of the IB, accepts “that other people with their differences, can also be right” is great. But telling people what they think, what they should think, even what they experienced when you weren’t even there…that’s just hectoring in my book. I don’t really see the point in endless “you’re wrong, I’m right” threads on the blog. I hope that clarifies my position.

  8. Deborah you use put-downs instead of saying your wrong. This is not an improvement. You made valid points about weaknesses in Tempe’s argumen,t why not stick to them rather then flinging back. Roger also used fixed mindset as a clear insult (by this reasoning everyone who has replied has a fixed mindset, no one has really changed their position in such a short time). Rules of etiquette aren’t those things that people who disagree with me are supposed to follow.

    1. Michael – I used ‘fixed mindset’ in the context of opposite to ‘growth mindset’. You will find more reasons why Tempe and the Hirsch approach are wrong here..


      Coincidentally a ‘flagship’ school that practised the methods that Tempe advocates has just been judged inadequate by OfSTED. See


      1. Apologies for being back briefly, I know my discussion/ideas are not well received or welcomed, but I did want to point out to regertcombe that the reason that particular school was put into special measures is because:

        …the new Ofsted report has attacked the school’s approach to the curriculum, which teaches pupils according to their ability rather than age group. The school’s “stage, not age” model places pupils from different year groups in classes selected for ability in reading, writing and mathematics, but inspectors insisted this “does not meet pupil needs”.

        So it appears to me that Ostfed had no problems with the curriculum ie knowledge-led (I read that they didn’t) instead there seemed to be problems with staff etc (nothing to do with curriculum) and the way they organised students into ability levels rather than by age. I would be against ability levels too and I doubt it’s a core feature of Knowledge-led schools.

        1. Tempe – The definition of curriculum is, ‘the subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college.’. School subjects are defined in terms of knowledge content. The Hirsch ‘knowledge-based approach’ is about teaching methods, and it is these that appear to have fallen foul of OfSTED. That this should have happened in a school feted by government Ministers and the DfE is highly significant given the historic role of OfSTED as the enforcement arm of government education policy. ‘Stage not age’ is the same principle as the US ‘grade system’, or worse if regular knowledge based testing is used to drive promotion and relegation.

          No one denies the importance of knowledge. For example in physics it is important to know Newton’s Laws of Motion,, which are very short and easily remembered. Such knowledge does not indicate any deep understanding of force and motion. Any experienced science teacher will tell you that no amount of ‘telling students stuff’ by the teacher, will help much either.

          This means that ‘knowledge-based’ teaching will always result in shallow learning. The reason why such methods may seem to be successful is that they are matched to shallow ‘knowledge-based’ testing as a result of the very unhealthy market-based collusion between competing schools and privatised exam boards competing for their business.

      2. i know what it means. But implies someone disagrees with you has a fixed mindset is not reasonable.

  9. Debra is my name. You seem to only be interested into forcing people to admit they are wrong when in fact they simply don’t agree with you and don’t want to waste their time engaged in pointless circular arguments. When I was 11 a girl told me she was going to fight me after school. I worried all day and decided that I’d walk to my Grandma’s house instead of home so that they wouldn’t see me on the way. But they followed me and before I knew it, I was surrounded by people shouting “Fight Fight” and a girl pushing me around. I told her I didn’t want to fight. She told me I had no choice. So after she slapped me in the face, I punched her. Later in the hospital, the doctor told me I was a millimetre away from losing my sight. But I didn’t. I learned a lesson that day. People can’t actually make you fight if you don’t want to. No matter how much they push, bully, provoke or persist even when you asked them not to. I’m not fighting with you Michael.

  10. That reply was doing what you said you weren’t doing, it was a strategy to win an argument. It is true that I am trying to get you to admit a mistake, put you are doing the same, the difference is the methods we are using, and the perceived errors we are drawing attention to. In my case I was pointing out the fallacies and the use of language in response to opposition rather then focusing on substantive points.

    I started reading your blog because I worried I lacked access to vigorous counterarguments, however we do not approach debate with the same understanding of both its purpose, and in the manner of conducting it. Sadly I do not believe i have found what I am looking for.

    My arguments have not been circular as they have been modified and improved after each response, however I am going to stop replying, and likely to more then just this post, it has clearly past the point of productiveness. The manner in which you respond is entirely within you control but, I hope you will take on board some of what i have said.

    Roger I have bookmarked your blog and been reading through them, it has just been taking some time as many of your points require further research.

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