The tragedy of life is that one can only understand life backwards, but one must live it forwards
Back in March 2013, I wrote about the principles underlying my redesign of a Keys Stage 3 English curriculum. It received a mixed response. Since then Joe Kirby and Alex Quigley have published their ideas on redesigning this area of the curriculum and have, in different ways, influenced my thinking.
Recently, I’ve presented my ideas on the English curriculum to over 100 English teachers and the consensus seems to be that there is no consensus. Having thought quite a bit about that I think that might be, at least in part, because there is little agreement on why English is taught or even, more fundamentally, on what it actually is, or should be, as a subject discipline. Is it about developing empathy and being better human beings? Is it about providing pupils with transferable skills like analysis? Or is it about transmitting a culturally enriching knowledge of literature?
More generally, the purpose of education is usually described as being about the following:
- Transmission of culture
- Preparation for work
- Preparation for effective citizenship
- Preparation for life
Dylan Wiliam contends that these should not be viewed as either/or options from which to select, but rather as a blend from which we might arrive at a broad and balanced curriculum. “All are important, and often in tension with one another,” he says. “[A]nd so any education system is a – sometimes messy – compromise between these four sets of aims. This is interesting. (Especially in a publication entitled Principled Curriculum Design.) Interesting because “compromise is the refuge of the unprincipled“. Or to put it less starkly, Matthew Arnold’s view that education should be about passing on “the best that has been thought and known in the world” and building students’ cultural capital should, if it’s approached correctly achieve the other 3 aims without the need to address them specifically.
These then are the principles on which I would design a curriculum:
- Education should enrich students’ cultural capital and teach them explicit knowledge about how to think and communicate
- Sustained progress is preferable to rapid progress; learning is distinct from performance
- Is it good enough for my own daughters?
For me, the point about cultural capital is that it isn’t subjective, or at least, not very subjective. It’s based on the body of knowledge which collectively and over time we, as a culture, have decided is worthwhile. Personal preference doesn’t come into these decisions. Just because you might not happen to like a particular text and would like instead to propose one of your favourite novels for inclusion misses the point. There are those who claim it is elitist and the preserve of posh kids in private schools, and that ‘kids like these’ should be given a diet of transient but appealing modern texts because that is what is most relevant to their foreshortened little lives. This is unbelievably patronising, selfish and short-sighted. If we allow the canon to be the preserve of the elite we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. To the extent that it’s elitist, let’s reclaim it. The canon is not mine or yours and it’s certainly not theirs: it’s ours. And we should damn well appreciate it!
Knowing what is considered to useful and important is powerful. In English, it follows that knowing about so-called ‘Great Literature’, or the cannon, is important. This view is often attacked on the grounds that teaching students to revere the works of Dead White Men is reactionary and bound to burden them with thoughts and ideas that are irrelevant to their lives and circumstances. And so, perhaps, it would be if that were what I was advocating. Knowledge is power. This isn’t really a debate: the more you know, the better equipped you are to think, and no one is seriously arguing against the idea that pupils should be taught to think. The curriculum I’m proposing would seek to encourage pupils to critique the cannon, to explore the contexts in which it texts were written and to examine how our views have developed over time. To that end, my ideal English curriculum will be led by the study of great, culturally rich texts, but will also focus on criticism of them.
But cultural capital isn’t just about being able to reel off passage of Shakespeare or Keats; it’s also about our ability to think and communicate. This means that knowledge of grammar is particularly powerful. I’ve come to believe that knowledge of grammar is foundational and transformative for two reasons.
JB Priestley also presents Mr Birling as confident he says to Gerald with no hesitation at all ‘But what I wanted to say is there’s a fair chance that I might find my way into the next Honours List’ he shows he’s confident in his business and in himself and he’s not telling Gerald he’s going to have a knighthood he’s boasting.
JB Priestley also presents Mr Birling as confident when he says to Gerald with no hesitation at all, ‘But what I wanted to say is there’s a fair chance that I might find my way into the next Honours List’. Here, he shows he’s confident in his business and in himself. He’s not just telling Gerald he’s going to have a knighthood; he’s boasting about it.
The thoughts contained in second version are identical but a much better impression of the writer’s quality of thinking is given. The last sentence is telling. You could argue that all you would have to do to improve this student’s work would be to teach semi colon usage. But in order to understand how and when to use a semi colon you need to know what an independent clause is. In order to understand how and when to write an independent clause you need to know what a sentence is. And in order to be able to write grammatically sound sentences which demonstrate clarity of thinking you need to know and understand the relationship between a verb and its subject. This is what Daisy calls a “hidden body of knowledge”. If we don’t teach these things then pupils won’t know what they don’t know. I learned none of these things at school and although I had a pretty good implicit hunch about this stuff, I wasn’t clear. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Daisy argues that the best way to teach grammar is through decontextualised drill. The alternative, typified by Debra Myhill’s Grammar for Writing approach is problematic. If you want to teach grammar in context, you have two choices. You either give them feedback on their writing which concentrates just on the grammatical knowledge which you are engaged in actively teaching on the time, or you give them feedback on all the grammatical mistakes in every piece of work. If you take the first approach you will be forced to ignore certain mistakes and allow pupils to embed bad habits. Practice makes permanent and pupils become skilled at what they practise doing. If on the other hand you pick them up on every mistake you run the risk of overloading their working memory with the result that they will fail to learn anything. But if grammar is taught systematically and out of context then pupils will be able to master grammatical knowledge before moving on to the next step.
To this end, I would recommend separate grammar lessons. If you currently have 4 English lessons a week and Key Stage 3 then you might consider making one of these lessons a grammar lesson.
That said, I’d accept that there are times when we are likely to learn better in context. It just so happens that the most effective context for grammar teaching is that it follows its own discrete narrative from word classes to sentence structure to whole text structure and coherence. Daisy suggests the following sequence for teaching grammar:
Similarly, Joe Kirby has argued for the sequenced teaching of literature. This is a point of view which I have chewed over and come to accept. If it’s widely accepted that history is best taught sequentially, then why not literature? If every text pupils study related back the text they’ve studied previously then they will be able to make strong relational links between the text and its context. They will have an understanding of what writers would have known and they will begin to be able to piece together the story of literature from its classical roots, through the medieval, renaissance, Victorian and modern periods.
As Joe puts it,
This English curriculum spins the globe… Its chronology is sequential, which will leave students will a memorable framework in their minds for understanding any cultural achievements of the past they may come across. In the future, this ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern framework should help them peg new ideas to their prior conception of the eras.
There a couple of caveats here.
1) Harry Fletcher-Wood has raised some interesting thoughts about why the chronological teaching of history might not be the best idea. But I’m not teaching history. The threshold concepts of English should be should be interleaved within the sequenced teaching of literature.
2) The programme of study below is arranged thematically as well as sequentially. Within each scheme of learning there should be links stretching backward and forwards to show how literature is rooted in what has come before and how it influences what comes after.
As for Years 10 and 11, we’re entering uncharted territory. The draft curriculum documents for English Language and Literature are vague to say the least. With the little detail we have, here are some initial thoughts on a Key Stage 4 curriculum:
One of the problems with current Key Stage 4 programmes of study is that they’re hamstrung by the need to teach to ridiculous exams. If the new GCSE are going to assess pupils on “high-quality, challenging texts” from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries then we can probably make some useful inferences from examining iGCSE past papers.
NB I’m not for a moment arguing that these are the ‘right’ texts – I would hope that English teachers would want to select their own preferences from within this suggested sequence. I’m not at all sure for instance of my inclusion of Th History Boys in Year 10. I was swayed by the fact that it’s now the nation’s favourite play, but you might very well think that it might not be appropriate.
The second strand of the principles which underpin this curriculum is the idea that we should seek to ensure pupils learning is sustained. I’ve argued before that the concept of ‘rapid progress’ actively undermines the likelihood the pupils will make sustained progress. I would add that the way in which schools generally design their curriculum is to maximise students’ short-term performance at the cost of the long-term retention and transferability of what they ‘learn’. For this reason I contend that programmes of study which block the teaching of skills are destined to fail. The line we’re sold by exam boards is that because English is a ‘skills based subject’ we should design our programmes of study to take advantage of the transfer of skills from one area of the curriculum to another.
This leads to schools designing a curriculum that might look a bit like this:
Instead, if we space and interleave our curriculum and introduce certain ‘desirable difficulties’ which slow the progress of short-term performance but increase the likelihood of long-term retention, pupils will be far more likely to be able to transfer their learning between different parts of the curriculum.
If we are going to successfully interleave our teaching, we have to break English down into those areas which are fundamental to understanding the subject. These areas, or threshold concepts, are transformative and irreversible. Once you’ve learned them you pass through a threshold and can never see the wold in quite the same way again. Before you learn to decode writing is just funny squiggles. But once decoding is learned, you will only be able to see letters. When I first started thinking about threshold concepts in English I was unable to find anyone who’d done any work in this area and this remains the case. There are some excellent general overviews, but nothing specific.
Threshold concepts would seem to be more readily identified within disciplinary contexts where there is a relatively greater degree of consensus on what constitutes a body of knowledge (for example, Mathematics, Physics, Medicine). However within areas where there is not such a clearly identified body of knowledge it might still be the case that… ways of thinking and practising also constitutes a crucial threshold function in leading to a transformed understanding.
Maybe there aren’t any real threshold concepts in English; maybe there are only ‘ways of thinking and practising’. If that is the case, the ways of think and practising that I would suggest we interleave in our curriculum are these:
- Structure and coherence is the understanding that texts are put together with intent. Once you understand this, you think differently about the way you write.
- Spelling, punctuation & grammar has already been dealt with above. It’s probably a bit clunky to lump these 3 together; SPaG as a concept is widely understood by teachers as being concerned with accuracy but it is also a component of the third writing concept:
- Awareness of impact is the understanding that writing is shaped by the priorities of a writer and the needs of a reader. it would include the teaching of genre, audience and purpose.
- Understanding context is crucial to making sense of texts. Once we understand that a context of production and reception shapes meaning we will never read in the same way again.
- Using evidence is often reduced to simply formulas for using quotations but is rather about shaping a critical response by interpreting the thoughts of the writer directly.
- Analysing technique is about the understanding that writers use a variety of linguistic and structural techniques to achieve their ends.
It makes little sense to divide these concepts into reading and writing – better, I think, to interleave their study so that pupils are unaware where reading blurs into writing and the twin strands of creativity and analysis are experienced holistically.
If it’s good enough for my own daughters, then it’s good enough
This is the English curriculum I wish I’d had. And it’s the curriculum I want for my daughters. I absolutely want them to explore and encounter some of the wonderful texts which make up the cannon of English Literature and I also want them to interrogate these texts and decide whether they find them worthy or wanting. Does this mean that it’s good enough for other people’s children? It had damn well better be! That’s the point of these principles after all. I’m not simply feeding my daughters a burger to demonstrate the juicy goodness of British beef – I want it to be the right of all children to experience a curriculum like this.
These then are the ideas and principles which underlie my thoughts about curriculum design. If you don’t like my curriculum and have an alternative you think better, that’s great. The enacted curriculum is always much more powerful than the design curriculum as teachers will always mediate these plans through the lens of their own values and principles. I’d allow that as long as you’re able to talk though your thinking in the way I’ve modelled, I’m sure your curriculum will be worth teaching.