What Matters in English Teaching

Over the last few months I’ve read Barbara Bleiman’s recent book, What Matters in English Teaching as well as taken two courses organised by The English and Media Centre led by Barbara. Her 2019 Harold Rosen Address to the NATE Conference is rightly insistent in its demands to broaden an increasingly prescriptive view of English as a subject. I’ve found her thinking influential in a number of ways. It’s introduced me to the theories of Arthur Applebee and the ideas of the curriculum as conversation which emphasises knowledge-in-action, where – for instance – children must discuss Literature rather than be simply taught its characteristics. (One of the books I’m currently reading is Applebee’s Curriculum As Conversation and getting to grips with what amounts to philosophy of education which seems to me to fundamentally challenge the prevailing culture in British schools). She offered a number of ideas about how to approach teaching which seemed so obvious but at the same time reminded me about the powerful approaches to English teaching that still existed when I started in the 1990s. Above all, Barbara’s work has crystallised my thoughts about my practice as an English teacher.

Here are my thoughts about the two CPD sessions:

Barbara started the session by identifying what she considered to be the things (or values) that matter most in English teaching. Essentially, it’s about Big Ideas, valuing students, dialogic classrooms, creative and critical activities working in conjunction with each other (“Writing like a reader; reading like a writer”) and assessment being properly formative.

Barbara challenged the dominating view of knowledge advocated by Michael Young which argues that powerful knowledge is only school knowledge (I’ve not read Young yet). She took us through the opening of Oliver Twist and showed how it’s possible to begin a text through questions that engage students’ existing knowledge rather than beginning with a list of vocabulary. She insists on “Big” questions.

Barbara examined what knowledge in English actually is and argued that many of the things children are expected to know are not really necessary. To a certain extent I understood Barbara’s argument to be about the importance of understanding over knowledge (eg. in the sense that knowing facts about a writer’s life aren’t unimportant but only relevant in the genuine understanding they bring to the text). I welcomed that Barbara emphasised:

  • What’s worth focusing your attention on – what’s significant
  • Pleasure that comes from reading novels

She moved on to discussing vocabulary and explored what to do with “hard vocabulary”. Her advice was focus on supporting children with getting the gist of what they read with a “Big picture, broad brush reading”.

Writing and Reading were presented as complimentary acts. One of the best parts of this CPD was the demonstration of a task where students alter an existing text as if they were the writer and adding extra details to show interpretations of characters (how characters say things, what they do as they speak and so on). She also showed how to encourage student “buy in” by offering students different interpretations of a text. Then the class would go on to discuss an area in which they are interested. (In my own practice I’m aware I don’t do this at all and probably over-control the learning journey.)

Among the topics discussed in the Q+A part of the session, Barbara:

  • discussed knowledge organisers (limiting rather than expanding);
  • didn’t advise teaching the whole of (a text like) Oliver Twist; instead cover it through extracts and filling in the gaps;
  • spoke about “fast immersive reading” and the research by Julia Sutherland;
  • encouraged “zooming in and out” when studying a novel; there’s no need to read/respond to all the novel in the same detail;
  • learning vocabulary is not the purpose of reading a novel; students learn vocabulary through “rich” talk and reading; lists of vocabulary only scratches the surface of what students need to learn.

In the second CPD session, Barbara considered the role of knowledge in English teaching. She examined the strong belief that has developed recently that knowledge has been sidelined. Her view is that this is a result of schools taking over CPD in the early 2000s and promoting generic teaching skills at the expense of specific subject knowledge so that “knowledge dropped off” the agenda. She also suggested that OFSTED have confused pedagogy with knowledge and asserts that there is a growing understanding that subjects are different. (I’m less optimistic that Barbara about SLTs really accepting that a subject like English is taught in a fundamentally different way than, say, Maths or Science.)

She drew on Applebee’s conception of knowledge-in-action and defined it as: thinking, understanding, making sense of, making judgements, understanding, recognising what’s significant, allowing new knowledge to alter one’s framework of thinking and acting on a new text or context drawing on knowledge. (The active role of the learner in knowledge use seemed to me to be the primary concern here.)

Barbara went on to look at how students examine texts and used this to examine what knowledge students need to have about texts. She focused on knowledge of genres and emphasised that lists of narrative techniques are not enough (perhaps even necessary).

She went on to show how to consider constructing a learning journey (not Barbara’s term) where younger students might study Blake and learn about symbolism, go on to develop their understanding of symbolism through reading Coraline, then The Lie Tree, then Lord of the Flies and Jekyll & Hyde. The text should lead the learning not the concept. She criticised departments where students study gothic genre throughout because KS4 exam text might be gothic. Curriculums are built as texts in conversation with each other. Barbara presented what she called a recursive curriculum:

Knowledge in drama was discussed next – with a focus on the opening of An Inspector Calls. For Barbara we should begin with what interests students as the “way in” and gives as an example how to present ideas (very much like the “buy in” of her previous session).

She briefly addressed knowledge organisers, gave her “key tests” for their validity and suggested an expandable “agenda” instead (or blank KOs that are constructed by classes as they study).

At the end of the session, Barbara directly examined knowledge itself and presented Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital. She insisted that knowledge is not a “simple ladder” and also that texts provide their own knowledge and students do not need to be “front loaded” with contextual information before reading. She countered with Applebee’s Familiar and Unfamiliar Traditions of Knowing and Doing (eg. reading a text that’s outside/beyond our reading experience broadens the “great conversations” about literature and culture). She looked at how its possible for students to learn/understand what’s essential in Homer through other texts. Through alternative routes. (I don’t think she diminished the importance of Homer, just suggested that what it is that we want children to learn from Homer can be done in better, more modern, more accessible ways.)

Among the topics discussed in the Q+A part of the session, Barbara:

  • discussed the need to study a wide range of texts, particularly in Years 7-9;
  • clarified that she wasn’t saying that the “Big Picture” was more important but clarifying that small details are at the service of big ideas (she pointed out that it’s the P in PEE that’s most important); an AQA examiner in the chat supported this by saying it was virtually pointless “zooming in” on language without having a good point to make;
  • “What’s at stake in a text?” or “What’s significant in a text?” is the most important thing;
  • wasn’t against retrieval practice (or quizzes) as long as it related to what students needed to learn; no point in making students memorise facts they do not need;
  • called the absence of KAL a “heartbreaking crime” and encouraged teaching about students’ own language; “it pays off”.