Clay Daffodils

ImageKen Robinson has a great story about a school inspector going round a school somewhere in England or possibly Wales, and finding that in every subject the students were studying daffodils. In Biology they were looking at bulb germination, in English they were reading Wordsworth, in Art they were drawing and making daffodils. The inspector goes up to a small boy who is poking at a gnarled, yellow- tinged excrescence of flaking clay. ‘What’s that?’ he asks. ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘it’s a daffodil.’ ‘Oh,’ says the inspector. ‘Very nice. And do you like daffodils?’ ‘Please, sir,’ says the boy, ‘I’m sick to death of the bloody things.’

A colleague of mine at a very good English independent school – the Head of History, and a respected historian and author – once said to me, ‘The trouble with your subject [ie ‘English’] is that it doesn’t have a discipline.’

I didn’t argue with him – and wasn’t quick enough to take a pop back at his own discipline. ‘Well, Nick,’ I could have quipped. ‘history is bunk, as someone once said!’

I didn’t, because he had a point – more than a point, he was spot-on. The problem facing the high school literature teacher is that there isn’t really any agreed equivalent of the scientific method to be imparted. Instead, there are all kinds of competing schools, new paradigms touted every generation, a jungle of fads and factions with no deep roots. Among these, we have (apparently) found no dominating theory, no over-arching narrative about narrative to use or push against. We don’t have a paradigm, we have a wilderness of mirrors. And so we have more or less declared high school English/ Language A classrooms a theory-free zone. We are not aware of a theoretical basis for what we do, and in as far as one exists at all, it is a wishy-washy pre-structuralist mish-mash which is at least 50 years out of date and has only survived, like some hospital-dwelling superbug, in schools. Put it under the microscope, and what do you see?

Clay daffodils.


OK, you might say – here’s a theory –

My English class is about learning to write well. It’s about recognizing good writing and learning from it. Everything we read and discuss serves as example and as stimulus for good writing. We learn to read well in order to write well.”

It’s not a bad model.


here’s the problem. It doesn’t support inquiry.

In English classes we have a lop-sided situation where there’s a strong, fresh educational theory (constructivism) which is effective and portable, but we don’t have the literary theory to match it and to enable meaningful inquiry into the subject.

Is our inquiry always to be – what does this text teach us about good writing? Is it to be – is Juliet too young to get married? Is it to be – why don’t we write the chapters that the author decided for very good reasons not to write?

The result of the problem is the inflow of dross to fill the vacuum. The confusion about literary criticism. The alarmingly narrow technical base. The shallow politicization of the subject.

The result of that is in turn the loss of engagement across a broad band of students – the more logically minded, or epistemologically-minded, who find the subject empty for them. The technical and scientific types, who don’t understand what they’re supposed to be inquiring into. Many of the boys, in fact.

We escape the theoretical vacuum by shooting off in other directions, embracing the refuge of other subjects in which we might have little training but which still feel somehow more solid than our own. In my first international school, I encountered a Language A (English) MYP curriculum which seemed to have been designed entirely to support the Humanities curriculum. In the name of inter-disciplinary study of course. Everything we read in English served to illustrate a historical experience. Of Mice and Men when they were learning about the great Depression. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch when they were doing the Cold War. Easy to justify from the Humanities side – but from the literature side the overwhelming lesson seemed to be that literature can tell us what history felt like.

Or else it’s all about ethics, concern, identity politics and wedge issues.

At its lowest level, of course, it’s about maps, or anything we can put on display. Let’s make a diorama of the inside of Macbeth’s head, shall we? Let’s make it out of cardboard!

I would love to know – how many English teachers have had their class draw maps or even make papier-mache models of the island in Lord of the Flies?

I’m sorry, but that’s a clay daffodil.

Have you ever used Of Mice and Men to have a class debate about the ethics of euthanasia?

Even that – clay daffodil. Sorry. Clay daff


    • Paul Dunbar

      Thanks for commenting, and it’s obviously a good question. I will be writing about some of the solutions I developed in my own teaching, but to give a brief idea, I would say that my best work has come out of a response to constructivist approaches – I’ll go into more detail as I continue. Thanks for reading.

      • Paul Dunbar

        I think we already have the answers in principle: concept-driven curriculum and inquiry-based learning. BUT in English/Language A/literature courses we need some fresh thinking about curriculum, and that’s where I hope to make a contribution. I will write about my experiments with Year 10/Grade 9 curriculum – that’s where this is all going – and we’ll see what you and others make of it. Thanks for your question, and I hope you’ll comment further…

          • Paul Dunbar

            Thank you. And I hope my tone in these pieces doesn’t come across as overly critical. Sometimes you have to be a bit provocative to get some debate going. I’m sure I don’t have all the answers, but I definitely have some questions!

  1. jjholroyd

    I think it’s pretty clear that one manner in which to start conceptualising the teaching of literature is to be confident engaging in different conceptual approaches (i.e. through different critical approaches) yourself. So many literature teachers are petrified of critical theory! Well here’s a good starting point: start reading more! ‘Straw Men’ are a great starting point – not least that bloody ‘IB Learner Profile’ – would Othello have fallen prey to Iago if he were a ‘balanced’ learner? But, if no – tragedy averted, hurrah! – you’ve then gotta follow-up: but would he, a moor in Venice, have acquired his high status and Desdemona’s love in the first place if he were more ‘balanced’, less proud and hubristic?

    It’s only a hop-skip-and-a jump from there to offering up similar critiques of other (reductionist) models for thinking about humanity, and literature. Cultural Materialist – is it just ‘all about the paper-paper’ in Venice? Second Wave Feminist – do these silly boys just need the snip, to start engaging their higher order thinking skills? Don’t even label ’em as ‘critical schools’ if you’re not that way inclined – but DO start asking these kind of questions… because these kind of questions are provocative. They’ll disagree with different critical approaches, with one another… and so they’ll have to go to the text in order to justify their position (not to draw a map, generate a peripheral debate on Elizabathen gender roles or what have you). And if literary criticism is as much art as substance (and I think it may be) then you’ve got to evoke an emotional response to spark that creativity, and present a range of different conceptual model if you want students to start recognising these AS creative works, and start developing confidence in justifying their own conceptual models for understanding texts.

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