Ken 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we do, and in as far as one exists at all, it is a wishy-washy pre-structuralist mish-mash which is at least 50 years out of date and has only survived, like some hospital-dwelling superbug, in schools.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?
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?
I find it really exciting to walk into a room – even when the students and teachers are not there – and be able to get a real sense of what the students of that class are thinking about, and how they are thinking. Recently, when walking around NIST, I was really impressed by the amount of visible thinking I found, and the variety of ways that teachers are “extracting” that thinking from their students and then displaying it so that the walls do actually speak.
How wonderful for students to be immersed in their own thoughts, interacting with displays and surrounded by relevance at all times!
What visible thinking strategies have worked well for you?
I’m quite excited at the moment as the Y7 (G6) students are carrying on with a lot of the things they started during the PYP Exhibition last year. The secondary school has set up something called “Know, Care, Act” which gives the kids the chance to continue with the action they started last year – exactly what I was hoping for!
Here’s an example (hopefully the first of many):
Last year, Johann and Arne became very interested in privacy and safety issues online following an inspirational presentation by Robyn Treyvaud (see her TED Talk here). Both of them spend a lot of time on Facebook (as do their peers) and they were really pleased to hear an adult talk realistically about Facebook instead of telling them not to use it.
For the PYP Exhibition, they narrowed their focus down to privacy settings on Facebook as they felt that this was an area that could really empower people to use social networking safely and responsibly in the future. They set up a Facebook Safety Consultancy Center and helped hundreds of clients set up their privacy settings and learn to do it for themselves.
They are continuing to publicize their actions using their Facebook page
and are continuing to run mini-workshops in our school library – fabulous!
I have been following @anderscj for some time now and enjoyed the content he puts into twitter. Today, however, he has thrown some provocative quotes at his learning community:
I am really interested in the first quote, by Mark Twain. I often think that we learn despite the way we’re taught. How many of the world’s most successful people were successful at school? How many of the world’s most talented people had their talents discovered, enriched and advanced at school? How many of the people who have achieved success in the “real” areas of life such real-estate, business, cooking, social work and creativity were successful at school?
In this technological day and age, also, we have to be curious about the lives lids are living online and how much more creative, non-threatening and collaborative they are than their school lives. Scary stuff, but also exciting for people who are willing to rethink and continue to learn themselves:
I also really like the penultimate quote about education threatening long-held mores and beliefs. I totally agree with this, but often find myself surrounded by teachers who would not agree with it. Why is that? What is it about schools that makes them breed people who deny the need for constant change? How do they become these bubbles that exist in separation from the real world? How do we burst the bubble?
The students were given some decent paper and a small selection of chalk and oil pastels. They were asked to use shades of green and only one more colour in order to show their issue from a green/nature perspective through abstract art.
Many of them were not familiar with abstract art, which was quite a shock! However, I shared some examples of the work done by the teachers at the Green School (see previous posting) and that seemed to unlock some of their creativity.
The students wrote an explanation of their work on an index card and then they put them up on a display board.
Some of the ideas that came out of students sharing their work were very interesting and could lead on to some bigger works of art to form part of the exhibition:
- Sasha’s drawing of blue water that is becoming more and more polluted could become a large “timeline painting” that shows what we have been doing to water throughout history. It could also include some vision for the future.
- Rosna’s image of plastic bags on top of a natural background could be extended to become a painting of the Earth that is covered with cut-out bits of plastic to represent plastic bags. She could stick these on herself, or make it interactive in order to increase the shock value!
- Alfie’s growing cloud of cigarette smoke could also be turned into an interactive piece of work. He wanted to get people to sign a petition. maybe, instead, he could get people to contribute to a massive cloud of smoke?
These ideas for further development of the artwork came from Naomi Natale’s One Million Bones project.
The slideshow is doing some strange things!
It’s hard to make exact plans for the next stage of our exhibition as we’re never fully sure the school will be open or that several students will take extended holidays. However, it will be a priority for us to look at the students’ issues through each lens of the Compass in myriad of ways. I ‘m thinking:
- Hi-quality image searching, seeking images that are entirely relevant, powerful and large file sizes for added manipulation and poster design. I get the students using the Creative Commons image search as they have share-alike copyrights which means we can use them as long as they are credited.
- Quotes from media reports and opinion
- Data in the form of infographics – see http://www.coolinfographics.com/
- Use Wordle to create visuals of frequently used words in media stories, blog comments, interviews (see the examples in the slideshow that I created by pasting the text of this posting into Wordle).
Students will spend the day looking at their issue solely from the perspective of one lens and will be responsible for sharing their findings throughout the day. Compass Guides are invited to drop-in to the classroom at any time during the day in order to give feedback, provoke ideas and familiarize the students further with actually talking to different people about their issues.
Technology will play a major part in each day. I’m imagining students will be:
- Searching the Internet for images
- Reading online news and reports
- Watching Youtube videos
- Reading or writing on the 6SS Blog
- Recording video using Flip cameras
- Making calls on Skype
- Designing pages using Word
- Creating infographics using SmartArt or paint.net
- Taking and manipulating photographs
- Using Prezi or PowerPoint to deliver short presentations.
- Developing their own big picture/small picture tasks for other people
Basically, the students will be exploring issues with a very clear focus: Nature, Economy, Society and Well-Being. Have a close look at the original Compass developed by Alan Atkisson.
The Blog that my class and I have developed so far this year has been outstandingly successful. The effects, among others, have been:
- A much greater amount of writing is being published than I have ever experienced in teaching before.
- A worldwide audience has made the students think about their responsibilities and powers as authors.
- The conversations that have happened through comments and replies has taken student understanding to a very deep level.
- The students are increasingly confident about sharing their ideas, thoughts and feelings.
- The parents love the fact that they can go on our Blog at any time and get a real sense of what the students are thinking about at the time.
- The students have naturally started to self and peer edit.
- ESL students have the opportunity to express themselves in writing in a very low-pressure setting, boosting their confidence.
- The students have become genuinely empowered by having the right to create their own posts.
- The students are developing skills and codes of online behaviour that will really set them up for the future.
The Blog has become what it is because:
- Everything on the Blog is relevant to current learning or is based on student interests.
- Students have been trusted to create postings.
- Students have been assigned Blog tasks in school and at home.
- Students have been provided with new skills as they have needed them, not too much too soon and nothing held back because “they are not capable of doing that”.
- Postings contain provocations that get the students thinking and make them want to react.
- Postings contain high-quality images that give the Blog a professional feel.
- Effective use of Tags and Categories makes it possible to access old postings very easily, keeping them alive.
- Effective use of widgets provides extra content and useful information.
- Information about the number of hits and worldwide visitors puts things into perspective for the kids and acts as an extra motivation – “there are people out there who are interested in what we do!”
I was recently very happy to find a similar blog posting to this one: “Let Your Students Blog” by Deborah C. White