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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.