Harold Rosen’s 5 radical commitments to education

Francis Gilbert's picture



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. One luminary, who is discussed in the article, was Harold Rosen (1919-2008), the father of the poet Michael Rosen, who became an English teacher after WW2, and then a teacher trainer who played an innovative role in helping develop language teaching. I asked Michael, who is Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths where I now work, whether he would talk to Simon about Harold and see what points might emerge from the discussion. Having listened to the interview and now edited it (see above), I felt there were many things that we could learn from Harold Rosen, but, for the purposes of this blog, I boiled them down to five commitments that Harold made to education. I should add this is my interpretation and not necessarily what Simon or Michael think; you can watch the video for their views.

1.      Commitment to literature

As Michael points out in the interview, Harold was, above all, profoundly committed to teaching literature; he believed in its power to transform young people’s lives if taught well. As Michael says, Harold was both passionate about what might be termed “canonical literature”, and literature which could be called “relevant” to students. Both of these points need to be explained fully so that they are not parodied or misrepresented. One of the first texts Harold taught was Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra at a deprived comprehensive in Walworth, south London, in the 1950s. He saw the role of the English teacher to bring the text alive; to get his students to fall in love with the story’s plot, its language and its drama. Harold was also committed to teaching modern literature, bringing neglected writers such as the working-class novelists Sid Chaplin and Bill Naughton to the fore in his classrooms. Furthermore, he was one of the first teachers to advocate teaching writers from “other cultures”. Above all, Harold saw the English teacher’s role as opening up the possibilities of new ways of seeing, feeling and thinking in his/her pupils through the teaching of literature.

2.      Commitment to comprehensive education

Harold was a passionate advocate for comprehensive education, believing it was the only fair way of educating all children. He fought tirelessly against the iniquities of the grammar school system which was enshrined in England and Wales with 1944 Education Act, often known as the “Butler Act” because it was the Conservative Education Secretary, Rab Butler, who oversaw the passing of the legislation that systematically set up the grammar school/secondary modern system. Harold was at the vanguard of the opposition to grammar schools in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and one of the most eloquent voices espousing comprehensive education.

3.      Commitment to valid and reliable assessment

One of Harold’s criticisms of the grammar school system was that the 11+ exam was not a reliable or valid form of assessment. He was one of the first researchers to examine just how problematic multiple choice tests can be in terms of assessment – an important points to bear in mind in the light of the current government’s belief that the PISA tests are valid tests of children’s literacy and numeracy etc. Harold saw the dangers of high-stakes testing and the ways in which it produced a huge “backwash” that meant teachers were constantly teaching to the test rather than being empowered to teach what children really needed to know. Harold played a significant role in setting up different modes of assessment such as CSE coursework, which ultimately led to GCSE coursework in the late 1980s.

4.      Commitment to the learner

Michael is really good on this in the interview. He recounts an anecdote frequently told by Harold about a teacher who said to him that he had covered the relevant work the students needed to know and it was their problem if they didn’t get it. Michael was young at the time and didn’t see the problem with this approach. This was how he was taught: teachers ploughed through curriculum and paid little attention to what students actually knew until they took their exams. Harold was a very early exponent of what now is known as “assessment for learning” (AfL) in that he believed that it was part of a teacher’s job to check and see what students were learning during lessons. Harold perceived that what really mattered was what the learners knew rather than what the teacher was covering. Harold was “learning-centric”. I think this is still a radical idea, despite all the lip service that is paid to AfL. It means that teachers have to listen to learners and build upon what they know. As Michael says, the word to “teach” is not a helpful word in English because it indicates that everything has to be done by the teacher rather than the learner. The French verb ‘apprend’ which means both to teach and to learn is a better word because it suggests what really should be happening in the classroom.

5.      Commitment to language

After leaving America as a young child, Harold grew up in London’s east end and was imbued with its different languages and registers, from Yiddish, Cockney dialect and revolutionary communist discourse. He and his wife Connie took part in the Battle of Cable Street which destroyed the fascist movement in Britain. He was adept at switching between different languages, language varieties and registers. He realised that all human beings are the possessors and makers of language; that we are all proficient language users. He totally rejected the idea that many of us are speaking “incorrectly”; that we are speaking in a kind of linguistic “deficit”. He was committed to educating his students – and the world – about the richness and variety of language and rejected hierarchies where Standard English and Received Pronunciation where placed at the top, and working-class dialects shoved to the bottom. He was a committed Marxist who saw prescriptivist attitudes to language, which advocated “correctness”, as deeply oppressive. These views remain radical. The new National Curriculum English orders insist that English teachers must teach Standard English to the detriment of other language varieties, which are not mentioned in the current orders.

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Phil Taylor's picture
Wed, 23/12/2015 - 17:21

Thanks so much for this Francis. I knew and admired Harold Rosen when I did my PGCE at the The Institute of Education in 1968-9. The article sums up his beliefs very well. I think many of us expected to serve as teachers in a world that embraced the ideas that he and others espoused. Instead, we could only watch in horror as, after some years when things seemed to be moving in the right direction, albeit slowly, the long march backwards began. And, astonishingly, continues.

The answer to the question as to whether it is possible for English teachers now to be radical in both their pedagogy and their approach to content of the subject.is surely an emphatic no.

Of course, it's not just English Teaching that has been bombed back to the stone age but as It is such a key subject it has been the most heavily and aggressively attacked, shackled and corrupted.

Some day, a new generation will have to liberate teachers and students. I certainly won't be live to see that.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 23/12/2015 - 18:03

Thanks Phil! It is, as you say, astonishing that much of what Harold fought against is still forming the battleground for education. It's like we're back in the early 1950s again!

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 24/12/2015 - 08:42

It appears English teaching has been reduced to 'naming of parts' rather than appreciation of the whole. Being able to spot an adverbial clause is more important than being able to use such clauses fluently and effectively without the need to identify that chunk of words by a name.

I'm old enough to remember English lessons which required such analysis. We had to rule pencil columns down the page to form a grid. Each column would have a label such as noun, adjective, adjunct etc.

It was dull, dull, dull.

When I became a teacher of English/English Lit I swore my lessons would never be like this. I wanted my pupils to appreciate the whole not the ingredients. That's not to say the ingredients aren't important - but you don't appreciate a cake by picking out the bits. Enjoy the cake first and then find out what makes it delicious (and what makes it inedible).

The most important thing I did was read to them.

Alan Gurbutt's picture
Sun, 27/12/2015 - 13:58

I have gained much from this thread, thank you.

Burt's legacy is still very much identifiable in Lincolnshire. It helps to perpetuate the dominant way of doing for the poor that secures jobs for professionals in secular and faith-based organisations.

The trouble with selective education is that it skews a critical way of thinking and doing to start with what students already know to learn in the mainstream because those in positions of power assume certain ways of speaking and knowing not to be cultivated.

On the Lincolnshire coast, and in Louth, the powerful are redefining the dominant syntax by using labelling words, such as "hard to reach" and "chaotic" to obscure the deficits of the 11-plus and to negate austerity from closing "coasting" schools and hurting child development.

In light of world issues, it isn't that we should be expecting those with more privilege to be doing more, but rather education should be harnessing the potentiality for transformative change through the skills and language of all children.

All children are capable of changing the world for the better.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Sun, 27/12/2015 - 16:42

What an interesting conversation - thanks so much for brining this to us Francis. I can't help thinking how fun it might have been to grow up in a home with parents who question the status quo :) Mine are wonderful, though they learnt loyalty to a fault by growing up in the in the safe, open, structured and sheltered environment of the royal air force. We all got a shock going into civvy street (normal life) when I started high school; there's so much fear and hate in the world! In November I was invited to speak at a ResearchEd conference where my theme was literature. I'd have loved to seen, for example, my teachers talk about literature as people rather than as teachers. It was only after university, when I accidentally found stories I relate to -Pygmalion, Les Miserables- that I learnt how to act like a real person instead of a qualified puppet. Now I can't help but be excited instead of fearful about the future. We're the ones we've been waiting for! The last 20 minutes of my session was an open-floor conversation with the English teachers who attended and it's one of the most honest recorded teacher conversations I've heard. It's here if anyone would like to see: http://leahkstewart.com/researched/

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