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A broad and balanced approach to English teaching and the curriculum

2018-06-29T18:30:54+00:00

Having launched a stream of invective against the use of 'balance' as a weasel word in my last post, I want to offer a more nuanced take on what I think balance ought to mean. I see the purpose of a curriculum as being to introduce students to that knowledge which will be of most use to them in academic contexts and to allow them to have the maximum amount of choice in what goals they choose to pursue in life. All skills are activated by knowledge and - if we want students to be creative, intellectually curious and productive - [...]

A broad and balanced approach to English teaching and the curriculum 2018-06-29T18:30:54+00:00

What can you practise in English lessons?

2018-05-04T22:52:26+00:00

Over my last two posts I've argued that, contrary to popular opinion, English is not a 'skills based' subject. In fact, what appear to be skills are actually composed on many thousands of individual components of knowledge organised together as schema. In my last post I tried to demonstrate that practising 'inference skills' won't actually help students get better at making inferences, and that this ability depends on what they know about a text and about the domain of English more generally. In this post I will attempt to reclaim the concept of practice in English lessons from the confusing quagmire [...]

What can you practise in English lessons? 2018-05-04T22:52:26+00:00

Castle Shakespeare: Why study the Bard?

2017-08-13T22:03:43+00:00

Let me give you, let me share with you, the City of Invention. For what novelists do... is to build the Houses of the Imagination, and where houses cluster together there is a city... Let us look round the city: become acquainted with it, make it our eternal, our immortal home. Looming over everything, of course, the heart of the City, is the great Castle Shakespeare. You see it whichever way you look. It rears its head into the clouds, reaching into the celestial sky, dominating everything around. It’s a rather uneven building, frankly. Some complain it’s shoddy, and carelessly constructed [...]

Castle Shakespeare: Why study the Bard? 2017-08-13T22:03:43+00:00

Are ‘closed book’ examinations a bad idea?

2018-01-22T08:10:42+00:00

Changes to the GCSE English Literature specifications are, apparently, starting to bite. As well as abandoning the modular approach to assessment in which students sat 2 separate modular exams and completed an extended piece of controlled assessment, students are now expected to sit two terminal exams.  One change to these exams which has upset lots of English teachers is the move from 'open book' to 'closed book' exams. What this means is that students are no longer permitted to take copies of the texts they have studied into the exam and are instead required to have learned quotations by heart. The TES [...]

Are ‘closed book’ examinations a bad idea? 2018-01-22T08:10:42+00:00

"There are no wrong answers!"

2016-06-18T12:01:29+00:00

Along with, "It's a skills based subject," the cry that there are no wrong answers in English is, I think pretty unhelpful. Take the example of teaching Priestley's perennial, An Inspector Calls. Every time we've finished the play, without fail, a body of students will be firmly persuaded that poor, unloved Eva Smith was murdered by the Inspector. I'm not going to bore you with why this interpretation is so wrong-headed, just take it from me that goes against everything that Priestley was trying to achieve. When I've pointed out - precisely and at length - why this view is incorrect, [...]

"There are no wrong answers!" 2016-06-18T12:01:29+00:00

Improving critical reading through comparative judgement

2016-05-11T19:04:24+00:00

The following is a guest blog from Dr Chris Wheadon of No More Marking. The reformed GCSEs in English present new challenges for pupils in critical reading and comprehension. Teachers across the country - and pupils - are studying mark schemes and trying to interpret what they mean and how they may relate to standards. No More Marking, working with David Didau and a group of 11 schools took a different approach. David created some stimulus material for pupils in Year 10 in line with the reformed GCSE English questions. Pupils were given an unseen text and then asked to write [...]

Improving critical reading through comparative judgement 2016-05-11T19:04:24+00:00

Cargo cult teaching, cargo cult learning

2017-03-27T22:54:04+00:00

…it is the peculiar and perpetual error of the human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than by negatives… Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Aphorism, 1620 Cargo cults grew up on some of the South Sea islands during the first half of the 20th century. Amazed islanders watched as Europeans colonised their islands, built landing strips and then unloaded precious cargo from the aeroplanes which duly landed. That looks easy enough, some canny shaman must have reasoned, if we knock up a bamboo airport then the metal birds will come and lay their cargo eggs for us too. This is the [...]

Cargo cult teaching, cargo cult learning 2017-03-27T22:54:04+00:00

Comparison is easy

2015-11-20T07:59:50+00:00

The basis for poetry and scientific discovery is the ability to comprehend the unlike in the like and the like in the unlike. Jacob Bronowski Judging the quality of a thing in isolation is hard. Is this wine good? What about this restaurant? This cheese? This television programme? This child’s essay? But just because we’re bad at making meaningful judgements doesn’t mean we’re aware of experiencing any uncertainty. Uncertainty is uncomfortable and as cognitive psychologist and psychophysicist (who knew that was a thing?) Donald Laming puts it, "In such a state of mind people are unable to resist extraneous suggestion." The [...]

Comparison is easy 2015-11-20T07:59:50+00:00

Essay writing: style and substance

2017-01-15T10:19:18+00:00

You have such strong words at command, that they make the smallest argument seem formidable. George Eliot As with most subjects, the step up from GCSE to A level English literature is tough. You can get a pretty good grade at GCSE without developing a critical style or understand much about the art of constructing an academic essay. Students' work is routinely littered with stock phrases such as "I know this because" and "this shows" all of which shift the focus from having to think about subject content in sophisticated ways to simply learning a collection of fail-safe formulas. Of the 4 [...]

Essay writing: style and substance 2017-01-15T10:19:18+00:00

researchED English & Literacy Conference

2015-07-08T20:37:09+00:00

A few months ago I asked Tom Bennett if he'd be up for rubberstamping some sort of rEDx project (like TEDx but with brains) devoted to exploring the intersection between education research and English teaching and he came back, quick as a flash, with the suggestion that I organise an actual researchED spinoff. So, under the steadying hand and watchful eye of Helene Galdon-O'Shea, I have. When? Saturday 7th November 2015 Where? Swindon Academy (which is also where I'll be working next year.) What? The theme of the conference is exploring the intersection between 'what works' according to the research community [...]

researchED English & Literacy Conference 2015-07-08T20:37:09+00:00

Using Threshold Concepts to design a KS4 English curriculum

2015-05-02T10:19:22+00:00

The big change a-coming for curriculum design is that the final vestiges of modularity will soon have been licked clean from the assessment spoon; from September it will linearity all the way. Many English teachers have never worked in such a system and there's widescale panic about how exactly we can expect children to retain the quantity of textual information they will need to know in order to have something to analyse in a closed book exam. An obvious solution is to redesign your curriculum to harness what we know about the best ways of getting students to remember stuff. I've written [...]

Using Threshold Concepts to design a KS4 English curriculum 2015-05-02T10:19:22+00:00

How can we increase breadth and challenge?

2014-06-02T18:29:29+00:00

Over the past few days as sorry tale has unfolded. The new GCSE English literature specifications have been announced in draft form, full of sound and fury, signifying... nothing. The current GCSE lacks rigour and breadth and challenge. You're welcome to argue with this, but I think it's broadly true. Exam boards compete for business by positioning themselves as the 'easiest to get a C in' and schools, unsurprisingly considering the stakes, select the least challenging texts in the altogether understandable aim of getting as many students as possible to pass so that Ofsted will leave them alone. This is reality. [...]

How can we increase breadth and challenge? 2014-06-02T18:29:29+00:00