English teachers: bound to necessity?

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English in Education, Summer 2017

Being a good teacher of English (or any other subject) requires not only skill – the craft or techne required to achieve a desired outcome – but also wider understanding, or episteme.  Plato associated episteme with a freedom of intelligence, while (according to Damon Young) techne in the Greek polis “was a kind of knowledge associated with people who are bound to necessity”.

English teachers often resent being bound to necessity. Bethan Marshall writes in her conclusion to Testing English: “Despite over 150 years of battle, English teachers are still trying to assess English in a way that makes sense to them.”   Given current circumstances, it’s not surprising that much of the research presented in the new (Summer 2017) issue of English in Education concerns episteme rather than techne.

  • Paul Tarpey reconsiders John Dixon’s “personal growth” model of English in relation to its current manifestations.
  • Nicholas Stock explores the rhetoric of England’s new GCSE English examinations.
  • Jonathan Glazzard examines the “phonics check” for England’s five year olds in relation to various theories of reading.
  • Paul Gardner compares the discourses of English in England and Australia.

In practice, of course, the two kinds of knowledge interrelate.  Margaret Merga’s large-scale survey of children’s reading motivations and interests has direct relevance to classroom practitioners.   Jonathan Monk draws on cultural history and theory and Zadie Smith’s novel NW when preparing his students to write personally about their experience of the city.

Another theme of this issue is the importance of the personal and authentic in the daily work of teaching and learning.   Trevor Millum’s poem “Class Accents” suggests the complex nature of student and teacher voice.

The book reviews offer a conjunction of episteme and techne.  Urszula Clark reviews  Giovanelli and Clayton’s Knowing About Language: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom, while  Victoria Elliott reviews Skidmore and Murakami’s Dialogic Pedagogy. 

Foucault used episteme to define what might be called the epistemological unconscious of a community of practice, and he insisted that the essential political problem is to try to change our “political, economic, institutional regime of the production of truth”.  This issue argues the importance of bringing together episteme and techne in the experience of English teachers: a consummation devoutly to be wished in present circumstances.

John Hodgson

Members of NATE will receive their printed copy of English in Education shortly.   To join NATE, see sidebar.

 

 

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The Politics of English …

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… is the correct title for the current (Spring 2016) special issue of English in Education.   In producing the print edition, the publishers accidentally transposed the title Assessment and Learning from the proposed 2017 special issue.   The online version has the correct title, and print subscribers will receive a postal note from the publishers.

So how does the special issue view the current politics of English?  In his editorial, Ken Jones writes:

The articles in this special issue register the effects of … the ways in which English, through a thirty-year process of cumulative change, has come to be regulated and redefined. They examine some of the intellectual justifications put forward by advocates of change. They track its effects on teachers’ sense of the possibilities of English. Without hyperbole, they consider alternatives.

Simon Gibbons’ article focuses on the ways in which teachers have internalised the requirements of policy in their own sense of what it means to be a good English teacher. Andrew McCallum studies the teaching of English in a state secondary school and a private school.  He argues that, in the first school, where creativity is seen not as integral to English but as conditional upon the prior mastery of something uncreative, a skills focused curriculum produces a drastic narrowing of the learning experience.  This experience is captured by Michael Rosen in his poem ‘Bear Grylls’, which the author has allowed us to reprint for the special issue from his latest collection.

Drawing on  a comparative study of teaching Romen and Juliet in London and Palestine, Monica Brady and John Yandell insist that ‘classrooms are places where meanings are made, not merely transmitted’.  In similar vein, Karen Daniels, in her article on Early Years education, argues that English – or ‘literacy’ – is a site where students develop ‘repertoires for meaning-making’.    These micro-practices of English teaching are not insulated from the political, as they are enabled and constrained by the wider, ‘macro’ social practices of policy-makers and social movements.  Howard Ryan and Debra Goodman consider these in their account of the ‘whole language’ movement in the United States.  As Ken Jones concludes, to make significant changes to the present state of English requires looking beyond the micro-politics of the classroom.

 

How was it for you?

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Human beings are given to looking back at supposedly better times than the present. In The City and the Country, Raymond Williams examines nostalgic discourses about social change and suggests that that memories of better days usually refer to a period thirty or more years in the past. But I’ve never felt this way about education. The schools and colleges where I’ve taught during the last thirty years offered a better experience to both students and teachers than the institutions of the 1960s and early 70s, where corporal punishment was a normal feature of everyday life and most students left at 15 or 16 with no qualifications.

And yet – thirty years ago, the political-educational culture was very different to what obtains today. Teachers educated in recent years must find it hard to imagine a time when schooling and assessment were not subject to endless political influence and change. When NATE started in 1963, the consensus about educational reform was such that the Minister for Education wrote an article in one of the first issues of English in Education. Responding to the Black Papers on Education of the early seventies, the Bullock Report of 1975, A Language for Life, stated that there was little substance in the view that “large numbers of schools are promoting creativity at the expense of basic skills”. And yet the Report’s acceptance of a binary opposition between “skills” and “creativity”, a conceptual dichotomy still routinely deployed, arguably set the scene for the landscape of today, where SPAG assessment is seen as a fundamental marker of competence in English and creative writing at A level is under threat.

Over more than fifty years, English in Education has offered critical research and opinion on the “basics” of English in Scotland_Road_playschools – the teaching of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Reading through the collected volumes to prepare our reflective paper on the first fifty years of the journal (published in the September 2014 issue, 48:3) Sarah Wilkin and I became aware of what Margaret McCullagh, an MA student at King’s College, London, calls the “turbulent and challenging” history of English teaching over those years. Perhaps the English in Education archive can mobilise our collective memory at a crucial time in English education.

If you are one of those teachers whose experience, like mine, approaches the number of years that NATE and its journal have flourished, we’d like to hear from you.  Margaret McCullagh (maggiermccullagh@gmail.com) is writing a dissertation on older English teachers’ perceptions of their work.  She wants to interview a number of English teachers aged 55 and over who have spent most of their working lives in the UK educational system.  Those who have retired within the last five years are equally welcome to participate.  She hopes to elicit a picture of what these teachers believe promotes self-efficacy in English teaching – and what hinders it. If you fit this profile, and can help by participating in an audio-taped interview of up to an hour, at a time and place convenient to you, with any travel expenses paid, please get in touch with Margaret at maggiermccullagh@gmail.com.