Introduction to English and Its Teachers

Notes from English and Its Teachers by Simon Gibbons (2017)

Chapter 1 – Introduction

Simon Gibbons presents the purposes, rationale and scope for this study of the development of secondary school English teaching from the mid-1960s to the present. He defines three periods during this time but agrees that the centralising action of the 1988 National Curriculum was a “watershed moment” and that the loss of teachers’ autonomy has coincided with the deprofessionalisation of subject teachers. Gibbons insists that to be an effective English teacher you need to develop a personal vision based on knowledge of how English is best learned and taught (not simply becoming skilled at delivering pre-prepared lessons or implementing the latest recommended teaching strategies).

  • This is not a neutral enterprise.” – Gibbons notes that a “basic skills curriculum” aims to reproduce societal norms.
  • Gibbons: “A broader English curriculum that embraces the seemingly ever-increasing varieties of language and dialect, explores how language changes over time, introduces children to the breadth of ways in which they can speak and write in the increasing forms of media available to them, and exposes them to literature from across times and continents and cultures has the potential to do so much more. The links between language development and thought attest to the significance of English in the way it can enable the growth of character, and how in developing linguistics resources children are internalising culture and society.
  • Gibbons: “Literature, in revealing the worlds, minds, sensibilities and beliefs of writers, allows children to deepen under­ standing of the way they and others live, and pursue fundamental moral, ethical and political questions.
  • Gibbons defines last 50 years is represented by three periods:
    • mid-1960s to mid-1980s: expansion of English, teachers drew in new technologies, expansion of comprehensive schooling, English teachers were fighting for something, increased attention to cognitive development and psychology, efforts to articulate “overarching theory” for the subject.
    • late-1980s to start of new millennium: advent of National Curriculum, unprecedented central intervention in schools in terms of curriculum, assessment and pedagogy (symptomatic of a global standards-based reform agenda in education), increased marketisation, more fragmented landscape. English teachers fought against central impositions and new models of English seeking a return to more traditional models at the expense of progressive models.
    • mid-2000s and “existing as the status quo today”: “it is tempting to say that the fight has disappeared, perhaps because it is difficult to see where the fight is, how to fight it and to sustain any belief that it can be won. Even if, to an extent, central intervention has become less overtly direct, and even if the landscape now purports to offer schools and teachers more freedom, the legacy of nearly thirty years of top-down reform has been profound deprofessionalisation – leaving English teachers with the underlying sense that the critical decisions about what to teach and how to teach arc no longer theirs to make.
  • The introduction of the National Curriculum was a “watershed moment”.
  • G. McCullochThe Struggle for the History of Education (2011) – shows that there have been “competing rationales” within the study of the history of education.
  • Gibbons: “I would argue that to be a genuinely effective teacher of English, one needs more than the ability to implement the most recently recommended teaching strategy or to download the latest inspection-proof lesson or unit of work. One needs to have a clear sense of what English is, what its purpose in the education of children should be, and the ways in which this is best effected in a given classroom, at a given time, with a particular group of pupils. For want of a more satisfactory term, it is about having an underpinning foundation – a philosophy – of the subject and how it is best learnt and taught.
  • Unless English teachers have a philosophy or ideology then someone else’s philosophy or ideology is “merely enacted rather than understood”.
  • Brian SimonEducation and the Social Order (1991): “things have not always been as they are and need not remain so”.
  • Seminal history of English is David Shayer’s The Teaching of English in Schools 1900-1970 (1972). Shayer’s book published at same time the New English (a progressive pupil-centred model) was beginning to develop as an orthadox method. Shayer optimistic about future development of English.
  • Gibbons not convinced there is “substantial agreement” about a philosophy of English and believes that there has been a deprofessionalisation of teachers that obscures need for personal philosophy. Critical that English teachers adopt a “total view first”.
  • Margaret Mathieson’s The Preachers of Culture (1975) – more far reaching and philosophical than Shayer. Should be required reading for anyone entering the profession.
  • Both Mathieson and Shayer seem to present the development of English in a non-existent or benign policy context (when decisions taken by teachers themselves).
  • ClarkWar Words: Language, History and the Disciplining of English (2001) – sets debates in context of political intervention.
  • Effects of centralisation. Gibbons: “Centralisation has almost invariably not been in the hands of subject experts, nor have policymakers often appeared to have a vision of the subject beyond the way in which it can contribute to the overall economic health and competitiveness of the nation, or to the way it might help to construct some notion of Britishness.
  • Unavoidable to consider English and its teachers in relation to policymakers.
  • Gibbons encourages teachers to consider how English is taught overseas.
  • Michael Barber divided past 50 years into four categories:
    • “uninformed professionalism” (1970s)
    • “uninformed prescription” (1980s)
    • “informed prescription” (1990s and National Strategies)
    • “informed professionalism” (the way forward)
  • Gibbons takes issue with Barber’s division. It does a disservice to many English teachers.
  • Significance of the Dartmouth Seminar in 1966: “an event that helped to shape the subsequent development of English as a discipline in the secondary school.
  • Pre-1988 and post-1988 are a “absolute paradigm shift” (Goodwyn) in teaching of English. Goodwyn calls it “the era of teacher autonomy to the time of externalised conformity”.
  • Gibbons: “In considering the development of the subject, this text takes a broad definition of this new English as, essentially, a progressive-growth model; under this broad umbrella the unifying factor is that the child and her experience is the starting point for the work of the English teacher.
  • Gibbons: “The new progressive English, whilst obviously not practised to the exclusion of other versions of the subject, can rightly be seen as a dominant orthodoxy by the time of the introduction of the National Curriculum, certainly in the state education sector.
  • Gibbons describes period from end of 1980s to early 1990s as “some of the most important teacher-led initiatives into the development of English” and coincided with the imposition of central curriculum and assessment.