(This post is a development upon my post yesterday, Reading with Michael Gove; with a more practical consideration of the approach to teaching reading.)
The movement towards a ‘slow education‘, encompassing deeper, richer learning experiences, is surely the antidote to our assessment driven, checkpoint laden curriculum. In my previous post I explained that we should slim down our content-filled curriculum to maximise the opportunities for reading. More reading is surely a rallying call every teacher, not just English teachers, would happily herald. I do, however, have reservations about how we go about teaching reading, both in English lessons and beyond.
Few things in my professional life give me more pleasure than the special experience of reading to, and with, my English groups. When I think about my time at school I can start to piece together fragments of those rapt moments of whole class reading which no doubt kindled a love for school that resulted in me becoming a teacher. When I now teach the class reader I enjoy it immensely and I love it when students groan when we have to stop reading and they have to do some ‘real work’! I do, however, have a sense of conflict with the nature of reading and studying the ‘class reader’. I think about how we naturally read at pace and at our own volition; how the process is slowed down by ‘study‘. Then I wonder about the paucity of reading many of our students experience (boys are in particular danger of falling significantly behind in terms of reading for pleasure and reading attainment – see here) beyond the annual ‘class reader’, and whether we are killing a potential spark for reading. I then come to thinking about how we can balance the slow study of reading with the pleasure of natural fast reading .
I teach in a fantastic English and Media faculty where we value reading and in a school that tries hard to foster a reading culture. The library does some great business, with a good proportion of our students; students read regularly in form time; last year we undertook our own ‘Big Read’ fundraising, whereat we raised thousands of pounds. Our strategies are not an OFSTED tick-box, but a value system, supported whole-heartedly by our school leaders who understand the real value of reading. We clearly value reading. we want our students to be ‘word rich’ – with all the attendant benefits that brings. Still it never feels like we are doing enough. It feels like a truly Sisyphean task at times. In our department we ensure that least one novel is read a year at KS3, with much poetry and shorter reading besides. We are aiming to slim down our content, deepening and slowing down the assessment process to enhance the learning – and we are looking to cram as much reading into the curriculum as possible. We know the importance of reading for pleasure and being word rich. What becomes crucially important is how we can boost ‘real reading‘ for many of our students who only read that one ‘class reader’ a year.
For the legion of students who don’t read habitually (and evidence from the National Literacy Trust indicates a perennial decline), the reading we facilitate is paramount. Yet, reading a novel over the course of six weeks, and studying it within an inch of its life, can drain the pleasure away from reading for many students. E.D Hirsch even argues that this provides little boost to long term learning and knowledge building (I debate Hirsch’s views at length in my previous post). Don’t get me wrong, most English teachers work brilliantly to stave off boredom and to enrich the understanding of our students, with strategies that also strengthen their reading skills and their worldly knowledge. I would like to think I do a half-decent job myself! Fundamentally; however, we still face the scenario where many students are desperate to read on, but we stifle this natural curiosity to stick to the plan and to teach reading skills
What we need to do is to think of different ways to facilitate reading with students that better imitates the natural state of reading a great novel – that of reading it fast – not pausing for breath, never mind a four day break between chapters! Perhaps, if we unburden our curriculum we can find more space to read in a more rapid way – such a way that encourages the natural pace of reading, a high degree of challenge and more independent and interdependent teaching and learning. We could have ‘reading weeks’ like at university. In my university experience, I learnt more in reading weeks than any other time.
Over a month ago I talked casually to a colleague in our faculty about what she was doing with her Year 9 group at that moment. She was working with visually stunning images (see PPT below) when I dropped into the lesson and I was curious as to what the pictures were and how they were being used. It turned out that she was teaching ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell. This wasn’t on the ‘official‘ Year 9 plan so I was intrigued. She had simply taken a two week slot, having found time from our slimmed down content approach (we had dropped a scheme of learning from Years 7, and 9. Believe me – no-one noticed!), and decided to challenge them with the great Orwell novella. She actually taught it to two classes of varying ability ranges. There was no grand outcome – with attendant assessment measures. Simply some initial debate, discussion and reading…lots of reading. By way of celebrating that reading they created this lovely display. All in a couple of weeks. Fast reading that satisfied the pleasure principle of reading much more than our typical approach.
Class display on ‘Animal Farm’
Here is the great PowerPoint resource she used in conjunction with the novella: Animal Farm PPT
It struck me how simple but effective this approach was and how we didn’t have to be burdened by the demands of a content driven curriculum – that we could read – dare I say it – for the sake of it! Michael Gove, as I described in my previous reading post, has lauded the power of reading. He has heralded the educational philosophy of E.D. Hirsch, who, as stated in the accompanying post, sees reading challenging literature as the crux of successful English study. I have heard numerous stories of OFSTED being very positive about extended reading programmes, Library lessons etc., which similarly foregrounded extended reading. As the saying goes, therefore, ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself‘.
I therefore want to work with my department to construc a KS3 curriculum that not only embraces ‘dedicated improvement and reflection time‘, but one that dedicates ample time to reading – more than we thought possible perhaps. Many of our students don’t have a love for reading, yet that passion that can be so transformative for success in educational settings, so we need to find time to nurture a liking at the very least; help it grow into a passion. It takes whole-school support (not just financial, but a good book stock doesn’t come for free) from leadership, from a great school library and support from parents if this pleasure is to be grown and sustained. If we could read at least a book a term, a classic a year, in addition to the ‘class reader’, then maybe we could help turn the tide towards reading for pleasure? I am conscious that doesn’t seem overly ambitious – but we would hope it would be the tip of the iceberg for more and more reading for pleasure.
As English teachers we must reflect on our KS3 curriculum. We must reflect upon our priorities. Yes, there are a multitude of factors outside of our control which inhibit reading for pleasure, but we can only control what we control. The precious curriculum time we possess must be used to engender a pleasure for reading wherever possible. I, for one, want to review how we can read more than ever, without waiting for the official sanction from Michael Gove. In fact, I could end with his very words which echo my sentiments exactly:
“There is one must-have accessory that no one should be seen without: a book.
Books complement any outfit and suit any season. But far too few of us make sure we’re carrying one. And we certainly don’t follow the first rule of fashion – to work the racks. We’re not picking up enough new books, not getting through the classics, not widening our horizons. In short, we’re just not reading enough.”
Some questions I am asking at the moment about reading (particularly at KS3) include:
– How do we best balance ‘fast‘ and ‘slow‘ reading?
– What is the best approach for the pedagogy of fast reading?
– How do we space out reading throughout our curriculum to ensure students develop their reading skills in the optimal way?
– How do we ensure students read at least three extended books a year within curriculum time at KS3? Hopefully encouraging many, many more.
– How do we create a broad and engaging book stock to satisfy our ambition? How do we personalise a range of challenging reading material that is in the ‘zone of proximal development’ for our students?
– How do we get parents to support and engage with the process of reading?
– How do we bridge the knowledge gap between their reading at KS2 and KS3?
– How do we maximise our whole school approach to literacy to complement the drive for more reading? How do we get students to read more books that complement other curriculum subjects?
Any responses are of course welcome.
My usual attitude closely resembles a ‘less is more’ approach with regards to the curriculum: less bureaucracy, less outcomes and data, less focus on testing – the list goes on. So I agree when Gove and others recommend the abolition of our endless succession of tests, from controlled assessments to a catalogue of resits, in favour of deeper learning. The more I teach English and lead an English department the more powerfully I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach must be completely reversed when it comes to one aspect of the curriculum: reading.
When Michael Gove, early in 2011, announced that students in Britain should read fifty books in a year (he had visited the Kipp Infinity School, in Harlem, that had undertaken that very challenge) I can remember being surprised at the suggestion of such a seemingly Herculean task, given my knowledge of the actual reading habits of children in my school and beyond. Despite my surprise, I could not but applaud the ambition. I still think his view is laudable, but that it is flawed regarding how Gove believes it should be approached. I had forgotten this challenge until hearing Gove speak recently about it once more in his ‘Social Market Foundation’ speech – see here. One part of the speech came back to his Kipp school inspired challenge:
“Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” is revelatory about the appetite for intellectual improvement that existed among working people. It provides both powerful statistical evidence and moving personal testimony which underlines just how hungry working people were for culture. In 1940, on average, boys from every background were reading six books a month and girls over seven.
When I suggested recently that school students here emulate school students in some American charter schools and read 50 books a year it was regarded as either hopelessly utopian or dangerously Gradgrindian. Amongst working class boys in 1940 it would have been regarded as slacking. A 1944 survey of unskilled workers showed that almost half had grown up in homes with substantial libraries. And these working class readers were not only reading widely – they were reading deeply. As Rose points out in his work, housemaids read Dickens and Conrad and kitchen maids saved up money to attend classical music concerts.
Now, I will credit Gove with his ambition (how could more reading be a bad thing), but I would identify that his views fail to recognise the seismic shift in society since the 1940s, which means our approach must be more nuanced than he argues. What Gove fails to do on a consistent basis, when he discusses the benefits of ‘cultural capital‘, is to recognise that society has changed. What we cannot do is simply wish our society to hark back to a bygone Industrial Age. Literacy and reading in the traditional sense have waned, but other literacies have emerged in our digital age and we must realign our curriculum accordingly.
In his speech, Gove presents knowledge of the literary canon as the primary driver of ‘cultural currency‘. Then he propounds his baseless theory that a traditional pedagogy is the only fitting way to impart such a cherished collection of the best of what has been thought and written. He proposes that ‘progressives‘ have given naive working class boys false hope with the fake democracy of ‘co-construction’ and other such dangerously ‘progressive‘ methods, and that we must simply accumulate a broad knowledge of the canon to pass through the higher echelons of society. I would ask Gove to proffer definitive evidence to prove there is any serious causation, or even correlation, between progressive teaching methods and social mobility.
To suggest that there are not a legion of social factors at work to militate against such ‘working class boys’ entering the higher rungs of society is absurd and disingenuous. To argue that ‘progressive‘ teaching methods have been a major factor in harming social mobility is also nonsense and a false cause. The success of KIPP schools in getting students into American universities is much-lauded, but the drop out rate is huge – only a fifth of the original KIPP university cohort completed their degree. The causation goes far beyond tests scores and reading ability: there is a whole host of challenging social factors which inhibit the success of the working class students Gove talks about (see this Economist article for an interesting exploration of the issue).
What is glaringly obvious is that books were not only high cultural currency for boys and girls in the 1940s, they were also one of the few outlets, as a pastime, for those many hours spent inside the home. Children now have a world of imaginative outlets, such as: television, computer games, the Internet and film…the list that begets our modern cultural capital is seemingly endless and militates against the reading of the classics. Of course, Dickens was the low brow family soap opera of his day; Conrad your niche ‘Homeland’ or ‘The Killing’ television series. What we must do is end the canonisation of dead authors at the expense of a rich contemporary landscape of fiction and non-fiction reading, as well as the complex wealth of media and digital literacy. Gove builds a false dichotomy when he speaks of reading – it is a ‘classic is best, to hell with the rest’ approach. Or so it appears through the refracted lens of the media (I hope I am wrong). What we should do is enlarge the reading at the heart of our curriculum, but do so in a way that in a way that celebrates the rich diversity of contemporary literature and media, as well as the best of the canon. We will not be able to communicate this to students of the 2010s without so-called progressive methods, or the digital media that pervades every aspect of their young lives.
Gove cites E. D. Hirsch repeatedly – again, turning to America for his model for his inspiration. Granted, I have a lot of time for Gove citing Hirsch. Hirsch has related some excellent analysis of the power of vocabulary as a knowledge base which is simply fundamental for success in life. He has repeated the striking metaphor of ‘the Matthew effect‘ (an allusion to Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”), whereat the word poor become poorer, the word rich become richer. Here is a driven article by Hirsch on the power of literacy in helping transform life chances: http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_1_vocabulary.html. There is sound neuroscience to suggest that the brain requires such a deep knowledge base and vocabulary recognition to free up the working memory to tackle the daily complexities of life and to succeed in the classroom, exam hall and ultimately the workplace. Yet, Hirsch also relays the same vague argument about ‘progressive methods‘ being to blame for a supposed dearth of knowledge: “under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies”. I would say I was one such Machiavellian ‘progressive‘, but I pride myself on reading challenging literature; I pride myself on an approach that is rooted with rigour and a liberal dousing of classic literature, alongside contemporary texts that span the multi-media landscape.
As Hirsch would surely agree, knowledge begets more knowledge – the ‘word rich become richer’. This is because so much conceptual understanding is based upon the foundations of prior knowledge. It is these solid cognitive foundations which provide the structure required to become an expert reader, one who can then derive pleasure from reading. The issue is that I see on a daily basis students without anywhere near the foundations of language they need to grasp fifty books from the canon or elsewhere. The prior knowledge we need to activate is typically then the supposedly ‘low culture’ stories from the multi-media that pervades students lives. If this is connection making is progressive dumbing down then we are stuck in a cul-de-sac. From Piaget to Vygotsky, to Hirsch and Willingham (both celebrated by Gove), there is widespread agreement about the requirement for activating prior knowledge – the truth is we need to look for that knowledge beyond the narrow, conservative parameters suggested by Michael Gove. Of course, if Gove was serious about a foundational reading knowledge he would fight tooth and nail against the widespread closing and funding decimation of our national library system. Not just that, he would bring children into libraries with a balance of multi-media reading and research, alongside more traditional reading. I await the fight with eagerness!
If Gove’s diatribe against progressive methods is an attack upon constructivism then he will give little attention to the crucial peer culture that works crucially alongside the teacher led discourse, whether we want it to do so or not. As expert teachers we cannot afford to ignore the crucial social interactions and we must harness the power of student discussions and debate; we must get students to problem solve and undertake interdependent inquiry – all crucial skills required of a twenty-first century citizen who needs apply their knowledge in real contexts. I don’t want to play top trumps with Hirsch or Vygotsky, unlike Gove, I want to see diversity in reading and diversity in pedagogy. In evidence, provided by Hattie, progressive methods peer tutoring and peer influence can be harnessed positively alongside reciprocal teaching and direct instruction.
Unlike Gove and Hirsch, I am very much a child of the digital age. My reading primarily takes place on my iPad rather than traditional books; my reading is a post-modern mash-up of the modern and the classic; I span blogs, educational research, fiction, tweets, FB links, Youtube videos, websites…often in the space of fifteen minutes! My interleaved reading, spanning digital texts – both fiction and non-fiction – is much nearer the experience of our students. My vocabulary recognition is based upon reading a host of traditional classic texts, but my passion for reading as a teenager was sparked by books I chose outside of the school curriculum, modern authors like Bret Eastern Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk. Most of my early independent reading was inspired by school reading AND television. I therefore feel I am appropriately educated to foster greater reading for pleasure that many who purport to be experts; better placed to leverage classic reading with modern cultural references. When I imagine children reading in 2040 it bears little relation to Gove’s traditional mode. I think reading for children may be more like an immersive game experience than an analogue approach (think of the constructive power of astronaut or flight simulators). We shouldn’t ignore Shakespeare for game based learning, but we should also not pretend popular culture does not exist, or that the very notion of reading is not adapting rapidly.
Is not a comparative study of great literature with contemporary media not enriching in its exploration of meaning? Hirsch himself talks about existing knowledge being “mental Velcro”. Is not drawing upon existing media narratives from popular culture a way of channeling understanding – hooking into the interests and passions of our students? I am not suggesting we hand out iPads and let them loose on Wikipedia as a proxy for reading; or advocating playing Assassin’s Creed over the artistic and cultural study of Renaissance Florence – but I am arguing that we should not exclude popular culture (Dickens was the popular culture of his day, frowned upon by the literary establishment) when creating this ‘common core‘ of knowledge as propounded by Hirsch.
We should leverage popular culture as a way to understand better the classics of the literary canon. Gove himself reviewed the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ by Christopher Booker. He labelled the book a “Masterpiece”. The premise of the book is that there are seven archetypal stories that span the history of storytelling. The book relates literacy as classic as ‘Beowulf’, linked to modern ‘low culture’ films such as ‘Jaws’. This comparative meaning finding, between high and supposedly low culture, much better reflects our modern cultural experience (the post-modern) and it activates that crucial knowledge base so crucial for learning. Does the media ‘reading’ of film not have value in a media saturated society?
Hirsch goes onto argue about the methods used to teach reading in English classes: “In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author”. These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary.” Once more, I agree in part. We can deaden the love of reading by slowing down the reading process (part 2 of my reading blog focus, to accompany this post, is about ‘Reading Fast and Slow‘ and how we must simply find more time for students to read in that natural state, sans analysis). I would argue; however, that a metacognitive understanding of reading skills is no bad thing – it foregrounds the ‘how’ of the reading process, allowing for the working memory to tackle challenges like understanding new vocabulary or analysing the narrative method.
Hirsch also criticises a ‘thematic‘ approach to reading. Once more, I can see the potential for a reductive slicing of great texts into bitesize chunks, which is something examiners are inclined to do; however, a thematic understanding to reading can also deepen the crucial knowledge base. Is not Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, lauded by Gove, an exercise in pattern recognition? Do we not order the world by ‘chunking’ such information successfully? In our English department we study Dystopian fiction. As part of that learning we do read extracts from classic literature, such as ‘1984’, ‘Lord of the Flies’ ‘When the Machine Stops’ and ‘Brave New World’. We also study great contemporary literature, such as ‘The Road’ and ‘The Hunger Games’. Not only that, we engage in flagrantly ‘progressive methods’, such as watching Dystopian films trailers, creating their own dystopian desert island, and, shock horror, we do close analysis of language and style – killing their soul by locating the main idea! We also have a class reader, where we read a novel, typically dystopian but not always, in Year 9. The library uptake for books such as ‘1984’ is brilliantly healthy. I find our progressive methods can actually inspire a love of reading, where before a love of film or television existed alone; whilst connecting to their prior knowledge, thereby heightening their ability to make positive connections in their learning.
Gove has issued his social mobility busting canon. I shall engage with it and shape it appropriately. I will teach it the best way I know how. I will teach it with a wide array of progressive methods, alongside more traditional methods. I will endeavour to inspire students to read with a passion, reading a whole host of varied literature….maybe even inspiring something approaching fifty books a year if we are lucky with some students! Am I criticising Gove’s ambition – no. Do I applaud his celebration of the classics – absolutely. Am I a child of the digital generation that sees the rich compatibility between the classic and the modern – most definitely.
I am reminded of another American educationalist and his words:
“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” John Dewey
In education today there are few topics that receive the unanimous support of all educators like the value conferred upon literacy and particularly the importance of reading. The evidence regarding how literacy can impact upon life chances is incontrovertible and the ‘riches’ provided by reading are very real: literally, in terms of average wages and career success; as well as emotionally, spiritually and cognitively. The inspirational trigger for my writing this blog post about the power of reading was this article here in the Telegraph about how reading great literature can spark the brain neurologically and have lasting physiological and psychological benefits.
When contemplating the nourishing benefits of reading I am saddened by evidence provided by the excellent National Literacy Trust that indicates that reading for pleasure appears to be in perennial decline. Evidence from the National Literacy Trust states that at the end of 2011 that only three young people in ten now read daily in their own time, down from five out of ten in 2005. Every Parents’ evening, particularly for our younger students, I explain the importance of reading for pleasure – how it has a tremendous impact upon school success, as well as its legion of unmeasurable benefits of course. I think the sourcing of accurate evidence to support this would be impossible to compile, but I am of the firm belief that those students who read for pleasure regularly over the period of their school life almost always excel compared to their non-reading peers. The very act of reading shows a habit of mind that is conducive to the concentration levels required of challenging work. Also, regular reading is often a sound indicator of those many nourishing home-life conditions, established from a young age, that are so crucial for success in later life.
As an English teacher, the potent power of reading great literature is something I have felt in a very real way and it shapes who I am. I can provide a series of accounts of how literature nourished and sustained me and how this same spark has been ignited in others. In my darker days as a truculent teen, I embarked upon a personal reading binge, which unknown to me then was something of a self-help course – my own pseudo-freudian self-analysis! The poetry and novels I read were directly an attempt at understanding myself and the turbulent maelstrom of teenage thoughts and feelings I was subject to at the time. In the characters of Holden Caulfield (‘The Catcher in the Rye’), Paul Morel (‘Sons and Lovers’) and Nick Carraway (‘The Great Gatsby’) I found kindred spirits – friends of a unique sort – that bolstered my confidence and sense of self, as good friends do. I have always been fascinated by that near-ineffable feeling of reaching though the page and through time to warmly greet such characters. The feeling articulated so precisely and plaintively by the teacher, Hector, in Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.
This moment described by Hector captures perfectly that potent “lighting up” of the brain, as described by the Scientists undertaking their study into the neurological effects of reading. Of course, this account of reading from Alan Bennett also describes the acute emotional benefits of reading – arguably the greatest gift conferred upon us from this simple act.
When I went to University, I was lucky enough to be tutored by the same Prof Phillip Davis who is the expert in the aforementioned Telegraph article. Seldom in my life have I come across a person so wise and so passionate about his vocation – and it was this very passion, regarding the nourishing power of reading, that gave me the conviction that I should pursue a career that promoted reading over other professional options, such as the sterile vacuum of a Human Resources department in some business or other. As proved by his scientific pursuit of answers, Dr Davis wanted to capture the ineffable power of reading; define why great literature, the type of literature that is challenging on a host of intellectual levels, could provide greater personal ballast than any shelf of trite self-help books ever could. The neurological evidence is that the brain indeed lights up when faced with such literature (challenging and difficult literature in the very best way) – such evidence that would feel like wholly predictable common sense to those, like me, who revel in that uplifting ‘spark’ of reading.
It made me remember two pivotal reading experiences in my life – two that have shaped so much of my intellectual and emotional life. Sparks that lit a flame. I assume there were many vague memories from earliest childhood that were the true foundations for my love of reading, likely involving my mother reading books, or reading newspapers with my father. Yet, these two later reading experiences crystallise for me the transformative power of reading.
My first experience that directly related to the research in the Telegraph article – it was in the seminar room of Dr Davis himself, reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. I had always disliked Eliot’s poetry – backed by my favourite poet, Phillip Larkin – and had always thought his poetry elitist and obscure. This experience was guided by Dr Davis, who explained and helped illuminate the liturgical language, as we explored with laser-like precision the complex weaving of the language. It was the crucial ‘fascination of what’s difficult‘, to quote Yeats, that finally struck me quite profoundly. My brain, challenged by the obscurity of the language, was sparking new neural pathways – it illuminated new understanding that I felt in a very palpable way. Without wishing to sound like I had a ‘road to Damascus’ style conversion, of course I had loved challenging literature for some years, but the challenge of reading ‘The Four Quartets’, and the rich rewards I felt vert directly did indeed feel irrevocably different. I felt that I would want to guide others through similar challenges to the attendant rewards. When I now read the following words by Dr Davis from the article I see them as a rallying call for the reading of truly great literature:
“This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.” Professor Phillip Davis
The second experience helped changed my life and helped me find my vocation. It was one of those moments, too easily derided as corny and trite, when knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was leaving university and I had travailed the usual path of work experience in a Primary school and a Secondary school. I then had the opportunity to spend a fascinating week in a Special school in Liverpool. On the first day I had helped the shearing of sheep (I have not done that since!) – a real education indeed! On the second day a young boy was having an initial three day taster of the school. He had a significant series of special needs. His reading level was that of a an infant boy, far below his chronological age. We tackled one of those generic, basic reading books – about a boy leaving home to begin his life as an adult. The young lad really struggled to comprehend the reasoning for leaving home, nor could he fully grasp all the vocabulary, but, with lots of step by step scaffolding he got to the end of the book in little over half an hour. He was in raptures because he had finished the book and I was moved in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
The next day the young boy’s mother explained how delighted she was, after the first day, and how much her young boy had loved the reading time. I could hardly express how inwardly delighted I was. When I reflect now that process described in the Telegraph article as the “lighting up” of the brain was the same difficult reading experience the young boy and myself both experienced in our fashion – at very different times in our lives, with very different, but with equally challenging literature.
Triggered by these memories, I quickly activate my own “reappraisal mechanism”, as explained in the article, and remember that my job as a teacher is not just to tick a box labelled Literacy for OFSTED or just help students jump through ill-fitting examination hoops, but to help kindle a spark for reading. The rest will take care of itself. The next time I find a student questioning why we read Shakespeare I may well pull out a sparkler!
In the aforementioned ‘History Boys’, Hector implores the boys to “pass it on”. What is being passed on is a passion for knowledge and primarily a love of great literature. I hope that I may also have the continued gift of passing on that mighty spark for reading great literature.
Caption: “I sat Gove’s EBacc and look where it got me!”
I am not necessarily angry at the demise of the GCSE; however, I am annoyed that Gove appears to be spurning his undeserved privilege to create a truly world class qualification in the place of GCSEs that can make us all proud. Gove’s EBacc isn’t finalised by any means – but surely the misguided proposal of a sole final three hour exam for a national English qualification could not possibly be the totality of any qualification to ready students for a complex and rapidly changing modern world. Expecting a qualification with a concluding three hour examination as its only method of assessment to ready students for their diverse and highly technological future is like asking a giraffe to climb a tree to ready it for survival on the barren plains of the Serengeti! Gove appears to avidly ignore a wealth of educational evidence, and the myopic prejudices of Gove and Gibb look set to squander any hope of a modern qualification for English, the Humanities and beyond, that is truly fit for purpose.
There are a range of examinations, both nationally and internationally, to draw upon to create the best qualifications for our 11-16 year olds that is fit to prepare them for their complex future. Gove appears to eschew such research, evidence and expertise, and he appears to stubbornly rely upon his conservative prejudices – he may praise certain qualifications, but he refuses to learn lessons from them. So what current options do we have for which to build an ideals set of qualifications? We have the GCSEs (labelled as wholly discredited, mostly by people whose knowledge is slim and their prejudice fat); the iGCSE (a favoured preserve of Private schools); the International Baccalaureate – at both Middle Years and Diploma (praised repeatedly by Gove), as well as a host of internationally renowned qualifications. I would ask a series of questions about how our assessment for this curriculum stage, and our curriculum more broadly, would be composed to best suit the skills and knowledge required for the future:
Where is the place for Project Based Learning?
The PISA report, one of Gove’s sacred tracts, revealed how assessment models that embed project based learning are the way forward for successful assessment models. I have quoted this in my diatribe against Gove’s Ebacc before (https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2012/09/16/an-angry-response-to-gove-levels/), but it bears repeating. PISA found in the ‘framework for assessment’ aspect of the report that:
” “problem-solving competency” can be developed through “progressive teaching methods, like problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning” and project work. “The Pisa 2012 computer-based assessment of problem-solving aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient,””
This approach is not a new phenomenon, but it is a manner of assessment that is rich in a diverse manner of skills: from independent research; to reading a complex range of sources (from the Internet to ancient literature) and synthesising ideas in a logical structure; to extended writing with a real purpose and a real audience; to a final oral presentation which is ‘testing’ in the most rigorous and rewarding manner. In IB schools, 11-16 year olds already undertake such projects, like in the Southbank international school in London: http://www.southbank.org/personal-project.html. Should we not seek out the assessment celebrated by the very international body Gove so clearly heralds?
Where is the place for Speaking and Listening?
A three hour exam is all well and good as a simple measuring stick, but our children will need to exist in a social world where they will also need to communicate successfully in a myriad of ways still unimaginable to us now. They need to be highly flexible in their capacity to communicate with different audiences and in different contexts – in a truly globally connected world. The current GCSE model of three oral assessments in English, includes a drama performance, a group discussion and an individual presentation. It is imperfect, but it is wholly appropriate to lending credence to the central place of oral communication in any and every assessment model. Gove could warmly remember his days as President of the Oxford Union if he were to come to a state school like mine (he would dread this I’m sure!) and listen to some highly enlightened current debate. Only this week my Year 11 English group have been arguing about the nature of fame, Warhol’s ‘fifteen minutes’ and the importance of role models in our contemporary world. Yes, a final examination does not exclude the central position of discussion in our pedagogy, yet every student and teacher in the land will be under pressure to teach to the test – keep your dogmatic league tables Mr Gove and you will continue to see teaching through the eye of a narrow test.
In the International Baccalaureate Diploma there is an oral presentation and an oral commentary (recorded for and moderated by the IB) in the A1 English aspect of the course. These form nearly a third of the overall assessment for A1 English for one of the most renowned and rigorous qualifications across the world. The oral commentary is a developed response to literary texts and it is highly challenging. Is such an assessment model not fit and proper for our students? Would it not hone a whole host of skills and inject a much needed diversity into our proposed Ebacc assessment model?
Where is the place for multi-modal writing and technology?
Gove is a self-professed traditionalist, and as an English teacher, I would debate heatedly the importance and relevance of Shakespeare in any modern English curriculum. I may draw the line at Gove’s liking for Dryden, but I have a keen preference for the classical canon. That being said, we live in a rapidly changing world where media literacy and multi-modal texts must be combined with the best of the traditional canon of knowledge. This isn’t pandering to create a curriculum for ‘enjoyment’; the reading of film, a critical analysis of the web and a skilful knowledge of texts that combine all of the above, are crucial skills for a future when the written word will continue to synchronise with technology in ways we cannot fully comprehend.
Once again, project based learning can encourage the use of tools of modern technology in a real and innovative fashion. Seeing students be creative with iPads, smart phones or computers to create films, applications or presentations, truly celebrates a multitude of skills appropriate for the future when technology will surely be integral to learning and living.
Where is the place for extended writing not completed in exam conditions?
Now, let me set the record straight, neither old fashioned coursework, nor the new controlled assessment system is ideal as a mode for assessment. Crucially; however, the role of extended writing produced in a series of drafts, and honed and crafted, is just as valid as any examination approach to extended writing. If the issue is the ‘gaming’ of the system that occurs with coursework, as so famously exposed through examples like the honourable Prince Harry and his Private school art teacher; or the limiting of curriculum time created by the stultifying controlled assessments, then learn from those errors and make the assessment better! Create an independent piece of extended writing that is offered in a portfolio approach, where proposals are recorded, drafts are retained etc. We may even come to recognise the value of crafting writing with research, deep thought and revisions, rather than celebrating the reductive time constraints of the exam model. Again, the IB Diploma has this enshrined in the Extended Essay aspect of the qualification. It allows for an independence of thinking and exploration we would surely seek to foster in all our students – whilst honing a range of skills simply not possible in an exam-only model.
How do we get our students to ask and answer questions that can’t be tested?
The exam-only model is clearly reductive. It is easily measurable, quantifiable and scalable (and sellable to bloated exam boards!) – therefore it is the default model for education systems around the world. Crucially, however, continental systems still manage to embed philosophy and critical thinking at the heart of their curriculum. In the IB Diploma, for example, TOK (Theory of Knowledge) explores knowledge and thinking in rich and diverse ways. Time is found to explore and critique knowledge in a way comprehensively ignored in our national curriculum at 11-16. It is this deep learning and thinking that helps foster citizens who can think flexibly and be able to apply their thinking skills in innovative and creative ways.
Finally, I would ask a broader question: why are independent schools, and their students, given the privilege of choice, when our state schools are hampered by that behemoth that crushes all breadth and richness of curriculum provision – school league tables? I will admit it is my very personal bête noire – but whilst schools are forced to supposedly raise standards in a system which fosters a heightened narrowing of the curriculum to achieve ‘success’, how will we ever see the required diversity of curriculum provision needed for the future of our children? How can a system that actively promotes competition over collaboration, in a survival of the fittest to scramble up the league table to relative safety from the attack dogs of OFSTED, ever work in raising standards for all? With such a pervasive culture of distrust and narrow judgements, how will schools enjoy the freedoms to innovate and enrich? With such crushing judgements awaiting schools, it is no surprise when cheating ensues, when good practice is ditched at the alter of expediency. I am not condoning such corrosive behaviour that impacts negatively upon students, but I understand why it is going on when the conditions for growth and development for state schools are as fruitless as Osbourne’s scorched earth economic policy.
When will we corral the experts in the field of education to create an English qualification fit for purpose in preparing students for a changing world? When will we be led with courage and the foresight to let schools collaborate in local unison to create assessments fitting for our children and their futures? To bastardise a political phrase: we must be the change we seek. We must forge a vision of a future proof curriculum that we can be proud to teach and make Gove and his colleagues stand up and take notice. Parents, teachers, school leaders and unions must unite in this cause. It is crucial to the very future of our nation in a globalised world where economies of scale mean that Britain must create a highly innovative and creative knowledge economy. It begins with education. It begins with an evidence based curriculum fit for purpose. It begins with us.