10 prevalent myths about English teaching – part 2

myths-intro

This is the second part of a double-bill based on common myths in English teaching. Part 1 and myths 1 – 5 can be found here.

*

Myth 6: Young people find quiet hard work boring.

quiet

In the first place a third to a half of your class are likely to be introverts who probably prefer a quieter environment and time to think. Not only that, but reading and writing are silent pursuits – in the same way that music involves noise and PE involves movement. That’s not to say there should be no noise in an English classroom, just that reading and writing are complex cognitive processes that require huge levels of concentration and attention and as few distractions as possible. Many students are happy to tell me how quick and enjoyable lessons of quiet hard work are. If anything, they feel like they go faster!

Myth 7: Because young people learn new vocabulary implicitly, there’s no need to teach words explicitly.

vocab

The human mind has evolved to acquire new vocabulary naturally; however, we need multiple exposures to these words in multiple contexts for this to happen. This is why we need to design these contexts and exposures ourselves – the opportunity for practice and repetition will not be available outside school for many children. It’s useful to choose the vocabulary you will teach and think of ways to make it stick: by teaching it in context; by giving students lots of ways to use the word; by sharing its etymology; and by testing their understanding and knowledge regularly.

Myth 8: Closed questions do not challenge students to think critically about a text. 

blocks-stairs

If students can answer lots of closed questions about a literary text then they know it very well; this wide-ranging, connected knowledge is the stuff that deep analysis is made of. Closed questions and tasks also range in difficulty. Consider the difference between these two closed questions about An Inspector Calls: ‘What is the Inspector’s surname’ and ‘Explain three critical interpretations of the  Inspector’s  role in the play’. The second is clearly a more challenging task.

Myth 9: You can elicit anything about a text through good questioning.

magic-questions

Questioning can elicit some pretty fine stuff, especially if your class are knowledgeable and interested. But good questioning is not alchemy. Sometimes you will have to explain ideas, concepts and interpretations of texts yourself. Never be afraid to do this. Often, there is no other way your students can learn new and challenging ideas.

Myth 10: There is no such thing as a wrong answer in English.

right-wrong-weak-strong

This myth has a twin sister: Any answer is is valid – as long as you can back it up with evidence. Ultimately, right-versus-wrong is the wrong frame of reference. Instead, our students need to be able to discriminate  between good and bad. In other words, the difference between a strong interpretation and a weak interpretation – and all the shades of quality in between. To develop a sensitivity for this, our students need to be exposed to a wealth of sophisticated and critical  insights over a sustained period of time.

*

Thanks for reading. If you can think of any I have overlooked, please add them in the comments.

10 prevalent myths about English teaching – part 1

myths-intro
Images: @jasonramasami

I have recently been putting the finishing touches to the first draft of my forthcoming book, Making Every English Lesson Count. The book will look at how the six principles that Shaun Allison and I explored in Making Every Lesson Count – challenge, explanation, modelling, practice, feedback and questioning – can improve the teaching of English. It will also challenge some of the myths I have heard (and have believed) about English teaching. Most of these are not myths in the purest sense; they are partial-truths that can limit our practice if we are not mindful of them.

I am also aware that these might seem like a series of straw man arguments.  I do not think for one moment that experienced and skilled English teachers seriously believe in them. Nevertheless, I have heard each of them referred to –  implicitly or explicitly – at some time or other. Think of the myths as a set of provocations as much as anything.

A special thank you to Jason Ramasami who has illustrated each myth with his customary precision and humour. The first five myths are published below. The next five will be available tomorrow morning. Watch this space …

*

Myth 1: English is a skills-based subject.

knowledge-skilla

Next time your class have completed a timed reading response, identify the best essay and then identify the best paragraph in this piece. Now work backwards. What types of knowledge does the student utilise? Knowledge of plot? Knowledge of historical context? Knowledge of important quotations? Knowledge of vocabulary? Knowledge about the writer’s themes and ideas? I imagine there will be a huge depth of interconnected knowledge – even if the assessment rubric demands that you assess skills.

In fact, good general knowledge is fundamental to reading new texts too – we cannot make strong inferences without it.

Yes, there are generic skills in English, but they need to be applied to something. This is where knowledge comes in.

Myth 2: A polished piece of writing in a student’s book is always a sign of a good writer.

puppetry

Polished writing is often a sign of a good writer, but not always. The level of scaffolding and support a teacher has given can mask huge gaps. This was always the problem in the days of coursework: teachers felt pressurised to do most of the thinking and hard-work for the students. Unless all students do exactly the same task in exactly the same conditions, comparisons are hard to make within or across classes and schools.

Similarly, if you are going to collect data on progress, then you must ensure that all assessments are carried out in the same way. If not, the data, like the polished work, does not tell the full story.

Myth 3: Redrafting/DIRT fills learning gaps.

dirt-etc

Again, it can fill them, but not always. It is wise to give students time to work on their mistakes and misconceptions, but the re-drafted or improved work should not be confused with closing the gap. If you want to test whether the gap has been filled, then test them again a few months later to see if you can find substantial improvements. Improved work in the short-term is not evidence of long-term learning.

Myth 4: Sharing grade/level descriptors with students is a useful strategy. 

torch

It is useful to provide reminders of key assessment obectives – i.e. remember to embed quotations; to evaluate the effect on the reader; and to consider contextual factors. However, writing is a complex skill that cannot be bottled down into neat descriptors. We know that ‘sophisticated’ is better than ‘competent’ but knowing this is about as helpful as being trapped in a cave with a torch without batteries. If you want students to be able to descriminate between levels of quality, then your best bet is to talk through and discuss some examples.

Myth 5: Texts that relate to students’ lives should always be chosen for study.

open-doors

Surely the idea of school is to introduce young people to ideas, experiences and knowledge beyond the confines of their day-to-day lives? Texts should open doors to new worlds; otherwise, we lock and bolt young people in the rooms they already occupy.

*

Thanks for reading. As always your comments would be much appreciated. Here’s the link to Part 2

What happens when we teach interpretations of literature as facts?

facts
Image: @jasonramasami

Your class have been reading a literary work for some time. You feel that it is now time to evaluate  a particular aspect of the text – let’s say, how an important character has been drawn. You ask for the class’s ideas – perhaps you first give them a chance to think alone or discuss in pairs. As the ideas come in thick and fast, you create a list or a mind-map on the board. You probe your students’ responses to improve the depth of thought. Soon you have a board covered with ideas. These include defining adjectives, references to pivotal events, vital quotations and links to the text’s social and historical context.

The mind-map is not bad, it’s just that … it would have been far better if you had just told them in the first place.

Recently, I have been thinking about whether literary interpretations should be taught as explicit knowledge – in the same way as theories and concepts are in science lessons. This, of course, throws up a plethora of thorny problems. Aren’t we each entitled to our own opinion? Aren’t all opinions valid as long as we can back them up? Shouldn’t literature encourage free-thinking in our youngsters, rather than straightjacket them with the pedantry of their elders?

Putting these complications to one side, I decided I would put it to the test. Before my lesson on J.B. Priestley’s Inspector Goole, I picked four of the most interesting interpretations of the play’s enigmatic visitor I could find and created a mind-map.

At the start of the lesson – as normal – I asked my mixed-ability year 10 class for their thoughts on Goole. They touched tangentially on the ideas of moral conscience and the voice of socialism, as well as the predictable he must be a ghost, like ‘ghoul’. Their ideas were interesting and on the right track, but not yet fully-formed.

At this point, I told them that my role was to take their ideas further by introducing them to some of the most interesting interpretations of Goole I had encountered. I revealed the diagram below point-by-point, and we discussed each theory as we went. I gave them time to draw a visual representation of each theory – so as to harness the power of dual-coding. At the end of the lesson, the class divided into pairs and took it in turns to explain each point on the diagram to each other.

goole-slide

By the end of the lesson, every member of this mixed-ability group appeared to understand these theories. I tested them on their knowledge two days later. They had retained the meaning of terms like moral epiphany and quasi-religious.

Perhaps the most interesting moment of the lesson, however, came at the end. A pair had extended upon the idea of Goole as Priestley’s mouthpiece. They had decided that the Inspector should be renamed Priestley’s Parrot. His role is to repeat Priestley’s message of social responsibility and compassion into eternity: on stages, in classrooms, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

file-21-10-2016-21-33-46

Who says didactic teaching cannot lead to creativity and originality?

*

A couple of days later this principle repeated itself. I was working with a year 11 student whose teacher had recently given the class a crash course in Freudian theory. We were looking at an episode  from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde when Hyde savagely murders Sir Danvers Carew and is said to erupt into ‘a great flame of anger’. “Perhaps the ‘flame’ is a metaphor for the way the unconscious mind can suddenly burst through,” she suggested.

In my opinion, if we want to encourage critical and divergent thinking – which we surely do – then we must provide our classes with the tools to do so. If not, then we rely on young people plucking ideas out of the ether, the educational equivalent of alchemy.

Implemented carefully, the explicit teaching of ideas and interpretations need not be restrictive. Instead, it can induct students in the discipline of the subject and spark genuine insight.

Related posts:

Knowledge-first English teaching – a video

The poetry dilemma:to teach or to elicit?

 

Knowledge-first English teaching

Tod Brennan, @TodBrennanEng, is putting together a series of interviews with English teachers. This morning we chatted about the benefits of a knowledge-first approach to English teaching. The video link is below:

Do follow this series of interviews. They are bound to be fascinating.

Last week’s guest was Caroline Spalding on career progression:

Related posts:

Can we teach children how to make inferences?

English teaching and the problem with knowledge?

General knowledge, the new English GCSE and the ‘as-the-crow-flies error’