Stories + Views

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05/04/11

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Is it “dumbing down” to modernise Shakespeare? Will they allow it at WFLS? Look at my video and judge for yourself.

I’ve produced another video for pupils which aims to motivate them to like Shakespeare and look closely at his use of language. A way English teachers do this is by modernising the play. I’ve met some teachers who believe that this is “dumbing down” because pupils are essentially “corrupting” his language and approach. However, you could argue that it’s the opposite of “dumbing down” because modernising the Bard requires a great many “high level” cognitive skills: comparison and contrast, analysis of plot, characters and language; and the deployment of various media techniques.

I worry that a more “narrow-minded” approach to education might put a stop to this sort of thing because it’s not “traditional” enough. For example, if we are going to have a new breed of “comprehensive grammars” along the lines of the West London Free School model, will they permit this sort of thing?

I think schools should a place where fresh approaches to traditional topics like Shakespeare should be encouraged and nurtured, and not denigrated as “dumbing down”.

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Comments, replies and queries

  1. Allan Beavis says:

    I grew to love Shakespeare from a book which told the stories of his plays in a way that a 10 or 11 year old could comprehend and find stimulating. Without first understanding the themes and the universailty of Shakespeare’s output and without seeing “Dream” and “Macbeth” performed in a theatre aged 13 I doubt very much whether I would have given the text or the poetry much
    chance. The interest in the language and the poetry came later and by that stage was no longer “boring” but increased my appreciation.

    I think Helen Mirren recently said that kids should watch Shakespeare first – in the theatre, in cinema, on television – then study the text. I agree. He has to come alive

  2. Allan Beavis says:

    Talking of modernization my son “got” Shakespeare at 14 when we watched Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. The visuals and contemporizing really helps.

  3. Andy Smithers says:

    I thought you were not obsessed with the WLFS?

  4. I agree with you Allan, Shakespeare was primarily a dramatist; the plays must be seen in performance — and performed. The trouble is that the language can be a barrier; modernising the language helps students work out what’s going on — amongst other things. I brought up WLFS because of the “broad and balanced” curriculum issue. I worry that if you have a “narrowly” academic curriculum you do inhibit activities like this, which are practical and “child-centred”. That said, my school, like most state schools, also encourages more traditional approaches. There’s a genuine mix.
    This is the problem with the “free school” movement which aims to cater for “specialist” clienteles; either you have a completely child-centred approach (eg Montessori) or the “chalk and talk” approach of WFLS.

  5. Is this a parody?

  6. Francis,

    This site is a treasure trove. I highly recommend it to all students of Critical Thinking and debate in general. There are more flaws here than in the Empire State Building (so to speak). For example, in your last paragraph you create the classic false dilemma.

    “…either you have a completely child-centred approach (eg Montessori) or the “chalk and talk” approach of WFLS.”

    Neither is a necessary consequence of free schools. Even if you have a specialised curriculum you don’t have to have a specified way of delivering it.

    Then your whole argument is self-contradictory:

    “I worry that if you have a “narrowly” academic curriculum you do inhibit activities like this, which are practical and “child-centred”.

    Your whole original post was about an activity that promotes a highly academic aspect of a subject. Are you seriously suggesting an academic curriculum won’t teach Shakespeare?

    You say, “This website aims to correct the myths and lies that are spread about local state schools.” Does that mean you have to create myths and lies about other schools?

  7. In reply to Toby, it’s not a parody. I should have explained the video is aimed at GCSE students of all abilities; it’s meant to be “light” in tone. Any failings are entirely mine and not my students; I’m open to constructive criticism — indeed, welcome it! I suppose I do worry that approaches like this won’t be taken in “narrowly” academic schools. To explain a bit more about my argument, I would say to Charlie that WFLS’s curriculum seems to be built upon the notion that there’s an “objective body” of knowledge that needs to be transmitted to students. Your whole raison d’etre is “knowledge transfer”. This is activity is essentially “skills-based”, it’s a child-centred activity. Above all, it’s the skills that the children acquire that’s important; problem-solving, collaboration, working out difficult texts for themselves.
    Furthermore, Toby’s dismissal of what I’ve done seems to indicate that he thinks this “child-centred” approach is a waste of time and a joke. I suppose he’s proposing that teachers lecture to students, and they take notes? I’ve tried that with Shakespeare and it doesn’t really work.
    Thanks though Charlie for saying the LSN is a “treasure trove” — albeit ironically! (lol) You love us really…

  8. Francis, this is fantastic, you give the most blatant example of a ‘straw man’ argument that I have ever seen. I am sure that your work will soon feature on a Critical Thinking exam paper. (lol)

    “Your whole raison d’etre is “knowledge transfer”.”

    For those not in the know, a straw man argument puts forward a weak or misrepresentative version of an opponent’s argument in order to ridicule and defeat it. The WLFS is not all about knowledge transfer, we do believe it is important, but we have a massive emphasis on learning skills as well as evidenced by our stated intention (pretty much since the beginning of the project) to integrate Habits of Mind into our curriculum. Also, if you just fill buckets and don’t light fires, as well as doing a massive disservice to the pupil you get really poor exam results. We know this.

    As for your last point, I think I probably do love you (plural). I respect that you care deeply about education and that you have created a debating forum where you equally post the views and attacks of people who don’t agree with you. I am irked by the poor quality of debate and the refusal of people to take a critical approach to ideas – not blindly accepting what they like and rejecting what they don’t; however, it is useful to know what inventions people are creating regarding the WLFS.

    • I apologise for misrepresenting your educational aims Charlie. I suppose what I was attempting to “get at” was that I see WFLS built upon an “Enlightenment” epistemological framework; at the heart of your “theory of knowledge” (epistemology) is the notion that there’s an objective body of knowledge that all pupils should acquire. This is what Paulo Friere in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed calls the “banking” theory of knowledge; Friere says it’s oppressive because pupils “bank” knowledge at school, rather than actively engagement with it. This means that Toby can airily dismiss things like “celebrating sexual diversity” and “modernising Shakespeare” because it’s not part of the objective body of knowledge that needs to be acquired. My epistemological framework is different: for me knowledge is about processes and skills, about “doing”, about “actively engaging” with the world in a given time and moment. As Friere says, if we are not going to “oppress” pupils with “facts”, we need to start with pupils’ own lives and examine what they need to know, personalising learning so that it fits the needs of the individual learner.

  9. Allan Beavis says:

    Charlie

    “For those not in the know, a straw man argument puts forward a weak or misrepresentative version of an opponent’s argument in order to ridicule and defeat it.”

    Isn’t this what you have been doing without actually defeating an argument? Or backing up your argument with facts examples?

  10. Janet Downs says:

    Critical thinking: “An essential aspect of critical thinking is to question what is being said. In academic study you must be able to justify a position or claim you make by reference to other sources of evidence.”

    “The use of evidence is an important aspect of academic study. Critical thinking involves examining evidence and establishing its worth when compared with other evidence.”

    http://www.open.ac.uk/skillsforstudy/ways-to-develop-critical-thinking.php

    So let us apply critical thinking to two of the objectives on the West London Free School website.

    Firstly, persuading pupils to stay on in the Sixth Form may fall foul of the proposed guidelines for careers guidance. John Hayes, the Minister for Skills and Lifelong Learning, is proposing a legal duty on schools to ensure pupils receive impartial careers advice independent of organisations with a vested interest. This means that a school will be discouraged from steering pupils to its own sixth form but will be expected to present a wide range of options.

    http://readingroom.ypla.gov.uk/ypla/ypla-john_hayes_press_release-pr-nov10-v1.pdf

    Secondly, the claim that the school with “ensure that 100 per cent of pupils pass at least 6 GCSEs or IGCSEs at grade C or above” is a particularly extravagant claim. Ensure means “to make certain”. No school can “make certain” that each cohort of pupils will achieve 100% pass rate in 6 GCSEs C and above. It is an aspiration, and a noble one. But it can’t be ensured.

    Sorry, Francis. The post seems to have been highjacked from a discussion about the teaching of Shakespeare to an exercise in critical thinking.

  11. To be fair to Francis I can see the point of such an exercise in translating archaic language and motivating students – with the proviso of asking just what proportion of the teaching time would be given over to this of your total effort?

    Maybe a few % ok, if it is a major effort then probably I could see Toby’s point of view.

    I would ask Francis once again if the whole thing is just a distraction though, when he addressed the status and actions of WLFS through this post?

    Once again it is not the business of teachers to impose certain kinds of schooling on their parents and children. Impose is the key word here. Doesn’t matter who the imposer is whether LSN or WLFS.

    It is up to the parents and children to choose schools according to whether they can see the value in particular pedagogy amongst other things.

    The free local schools network quite simply has no moral, legal or ethical foundation for forcing people to attend local schools on a comprehensive basis – which is what “supporting local schools” means to LSN as far as I can tell. So philosophically Toby wins even if I think his parody accusation overstrong.

    LSN need to be more straightforward in their use of language: we will force your child to attend a local school even if against your wishes, in contravention of the law.

    • Most great teachers use a range of different strategies to make their lessons interesting. I can’t see what the fuss is about – Francis is just showing us one bit of a lesson , the pupils seem to be enjoying it a lot and I have just looked at his school’s GCSE English Literature results on the latest subject based performance tables published by the government. They are extremely good so something is clearly working and his students are very lucky.

  12. Allan – No.

    Janet – Firstly, if persuading pupils to stay on in the sixth form does actually fall foul of the actual guidelines for career guidance then we will have to revisit that objective. That said, I don’t think it would be in anybody’s best interests to advise a pupil against their own best interests.

    Secondly, as is your habit, you are putting words in our mouth and creating a straw man (see above). We are not saying, as you claim we are, that the school will “ensure 100 per cent of pupils pass at least 6 GCSEs etc…” only that it is our objective to do that. Most people would therefore understand that to be an aspiration, and one that may not be met. Technically, I think you are correct that the objective to “ensure” such a result is unrealistic and we will look at rephrasing that. How about if we swap “ensure” with “to support”.

    The reason the post has been hijacked is because Francis played the WLFS card; you can discuss the teaching of Shakespeare without maligning another school.

  13. Andy Smithers says:

    So why does he have to mention WLFS ?
    If Francis has something positive to say let it stand up on its own without further attempts to undermine a new local state school.

  14. caroline says:

    Isn’t there a misunderstanding here?

    If you give GCSE students the original text and say – change that into a play for today. This seems a great way to make sure they understand the language, plot, nuance etc.

    But if you ditch the original and give them a rapped up version – you’re doing them a disservice.

    From the sound of it Toby Young seems to think it’s the latter you are doing.

  15. Janet,

    Surely even you can see that this statement – “This means that a school will be discouraged from steering pupils to its own sixth form” – is a reductio ad absurdum of allowing state regulation to dictate the advice given to pupils by teachers? How can you possibly be defending such a palpably absurd regulation?

  16. raymond dance says:

    Why are you guys so frightened by a little competition? Is our education system so perfect that there’s no room even for an attempt at improvement? I don’t think so …

  17. Janet Downs says:

    Toby: I refer you to the words of John Hayes, the Minister for Skills and Lifelong learning (link above) discussing the new careers service:

    “The new service will be founded on two key principles.

    · Impartial careers advice independent of organisations with a ‘vested interest’

    · Ensuring professional expertise and leadership of careers guidance services are
    underpinned by clear national standards.

    Schools will be under a legal duty to secure independent impartial careers guidance for their
    students and will be required to work in close partnership with expert independent advisers.”

    I know that Mr Hayes is concerned that schools with sixth-forms (organisations with a “vested interest”) sometimes steer their year 11 pupils towards their own sixth-forms when other options (eg FE Colleges) might be more appropriate. If you think this is “reductio ad absurdum” then perhaps you could discuss it with the Minister.

  18. Janet Downs says:

    Charlie: you say it would not “be in anybody’s best interests to advise a pupil against their own best interests.” This presupposes that the one giving the advice knows what is in the best interests of the pupil. The purpose of careers guidance (note the word guidance – not advice) is to give pupils the skills to make a decision wisely. This is not the same as making a wise decision because a decision made at age 16, however wise it appeared at the time, may not be a wise decision in the long term. All we can hope for is that pupils study a full range of information and match this with their own capabilities and inclinations.

    You say I put words into your mouth. This is odd, considering I read the word “ensure” on your website. To repeat: ensure means “to make certain”. Certainty is not the same as having an objective (ie a purpose at which to aim). Whether or not you decide to alter the wording is up to you.

  19. Janet: I have no idea why you are being so picky with the words ‘guidance’ and ‘advice’; in both cases you are giving students skills, information and quite possibly suggestions.

    As for reading the word ‘ensure’ on our website; does ‘will ensure’ mean the same as ‘would like to ensure’? But hey, go ahead; make up what you want after all, as you have said on this very thread, “I put words into your mouth.”

  20. Richard says:

    Wow. Could you possibly be any more patronising? Children can read Shakespeare. I read several plays when I was about 15 or 16 just because I had rad two at school.Who are you to tell pupils they can’t do that, because the plays are not modern or set in a familiar environment? That is what you are doing, and yes it is dumbing down.

    Is this really your attempt to make your reactionary campaign against WLFS relevant? Ironic that, using modernising dumbing down to protect reactionary “keeping dumb”.

  21. rosalyn says:

    As a teenager I also read Shakespeare but found the language tricky until about the 10th reading of any one play. We all bought and were encouraged to buy those books that analysed and summarised the plays for exam purposes in order to speed things up. The language is beautiful but unless you have loads of time your average hormonally charged teenager isn’t going to spend much of their time wading through it all. Its unfortunate that the introduction of such wonderful but heavy material is done when teenagers have so much else going on so I think its a brilliant idea to try and maintain interest by bringing it to life.

    I think you’ll find that Shakespeare is’ dumbed down’ all the time for the digestion of the popular masses, if that is indeed the right way to put it. You will find it in the plots of Coronation Street, Eastenders, and many other popular and series dramas on TV and in film. I;m not an academic but I do think its not a bad idea to loosen up the language a bit and put it into the background in order to let people get at the main thrust of the play a bit more. Language is merely the scaffolding of any play or novel; its the ideas and concepts behind it that matter. I recall a series of plays on TV at some point bringing Shakespeare into modern day life. Or perhaps some would think that the mere act of watching TV is itself reprehensible and another symptom of ‘dumbing down’. I shall make sure that tonight I don’t turn it on and head off instead to the Royal Opera House. Oops, but I can’t afford the £100 ticket…..

    Do those critics also consider the newer translations of the Bible from the King James Versions as ‘dumbing down’ or even the translation and publication of the Bible and other great works from Latin into English ( I think Henry 8th?) so that the masses could read it?

    Finally, I do find it incredible that the pages of a major national newspaper are used for what has become a private war against LSN. Is this really what its readers want to see and read? However it has to be said that its flattering to receive such prominence and its suggestive that some cages are being well and truly rattled.

  22. Janet Downs says:

    Nobody is saying pupils cannot read Shakespeare. Modernising the text is just one of many strategies employed by teachers of English Literature. Pupils have to know the text in order to set the story in another context. Such strategies are well-used not just by teachers, but by musicians, dramatists, authors and film-makers. Far from dumbing down, such activities are enriching.

  23. Is there an English word for “modernization on old texts?”

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