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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Why Dartmouth mattered

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Shortly after its inception in 1963, NATE joined with the US National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Modern Languages Association (MLA) to secure funding for a month’s long seminar at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. The plan – as John Dixon has written, perhaps surprising today – was that a group of 40 to 50 teachers in schools and universities would thrash out the fundamental questions about English teaching and, through their national associations, spearhead a new approach.

Delegates to the conference brought visions of English teaching that differed not only between but (in some cases) also within the participant territories. English teachers in the United States employed rhetorical models of expository writing that were less familiar to participants from the UK, several of whom brought to Dartmouth a tradition of close literary study originating largely from the Scrutiny-inspired Cambridge school. At the same time, delegates from the London Institute of Education, including James Britton and Harold Rosen, insisted on the importance of respecting and working with the language that children brought to the classroom as a starting point for development.

In the circumstances, it was necessary to find a principle of English teaching that would reconcile these divergent approaches to teaching and learning within the prevailing educational climate. The concept of “personal growth”, articulated by John Dixon of the UK delegation, provided a pedagogic ideal which most could support. It spoke both to the delegates’ awareness of wasted talent in the school-age population and to the zeitgeist that produced the human potential movement, R.D. Laing’s anti-psychiatry, and the Summer of Love of 1967. Fifty years on, it is still the principle of English teaching that gains the allegiance of a majority of practitioners. This is because the radical core of the concept of “personal growth” was the student’s own language.

This focus on the child’s language emphatically did not exclude or marginalise literature. Pupils’ written stories and poems, when shared and discussed, became “the literature of the classroom”. And delegates from both sides of the Atlantic were surprisingly united (Dixon writes) in their view of literary response: “The experience of art is a thing of our making, an activity in which we are our own interpretive artist.”

These formulations about students’ language and literary response were developed, amended and rewritten over the next half century in NATE publications and elsewhere.  During these years, language study was reconstituted, insights from discourse studies of genre and narrative were assimilated, and technological change was incorporated into everyday classroom practice. The development of English studies over the last half-century demonstrates (in the words of Garth Boomer, a former president of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English) that the curriculum is no longer a prepackaged course to be taken; it is a jointly enacted composition that grows and changes as it proceeds.  The view that the experience and language that the child brought the classroom was intrinsically important, and that the process of teaching English must start here – not merely to impose class-based notions of formality and correctness, but to work with students to expand their language, cognition and range of feeling: this is the legacy and the importance of Dartmouth.

This post is adapted from an article to be published in Teaching English.   There will be a research symposium on Dartmouth on 26 June 2016 following the NATE Conference in Stratford on Avon.