The trouble with Shakespeare, or Should everything be made simple?

2021-01-16T13:20:50+00:00October 26th, 2019|English|

I'm regularly inundated by unsolicited emails from folk hoping I'll endorse their products. Recently, I received one asking me if I'd be interested in writing about a collaboration between the software firm Adobe and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Apparently this is the result: Adobe and the RSC have worked with five UK artists and photographers to reimagine iconic Shakespeare scenes to provide inspiration for young people and their teachers. Using illustration, comic book artistry and photography, the artists have recreated pivotal scenes from Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. I don't have any particular interest in this and [...]

The Epistemology of English

2019-02-07T15:53:11+00:00February 7th, 2019|English|

For some time now I've been thinking about how epistemology* - how knowledge is accumulated and divvied up - in English as an academic discipline. While I'm not at all sure that I've accomplished anything particularly profound or useful, I've identified four distinct areas which I'm calling metaphor, story, argument and pattern. These concepts underlie an understanding of what knowledge is in English. They are, broadly speaking, the lenses through which literature and language can be viewed and by which meaning is made. Metaphor Arguably, most if not all thought is metaphorical. Whenever we substitute a concrete meaning to shed light [...]

A broad and balanced approach to English teaching and the curriculum

2018-06-29T18:30:54+01:00June 29th, 2018|English|

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 - [...]

What can you practise in English lessons?

2018-05-04T22:52:26+01:00May 4th, 2018|English|

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 [...]

Castle Shakespeare: Why study the Bard?

2019-11-30T15:34:56+00:00July 23rd, 2017|English, Featured|

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 [...]

Are ‘closed book’ examinations a bad idea?

2018-01-22T08:10:42+00:00April 6th, 2017|English|

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 [...]

“There are no wrong answers!”

2019-06-03T08:52:59+01:00June 18th, 2016|English|

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, [...]

Improving critical reading through comparative judgement

2016-05-11T19:04:24+01:00May 11th, 2016|English, reading|

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 [...]

Cargo cult teaching, cargo cult learning

2017-03-27T22:54:04+01:00December 10th, 2015|English, learning|

…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 [...]

Comparison is easy

2021-08-02T16:40:12+01:00November 19th, 2015|assessment, English|

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 [...]

Essay writing: style and substance

2017-01-15T10:19:18+00:00November 17th, 2015|English, writing|

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 [...]

researchED English & Literacy Conference

2015-07-08T20:37:09+01:00July 1st, 2015|English, research|

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 [...]

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