I have nothing against emojis, just as I have nothing against kittens, turpentine or billiards. I’m more than happy for anyone who’s minded to stroke kittens, drink turps and swan around with a billiards cue. Equally, I have no problem whatsoever with people peppering their texts or tweets with smiley faces or grinning turds; each to her own. But, despite my laissez-faire approach to emoji in general life, I’m afraid this easy going, live-and-let-live facade melts away when teachers argue that emoji – or any other essentially transient pop culture phenomena – ought to be used or studied in the classroom.
There are, as far as I can see, two fronts on which it is argued that teachers ought to embrace the emoji. Firstly, some teachers take the view that emojis are a fun and engaging confection with which to wrap the tedium of the subjects they’re employed to teach; Shakespeare is so dull and quotidian for your average teenager that only something as immediately recognisable and familiar as an emoji could possibly enable them to tackle anything more challenging. This is both patronising and demeaning. If you think young people are suckered into thinking teachers are cool just because they know what an emoji is, you’re sadly mistaken. Children might feel alarmed and intimidated by the unfamiliar but that just means that we need to bring the remoter, more abstract areas of the curriculum to life with our enthusiasm for what we teach. Children deserve better than being fed a steady white bread diet of what they already know. They thrive on the arcane minutiae we’ve picked up over long years of study; they love to hear the stories that lie beneath the curriculum and make our subjects worthy of their time and attention. Our job is not to trick kids into doing a bit of work because there’s some superficial froth that they might find distracting; they deserve for us to make them fall in love with what we have to offer. And if you want to suggest that the kids you teach just don’t get Dickens or can’t be bothered with Beowulf, just remember, ability is the consequence not the cause of what children learn.
As far as this line of argument goes, emoji are irrelevant. It could just as easily be about using fidget spinners to teach medieval medicine or teaching quadratic equations through the medium of Pokemon Go. Or whatever. Feel free to substitute the gimmick of your choice.
The second line of argument is to claim that actually emoji are really interesting and, hey! They may even be a kinda language. There are people writing academic papers about emoji so how dare I suggest that children be robbed of studying something so crucial and culturally important. People who make this argument tend to suggest that emojis should therefore replace something else that children are studying – probably something in the English curriculum. Now, if your English curriculum is made up of young adult novels, cereal boxes and analysing Love Island then I can see why you might think they may as well study emoji. You’re probably labouring under the misapprehension that English is a ‘skills based subject’ and that because all children need is to learn the ‘skills’ of inference or evaluation, it doesn’t really matter what they practice on. Why bother reading something tricky like Romantic poetry when some celebrity’s Twitter feed provides an equally rich source of meaning?
This sort of approach to English pervades Key Stage 3 in many schools. It feels like the only reason some English teachers ever bother with literature is because it’s part of the GCSE specification. This is, I’m afraid, an approach I deplore. I’ve written before about the criteria I use to design a curriculum and won’t rehash the arguments here. Suffice it to say that the curriculum other people’s children get to study should be at least as good as the one we would want our own children to have access to.
What I want for my children is that they get to experience the broad sweep of English literature from its origins in ancient Athens and Rome, through the medieval period, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. I want them to see where Romanticism fits and why the novel latterly became our preeminent literary form. I want them to know the stories that make up Greek myth, English folklore and the Bible, and pervade literature right up to the present day. I want them to marvel at the invention of drama, character, dialogue and action and trace their development. I want them to revel in the finest examples of rhetoric the centuries have to offer and to master the basics of the grammar of their native tongue. And I want them to question, critique and discuss all of this.
As you might imagine, there’s a lot to get through if you’re going to plan a truly enriching, powerful curriculum and there just isn’t time to waste on the transient and the trivial.
What makes all of this so pressing is the economic concept of opportunity cost. Yes, if the time we had to lavish on children’s education was infinite then we could everything and anything. But it’s not, so we have to make choices. Curriculum time is always finite; you can only spend it once. I beg of you, please don’t fritter it away on junk food and consumer culture.