Simon Gibbons’ article in the November 2015 issue of English in Education, the academic journal for the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), asks an important, punning question in its title: “W(h)ither the Radicals?”. It is a salutary piece which explores whether it is possible for English teachers now to be radical in both their pedagogy and their approach to content of the subject. Gibbons says in his abstract for the article: “History shows us that some of the most radical reformers of subject English harnessed their political ideals in their pursuit of a progressive pedagogy; is it possible now to adopt such an approach?” This challenge motivated me to ask Simon to talk about the figures who have been radical English teachers in the past and see if there are any lessons we can learn from these people and the organisations involved. To finish this “quartet” of discussions between Simon and Michael Rosen, I asked them to consider “where next?”. All three of us wanted to end on a positive note and offer some constructive points to build upon.
I thought Michael was particularly eloquent about this point, discussing the magnificent work that his teenage daughter is doing on the Romantics at her comprehensive. It’s clear that there are some fantastic English teachers working in schools today. Projects like the BBC School Report, Poetry By Heart, the Jack Petchey Speakout Challenge, and the rafts of initiatives that organisations like NATE/LATE support, highlight the fact that there is some great work going on in schools.
I think both Simon and Michael are advocating an approach where there is a renewed focus upon learning to think, discuss, read and write both independently and creatively. This is where the focus needs to be in English lessons, but the worry is that the backwash from the exam system means that English teachers are constantly talking about performance, not learning. I’ve found Chris Watkins’ research particularly useful in showing that the irony is that when teachers obsess about grades, tests, mark schemes and performance, they actually achieve lower grades in the very tests they are promoting. One of Harold Rosen’s key ideas is vital to remember here: English teachers need to nurture a love of learning amongst their students, not a fear that they will score badly in exams.
This has been a repeated theme in this quartet of discussions: once teachers talk to each other about learning and teaching (not paperwork/exam results etc.), then more enlightened approaches emerge. The trouble is, as Simon points out, that teachers are deluged with other stuff to do. Room needs to be carved out in a genuine, meaningful way for teachers to discuss what they are teaching and how they are teaching it. This means creating a “no blame” atmosphere where teachers can honestly give their thoughts, and where the focus can be about improving practice rather than worrying about Ofsted, exam results, parental complaints, SLT “learning walks” etc.
As Michael points out, the London Challenge which Tim Brighouse oversaw was all about getting schools to co-operate. As a result of this collegiate method, standards across many schools in deprived areas in London rose dramatically. This sort of tactic needs to be nurtured more often. It’s difficult in the current climate though with increasing competition between schools. However, there is nothing to stop English teachers collaborating across schools through aegis of LATE and NATE.
It is fitting in to make this final point because I think it’s important! The subject associations are lone voices of sanity in an insane world where politicians who have never taught a day in their life dictate to the thousands of teachers what millions of children should learn. NATE and LATE are made up of English teachers and other experts in the field; these subject associations know what they are talking about. They need to be given more of a voice, more resources to expand what they do, and more power to influence policy. It’s only then that you’ll see genuine “standards” rising.