Interest and Enjoyment: Teachers and Pupils

Notes from The Preachers of Culture by Margaret Mathieson (1975)

Chapter 14 – Interest and Enjoyment: Teachers and Pupils

The final chapter of the book considers the role of pupil engagement and classroom relationships in contemporary (1975) approaches to English teaching (particularly in areas of creative writing, use of media and oral discussion).

  • Peter AbbsEnglish for Diversity – asks why English fails to be taught “freely, honestly, joyously”?
  • Quotes Edward Blishen (1971): “There must surely be some such explanation. The flow of books cry­ing for a new approach to English teaching never ceases: yet the dark fortress of common classroom practice looks as though it could sit out the siege for ever.
  • Mathieson suggests that many teachers’ resistance to new approaches should “be considered in the light of the profession’s history and status, and the inevitable strain and uneasiness associated with their role. Conditions in many schools, moreover, in terms of large classes, insufficient time and shortage of specialists, remain unhelpful to teachers in their efforts to disseminate culture, stimulate creativity or promote greater social justice by means of pupil participation. Above all, English teachers may be discouraged from adopting the recommended new approaches by the possibility of conflict with pupils’ parents, their fellow staff and headmasters, some of whom may misunderstand the contemporary shift of emphasis from knowledge and formality to feeling and freedom.
  • An increased “heavy stress” on prescriptive writing has made the organisation of lessons more complicated. Plus likely to have produced uncertainties about how much learning has been achieved.
  • Romantic progressivism (with its valuation of children’s creativity and suspicion of teacher instruction) has reduced academic content of English. This influence has been accelerated by radical influence in education and an insistence on the radical influence with an insistence on the cultural validity of previously neglected groups in society.
  • Nell KeddieTinker, Tailor – “school education is historically and technologically stagnant… the insistence upon literacy is peculiar to education and not to the life worlds of the learners … in most other contexts of their lives”.
  • In America cultural relativism centres on schools’ acceptance or rejection of working-class (black) culture.
  • Mathieson argues that because certainties about what has been achieved have been diminished, successful lessons are considered in terms of enjoyment and interest. She suggests that these lessons offer classroom experiences of “dubious quality”.
  • In terms of Literature the high value placed on feeling and experience has meant English teachers have had to come to terms with Leavisite/progressive/radical hostility to examinations. Mathieson: “Thus, until such time as examina­tions are designed to measure reliably qualities like appreciation, sensitivity and sincerity of personal response, the literature teacher remains in a dilemma as far as his approach to the texts is concerned.
  • Examinations confer respectability on school subjects.
  • Often regretted that exams test pupils knowledge rather than their capacity to experience literature. Mathieson: “The English teacher omits preparation for examinations at his peril; pupils will either not ‘know’ the work sufficiently well to achieve success, or, against the context of an examined curriculum, will fail to take litera­ture seriously.
  • Mathieson suggests that only the most exceptional teacher can stimulate sustained interest in English work.
  • Mathieson argues that conscientious English teachers “lead double lives”: working away from “coarse testing processes” but must prepare children for exams.
  • Without exams, teachers do not have the security of set books and have responsibility of choosing texts. Mathieson: “If they reject teaching knowledge about literature, which is generally agreed to be mechanical, ‘academic’ and dull, they have to work out ways of making each text personally meaningful to all their pupils. Success here appears to be elusive.
  • Analysis of usual teachers approaches show it is difficult for them to be both “personally exploratory and effective”.
  • Douglas Barnes comments on English teachers’ heavy dependence on factual questions. The ability to probe, to draw children out appears to be rare in teachers.
  • Opponents of exams fail to recognise that exam support average teachers who find it difficult to generate classroom excitement.
  • Creative work. Mathieson: “The central problem arising from creative work in the classroom has already been discussed in Chapter 13. Teachers must define their views about the kind of stimuli they employ, about the role of high culture in this work with working-class children, as well as gauging its value in their pupils lives, and their degree of responsibility for finding time for technical writing. On a day-to-day level, they face problems of evaluation and planning. Each teacher, if he is to move beyond grateful acceptance of anything which his pupils produce, has to work out what he means by ‘imaginative growth’, and how to encourage what he perceives as progress or improvement. With each class or, ideally in the view of some eductors, with each pupil, he has to follow a course somewhere between lesson-by-lesson stimuli and the mechanical’ superimposition of a syllabus.
  • Fred Inglis and David Holbrook urge English teachers to stand against commercial entertainment but others recommend the inclusion of media-based lessons. Mathieson discusses the difficulties with this (including being an “outsider” to adolescent culture).
  • Schools Council Report said that English teachers needed to include media in order not to alienate children though it suggested that working-class children saw it as time-wasting.
  • Current (1975) popularity of classroom discussion – particularly of controversial topics. The Newsom Report is very enthusiastic about discussion (calling this “mutual exploration”). The purpose if to “trustfully roam” in conversation. Mathieson suggest that discussion of any quality might be very difficult for teachers to achieve.
  • Musgrove and TaylorSociety and the Teacher’s Role (1969) – research into children’s perceptions of a teacher’s role shows that they “expect to be taught, to have mysteries explained” and that “most weight to the good teacher’s teaching, least weight to his personal qualities”.
  • Denis Lawton suggests that offering classroom discussion will bewilder and alienate working class pupils.
  • Douglas Barnes noticed the infrequency of open-ended questions in English lessons. Or unable to extend discussion in a meaningful way. (American commentators described oral lessons as “little more than directed play” – in best British schools!).
  • Patrick CreberLost for Words – supports efforts to encourage pupil-directed discussion but admits that “he teacher’s new, less formal role is not an easy one. What he has to do is often a good deal less clear than what he is not to do”.
  • Success in oral discussion depends heavily on the teacher’s personality and intuitive grasp of the classroom situation but is not defined. Usually success is defined by the contributions of difficult, unresponsive or passive pupils.
  • Stenhouse suggests that the teacher’s personality figures greatly and that here is a neglect of consideration of how well informed the teacher needs to be.
  • Many teachers insufficiently informed enough to profitably chair discussions on complex issues. Using pupils’ opinions – often drawn from experience of the media – can diminish and trivialise the subject under discussion and leave pupils simply exchanging prejudices.
  • Nell Keddie suggests that it is higher-achieving pupils lack of questioning what they are taught that contributes to their educational achievement.
  • Mathieson: “It is surely of dubious value to these and to all other pupils to have their opinions left unchallenged or leadership of their discussions taken over by the most aggressive or confident members of their class.
  • Conclusion is that English teachers must reconsider the functions of knowledge and traditional skills of literacy. Exclusive attention to enjoyment and interest can trivialise issues, confine children to their own experience.
  • Neil Postman wants teaching to be a “subversive activity” and teachers to be “crap detectors”.
  • Neil Postman and Nell Keddie both express reservations about teaching reading but Mathieson argues that without literacy it is difficult to believe that pupils’ critic faculties can be developed.
  • Part of Postman‘s arguement seems to be that pupils can use new technologies (at that time 8mm cameras and tape recorders).
  • Anthologies like Penguin’s The Receiving End. They bring the outside world into the school, are “relevant” to children’s lives and are dramatic in their appeal.
  • Mathieson briefly recounts the trends/influences in English teaching and concludes the book with: “Today, advised to renounce their knowledge and control, they are asked by the radicals—as are all teachers—to stop being teachers altogether, to be, simply, people who help other people.