It was a real privilege to spend the week at Teachers’ College as guest of the Department of Curriculum and Teaching and a Sachs lecturer in the colloquium The Landscape for Preparing Teacher Educators.
One of my favourite parts of the week were the many conversations I had with faculty and doctoral students over breakfasts and lunches. (To be clear, it was the conversation that was the favourite part rather than the breakfasts and lunches, as nice as they were.) I also enjoyed teaching some classes – a doctoral class on curriculum theory and a mixed doctoral/master’s class on qualitative research methodology and a doctoral seminar on my book (with Jane), Transforming Teacher Education. And then the dinners – two stand-out meals: one at an Italian about two blocks north of TC and another at soul-food-scandi fusion restaurant in Harlem.
My public lecture on the Tuesday evening took place in the Milbank Chapel and was a full-house. I spoke for about an hour and then there was about 30 minutes questions. Even though I was horribly jet-lagged by then, it was very enjoyable and people were generous and kind. Cruelly, the TC people recorded it and it is available to view below. Next time I will demand a trailer and a Oscar-winning cinematographer 😉
During my trip, I also managed to meet up with Dr Lila McDowell who now teaches at John Jay College of the City University of New York. John Jay is a specialist college focusing on justice and Lila was teaching an introductory criminology course. It was great to be part of her class and meet her students. The last guest in her class was an FBI agent and then they got some random Brit.
It was an honour to be invited to TC and to be a part of the Department and the College for a week. I learned a huge amount and even got to visit a school on the Friday afternoon. An honour – and a fantastic experience. Thank you.
A huge amount has been written over the last few months about alleged religious extremism among a group of schools in Birmingham – much of it nonsense, some of it deranged, very little that is insightful. And it is no surprise given that the whole affair played into the dispute between the Department for Education and the Home Office about the prevention of radicalisation; the turf wars between Mr Gove and Home Secretary Mrs May (it’s now clear who won that one); the volatile situation that Ofsted finds itself in after political briefings against it and as it fights for survival; the underlying Islamophobia in parts of British society; the attack on local authorities and their role in supporting and advising local school systems (a move that was really entrenched by New Labour); and on and on. And on.
I have no inside knowledge of what went on in those schools regarding extremism. I have no basis on which to know whether these schools’ managements overall were as they were painted in the Ofsted report and in the report from the former Met anti-terrorism police chief, Peter Clarke. That said, on the face of it, transcripts of postings to web sites do appear to support the Clarke report’s central claim that some senior staff at the schools expressed racist, misogynistic, homophobic and hateful views online.
But I do know that something quite special had been going on for years at Park View Academy, the main secondary school in the Park View Educational Trust. Something associated with the school’s excellent examination results which, even though the school’s critics and conspiracy theorists might try to undermine them, are quite robust and not connected to cheating or teaching to the test, as some reports have implied.
For several years, teachers across the school have been working with a form of language study called Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a kind associated with British-born, Australian-based linguist Michael (M.A.K) Halliday and what became known as the ‘Sydney school’ of language and literacy teaching. In the UK, it was appropriated in part by the National Strategies in a somewhat vulgarised version and became associated with ‘genre theory’ and the teaching of writing based on ‘text types’. But SFL was far more than that, more sophisticated in its view of language and literacy and much more useful. When I helped to prepare English teachers at Oxford, I asked them to work a little with a brilliant multimedia package called Building Understandings in Literacy and Teaching (BUILT), developed by Kristina Love at the University of Melbourne. My students often told me they learned more about language and teaching by engaging with BUILT than they did with any of the National Strategy documents. (A paper by Kristina about the use of BUILT in teacher education is available here).
SFL offers a social view of language as a system of meaning-making in context. It is often organised around three key concepts: field (basically the stock of words available in a given situation); tenor (the relationship between the producer of an utterance or a text and the receiver); and mode (the specific channel of communication – at a fundamental level, for example, speech or writing; or within writing, specific genres). SFL regards genres as recognisable patterns of interaction rather than recipes. The word recognisable is important because it emphasises that it is a social process in which people see what other people mean.
Teachers at Park View have been learning about SFL for years (and not just the English teachers). They have incorporated the core ideas in their planning and have also taught some of the key concepts to their students. Teachers’ work with SFL at Park View has been recognised nationally and internationally, including at a conference earlier this year organised in collaboration with researchers at Aston University. A poster for one of these conferences is here.
Students’ levels of attainment at Park View have been consistently high for years. This situation was recognised in the current, post-controversy Ofsted report; given the strength of their results, it couldn’t be otherwise. It also led to the school being graded as outstanding in their previous Ofsted report. The school isn’t in an affluent area; most children have the advantage of being at least bilingual; most don’t have much money in their families. So the usual indicators (which of course we might question) suggest a school that might be doing much less well in purely academic terms.
There is huge expertise among teachers at Park View that has served its students well for many years. Whether it is a question of poor leadership, a real culture of hate and extremism or a set-up job by a compliant inspectorate or a hatchet-job by a former copper who never actually visited the school, it would a tragedy if the momentum of good work in language and literacy teaching was lost at Park View. As far as I know, it was more advanced here than anywhere else in the UK. And it has – and still does – make a difference.
Bob Bibby, former Chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and English Advisor for the West Midlands borough of Dudley, died on June 6th. Another former Chair of NATE, Shona Walton, has written an obituary on the NATE website here.
Bob interviewed me for my first job as an English teacher at a ‘new school’ in Dudley (that’s all it said in the job advert). My training with Tony Adams in Cambridge had prepared me for the teaching of texts and the use of computers in schools (bloody big old useless ones attached to cassette recorders) but it was Bob, through his leadership of the borough’s English, Drama and Media advisory team, that gave me opportunities to develop as a teacher that were, I now see, literally priceless. It was the way that Bob worked with heads of English – such as the legendary Pat Montgomery – that created the conditions for the rest of us.
Bob’s Dudley team involved me in the National Writing Project (advisory teacher Chris Morris), the Language in the National Curriculum project and the National Oracy Project (advisory teacher Rachel Robinson). Through this involvement, I extended and deepened my knowledge of pedagogy – the art and science of teaching, at the same time both a practical and deeply intellectual activity. The children I taught (I think) benefited from increased attention to rhetoric and process in my teaching of writing; emphasis on the relationship between varieties of language and power, grammar in the proper sense of understanding and manipulating a meaning-making system; oral language development, the relationship between narrative and the development of higher level thinking. My students’ work appeared in books and reports and, horrifyingly, I appeared in Common Bonds, the Oracy Project video. I wasn’t special. You will see the work of lots of Dudley English teachers in these projects’ publications.
As an approach to teachers’ professional development, Bob’s style might be described as that of an organic intellectual who sought to transform the activities of the teaching profession by getting them to articulate their own scientific knowledge. These days a sentence like that can sound like a fine example of Blob-ism or simple wanker-dom. And that’s a problem with the times we live in and their dominant discourses. It’s not Bob’s problem or, dare I say it, mine. (OK, it may be mine).But an English advisor like Bob didn’t think that an MA would save your soul as a teacher. He didn’t indulge in cack-handed liturgies about epistemology and ontology and your ‘stance’ as a teacher-researcher. First and foremost you were a teacher – one word, teacher, that was good enough. You were given opportunities to read things you hadn’t read before; talk to people interested in the same questions; try out some new ideas in the classroom; reflect and engage in some robust dialogue. You learned new stuff; you grew as a teacher; your students were joint beneficiaries.
That’s an important point: they were joint beneficiaries, meaning you as the teacher benefited too. It wasn’t only about the students as data, their test scores, your performance targets. The assumption was that if you were enabled to flourish as a teacher it was more likely that your students would flourish and also do better in measurements of their progress.
Bob was one of the last, great English advisors, people of great expertise, close to the practice of teaching and with a license to help teachers improve it by understanding its complexity. There were quite a few stellar English advisors in the West Midlands alone. They are now virtually all gone. First, they were required to become inspectors. Then they were required to pursue a ‘school improvement’ agenda. By then, they were mainly handlers of ‘data’, meaning numbers not words. Finally, they were retired early, given voluntary severance or employed on fragile contracts subject to the political whim of councillors. If they survived, they focused on leadership and management – running NPQ franchised tick boxes, pandering to the narcissism of ‘future leaders’ who wanted to know everything about ‘leading’ and sweet FA about teaching.
If there were two positive aspects of the recent Labour Party policy review, for me they were the explicit proposals for regional connections between schools (Labour being unable to use the word ‘local’ after what they did to local authorities with the academies programme) and the tacit acceptance that CPD in England has focused too much on leadership and not enough on pedagogy. Advisors like Bob were the real experts in developing teachers’ pedagogical knowledge across networks of schools in a particular geographic area. That kind of person is now all but gone, human infrastructure lost in the service of a political goal. Professional knowledge and wisdom purposely evacuated from the system on the basis that we should always look to government and the political class for guidance..
RIP Bob. Thank you for everything you did to start us all off and for helping me enjoy the job so much. But how can we plan for a new generation of locally-embedded pedagogical experts such as you?
The conference in Guilin was fascinating and thrilling. Co-organised by East China Normal University and Guangxi Normal University, its focus was on educational reform in the context of social change. They have both in spades in China and they invited a small group of international speakers to share experiences.Professor Yang Xiaowei, Director of the Institute for School Reform, about to open the conference in the video above, introduced by the Dean of Guangxi Normal University’s College of Education.
Guilin is in Guangxi province, in the south west of this enormous country, a relatively poor area and quite unlike the metropolis of Shanghai where East China Normal is based. One of the challenges in this region of China is to ensure that high quality education is extended to large parts of the population in rural areas and to minority ethnic populations that have, historically, been poorly served. One of the most impressive features of the conference (it was simultaneously translated) was the persistent attention to equity and social justice in the presentations; to the extension of a broad and balanced education in opposition to rote learning; and a mistrust of PISA as a measurement. So quite unlike the discourse in England and many other western countries. Instead, the discourse at the conference reflected the Chinese National Plan for Medium- and Long-Term Educational Reform that was published in 2010 with its strong emphasis on equity, social justice and attention to all schools, not just those for an elite.
An important part of the conference was devoted to the work of teacher educators and researchers at the two universities who were working with schoolteachers to change schools and teaching for the better. I heard thought-provoking presentations about improving science education by increasing practical activity; I learned that around 60% of school children in Shanghai never do any kind of practical science and are often unable to apply their school science to real world situations. Instead of making a connection between a place on the PISA league table and a country’s economic competitiveness in abstract terms, the Chinese speakers were making a link between not being able to do real world science and lagging behind the rest of the world in technological innovation. Rote learning of science in schools was linked to being a ‘Foxconn economy’ rather than a knowledge economy. Foxconn is the company that makes Apple products in low-wage, high-stress Chinese factories. The strong message was that unless China does something to reform its schools and science teaching, it will always be manufacturing smartphones for western companies rather than designing them.The conference day-trip was a cruise on the Li River for all invited participants – four hours in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity plus on-board buffet and beer!
Another theme was the growing suspicion of PISA and the ongoing discussions over whether to enter Shanghai in the next round of PISA assessments. It has always only been Shanghai and Hong Kong SAR that have been entered into PISA rather than the whole of China. If England only entered London, it would probably be positioned much higher up the league table. But Shanghai sees its position at the top of the Maths table, for example, as a distraction to the real problems affecting its system: an over-reliance on memorisation; a lack of critical debate and problem-solving; a deference to the status quo and a wariness about creativity; a lack of consideration of the whole person. In response, they have developed ‘The Green Index’, an alternative measurement to PISA that includes reading, mathematics and science but goes beyond these core PISA domains. Included in the 10 item Green Index is a measure of happiness. I can’t see that catching on in PISA-obsessed western countries. But the concern for the wellbeing of its sometimes highly motivated students is at the core of these reforms. A professor from East China Normal translated a TV news broadcast for me from three years ago that reported on suicides among school-aged students and declining mental health in schools. In one classroom they visited there were posters on the walls saying ‘I will get into Fudan University or I will kill myself’.The conference dinner at Guilin – gifts and Gan Bei (a Chinese toast)
I always come back from China slightly shell-shocked and embarrassed to have been invited. To see and hear such a vast and developing country confront its educational problems so honestly and to be working so hard is very humbling. And as I left for China, 60 Maths teachers were heading to England from Shanghai. We have much to learn from China – and from Shanghai in particular – but we won’t accomplish that by fetishising some rapid fire maths exercises. A Medium- to Long-Term Plan for Educational Reform might be a good start rather than a series of short-term, knee-jerk, headline-grabbing trivia? I think the last thing our school system needs is more policy tourism.
First of all, have a look at this video, a poem called ‘Dear Mr Gove’ by Jess Green. It was uploaded to Youtube in March and caused a bit of a stir. I believe Jess Green is (or has been) a teacher and it is part of a show she will perform at the Edinburgh Festival this year.
It’s certainly passionate and performed with conviction. I’m not sure how good a poem it is but it is persuasive and engaging, especially given its author’s status as a teacher.
What I find most interesting, though, is the way that ‘Mr Gove’ has found his way into the popular imagination of the teaching profession (and perhaps more widely among the liberal-left) as a bogeyman figure. It has been a while since we’ve had a Secretary of State for Education who has aroused such strong and personal feelings – in my memory, probably only John Patten (a former Conservative Education Secretary from the early 1990s) and David Blunkett (the first New Labour Education Secretary) have figured so large. Can you even remember some of the others? We went through quite a few under Blair and Brown. Estelle Morris, remember her? Resigned because she didn’t think she was good enough only to write a weekly column for the Guardian in which she offered her advice to all and sundry. Ruth Kelly (who?), Ed Balls, Charles Clarke, that nice man who wanted to a pop star when he was younger? Remember them? Maybe – but for what?
But Mr Gove has achieved almost mythic status in his relatively long tenure as Education Secretary, a popular and courageous figure if you follow the right wing press (where he used to work and where his mates still do) and a bogeyman among the unions, teachers, university people, Guardian readers, etc.. Of all his predecessors, it is probably only David Blunkett in his early years that could claim to have had such a (positive or negative) impact and such wide name-recognition. And Gove shares with Blunkett one thing: a passionate commitment to improving schools, attempting to change the education system for the better (on his terms) and trying to make policy on the basis that poverty or disadvantage need not be a child’s destiny. With both Gove and Blunkett you get the sense that their own histories and experiences as children and pupils have had a lasting influence on how they think about education and schooling.
And the connection between the two is more than personal, of course. As John Harris noted (and as I mentioned in a previous post), much of Gove’s machinery of reform was bequeathed to him by New Labour and it was probably the zealous, even messianic fervour of that first Blair administration that has carried over most strongly into the Coalition’s policies. Gove listened to Blair when he said that he wished he had gone further and faster in the reform of public services and that he should have been prepared for the resistance of vested interests such as the teacher unions, local politicians and university education people (the latter memorably termed ‘the Blob’ by Mr Gove).
So why, when in Mr Gove we have a Secretary of State so clearly interested in education, one who appears so passionately committed to state education (and one who, unlike some New Labour figures, chooses a state school for his own child); someone who says he isn’t good enough to be prime minister but wants to stay on at Education and see things through; someone who is said to be funny, a good mimic, charming company on social occasions; why, when all these things might suggest that he would be a good choice to have oversight of an education system in a modern democracy, why is he so loathed by the profession and by Jess Green?
Well, there are probably at least two main reasons. First, a very personal one. His way of doing politics is arch, to say the least, veering on the high camp and snickering. Listen to ‘Today in Parliament’ on Radio 4 and you will hear someone who likes to poke fun, sneer, spout hyperbole. Speaker John Bercow recently described him as a ‘very excitable man’ in a gentle ticking off for some unruly behaviour. I have heard him demean individual officers of teachers’ and subject associations in the Commons in a way that inevitably polarises opinion, whether designed to or not. This is the side of Mr Gove that leads people to describe him as a ‘loquacious sixth former at a minor public school’. Old enough to know better but nonetheless eager for popularity and advancement.
The second is more to do with the policy machinery and his way of operating it. Early in his tenure, he described his approach as ‘disruptive innovation’, essentially the same approach as New Labour. Disruptive innovation as a concept comes from technology entrepreneurship where the goal is always to make things easier, cheaper and more convenient for the consumer. But Coalition policy has rather been marked by what mid-twentieth century Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’. It is marked by continual interventions into the system intended to destabilize it, create new opportunities for private capital, and change the system of values on which the system is built.
So in education, you undo the professionalization of teaching (no qualifications required); you open up the establishment of schools (the ‘provision of school services’) to everyone; you appear to denigrate those who choose to make teaching a career choice in preference to ‘elite graduates’ who teach-to-the-test for a while; you devalue professional knowledge (and its gatekeepers) in preference to ‘things that work’ (to improve test scores) as demonstrated by pseudo-randomised controlled trials or anecdotage from your preferred think-tank.
It is no surprise, then, why Mr Gove has become the object of disaffection for so many people, so many teachers like Jess Green. And of course, he will, he does, take all this in his stride. It is a mark of his success (to him and his followers) that Jess Green should upload a poem like this. Look at the comments beneath her videos on Youtube.
But if this is creative destruction, there is a risk that Mr Gove hasn’t planned for and that is because it can’t be planned for. The risk is that this creative destruction leads to …. destruction, in terms. The education system in England begins to truly fail – not enough teachers – shortages, especially in urban areas; idiosyncratic or even fanatical free schools that last for a few years then close; low-cost, perhaps for-profit schools that do a worse job than the very worst ‘bog standard’ comprehensive; PISA results on a decade-long, declining trend; 16+ qualifications that genuinely no longer mean anything; an eventual choice between state-supported schools for the poor that teach to certain gate-keeping tests and private schools that incorporate attention to the arts and culture, meaningful engagement in practical science, sport and extra-curricular activities – a genuine education.
The problem for Mr Gove is that he is Education Secretary in a country where not only has schooling been seen primarily as the responsibility of the state (the central state, especially since Jim Callaghan’s 1976 Ruskin College speech), it has since become something that the state seems to have the responsibility to comment on at a very micro-level. Only in England, I think, would the Education minister be expected to have a comment on the failings of a specific school somewhere in the country. So, if you destroy the system through your/the state’s ‘creativity’ – a system that politics demands you have the ultimate responsibility for – how do you comment on that? ‘I was radical in my approach to reform and, whoops, it all fell apart, sorry’?
Passionate commitment and fervent beliefs are not enough to make an education system function to its best. And wisdom is hard to come by when politics has been reduced to five-year election cycles. Who will write a poem about that?
Brand New Ancients – I think now approaching the end of its tour – is a very unusual, ambitious and startling piece. Kate Tempest has put together a long, performed poem, set to music, partly social commentary and satire but with a narrative arc that aspires to epic. Having seen it – and thoroughly enjoyed it – I feel I now need to read it (it was published by Picador last year). Brand New Ancients won the Ted Hughes Poetry Award in 2013.
The overwhelming power of Brand New Ancients comes from its call not to lose our histories and not to settle for the present. We are at risk of forgetting our myths, says Tempest, not in the sense of grand narratives, as such, but in the sense of losing grand patterns in ordinary narratives. We are making the mistake of believing that ‘the present is all that there is’. The story of the poem concerns two families, the friendship between two boys as they grow up in south-east London, where Tempest herself grew up. The families and friendship have quirks and twists and, at times, there were echoes of Achilles and Patroclus (but that might have just been me). We hear them talk; Tempest has a good ear for dialogue; there are some shocks; plenty of jokes, some nicely filthy. There are other characters and other rhythms. And then at times, we hear a chorus-like voice, more Tempest-as-poet or storyteller but also commenting on the action and urging us to see, in the small details, the mini-triumphs and little tragedies, the underlying dignity and ordinary heroism of the human species. It was, as I said, an extraordinary and ambitious project quite unlike anything I have seen. Sometimes Tempest is referred to as a performance poet (rather like John Hegley or Attila the Stockbroker); Brand New Ancients is in an entirely different genre. Perhaps it creates one.
It’s also a tour-de-force by Tempest herself. She not only delivers a strong, passionately performed reading of her text but manages to subvert the performer-audience barrier at several points in the show. Whether or not she is actually comfortable on stage, she certainly gives the impression she is and manages to combine intimate, apparently improvised conversation with the audience with the epic storytelling of everyday heroics underscored by violin, cello, tuba (yes tuba, wonderfully played) and drums. The extract below is so worth your while clicking on.
Brand New Ancients is brilliant and I am sure it will live its own life beyond Tempest’s performance. Kate Tempest has huge amount to offer poetry in the years ahead – not in the trivial sense of ‘making poetry cool’ or appropriately regionally accented but in coming up with new genres and forms of poetry that fuse classical and contemporary modes and speak to a wide audience. Brand new and ancient, indeed.
A feature in the Guardian on the 15th March, by left-wing journalist John Harris, aroused a good deal of interest among teachers (still going if last Saturday’s letters page is anything to go by). But ‘Inside the A* Factory’ received little coverage elsewhere in the media and the underlying issues (teacher workload, teacher morale and the factory model of schooling) also continue to be ignored by the press and broadcasters. There is a national teacher strike this coming week and a lay reader would be hard-pressed to know it was happening let alone why it was happening.
The article was essentially a collection of stories of different teachers’ experiences of working in schools over the last 20 years or so. The age of the teachers reflected that but the majority of Harris’s sample seemed to be 30 or under and talking about the last five or six years. The picture, as presented, was one of relentlessly intense pressure from school management (and in turn from Ofsted) that required teachers to work increasingly long hours, be subject to increasingly bureaucratic monitoring and accountability processes, and to be complicit in a narrowing of the curriculum to ‘test-teaching’ and the narrowing of the school to an exam factory, with kids becoming specks of data to be manipulated.
I thought it was an excellent article for non-teachers who need to know what it is like to work in one of the great public services now and one well worth reading by everyone. But it raised two questions for me that were only partly addressed in the piece itself. First, as Harris said:
Much of the way state education now works is traceable to the last government, and a succession of Labour education secretaries who left teachers punch-drunk. But Michael Gove, secretary of state for education since 2010, is in a different league, and is using the machinery bequeathed to him to drive through a real revolution and defeat and educational ‘establishment’ he calls ‘the blob’.
So what hope is there for the future if neither Conservative or Labour offer substantially different policies? My sense is that similar questions arose in the US after the election of Obama: following however-many years of George W. Bush and ‘No child left behind’, President Obama gave them …. Arne Duncan, the increasing privatisation of public education, the ‘common core’ and experiments in inspection borrowed from Ofsted in England by way of contracts with dear old Tribal. I have become increasingly frustrated here over the last couple of months with the Twitterati who bleat on about Tristram Hunt (the Labour education spokesman and shadow secretary of state for education) not committing to reversing all of Mr Gove’s policies. Duh. How likely is that given his party started most of them off?!
Second, teacher retention – or teacher attrition, depending on the way you look at it – is a problem in many countries that have never heard of Gove, Ofsted, academies or Tribal. In Norway, for example, 85% of trainee teachers at one major university drop out before they finish their course. And many more do so in the first three years of work. So what is it about teaching in some developed countries that seems to lead so many young teachers drop out or change careers. The sad fact is that so many teachers leave before they achieve their peak effectiveness after around 8 years. As a society we seem to accept this fact nonchalantly as do our policy makers. But it is both incredibly wasteful in terms of resources and very short-sighted in terms of policy.
So, who will try to set a new direction for education policy where schools are not just exam factories and teachers are supported to develop to their full potential?
David Berliner is a distinguished educational psychologist and dean, now emeritus at Arizona State University. He has become well known again recently because of an article he wrote in Teachers College Record that analysed the effects of poverty on the outcomes of the American school system. US public (or state) schools are often held to be ineffective and a brake on American economic competitiveness. This is the standard US reformist position and leads to arguments about the deregulation and privatisation of schools.
In the article – reproduced online here (scroll down) -Berliner showed how, if you removed the 25% of American school children who live in poverty from the statistics, the US would have one of the most effective and successful school systems in the word. At a time when reformers insist on teaching being the over-riding factor in pupil outcomes, Berliner showed how an out-of-school factor such as poverty was, in fact, determining. Uncomfortable for politicians, that. Especially in the US.
Now, on the website of his colleague Gene Glass, Berliner has posted an essay first given at an honorary graduation ceremony in New York. Entitled (by Glass) ‘The Teacher as Sisyphus’, Berliner eloquently summarises what makes teaching such a complex activity, one located in specific social and material circumstances:
Four variables: some one, teaching some thing, to someone else, in some setting.
There are only four variables for schools and teachers and school administrators to control, so the general public thinks that teaching seems easy. It certainly sounds easy, until you remember that four is exactly the same number of variables that make up our DNA. And just as those four nucleotides result in billions of different people, and great variation even within the same family, those four educational variables result in no two classrooms ever being alike. Class-to-class and year-to-year variations, even in the same schools, end up requiring remarkably different skills to teach and to administer well. Teaching and schooling is hard work because you cannot ever be sure of what you will draw as a class or what the dynamics will be at a school.
To read the essay, click here. It’s a good, short statement of the futility of trying to understand teaching on the basis of inputs and outputs, effect size and simple causality. And while the quality of teaching may be the most important in-school factor associated with improved pupil outcomes, Berliner’s analysis should focus politicians’ attention on wider social inequalities, economic disadvantage, the gap between rich (or super-rich) and poor rather than misleading the public into thinking one type of school, one type of teaching or one type of teacher preparation will have real impact on some deeply entrenched problems in society.
This post arises from some thinking I’ve been doing for the ‘Uses of Poetry’ AHRC project. It will be greatly enhanced by my colleague Dr Karen Simecek who will be incorporating complimentary ideas from philosophy and aesthetics. But this is where I have started….
In a project titled ‘The Uses of Poetry’, it is probably a good idea to have a working definition of what we mean by ‘poetry’. That doesn’t mean we need to have to pin it down precisely because one of the outcomes of the project and our exploratory attempts at measurement of poetry’s ‘effects’ may be to come up with a better idea of what we mean. Nonetheless, it might be useful to have some provisional definition or categorization to inform our activities and to make explicit understandings that have so far remained tacit. It is possible that discussion over such an attempt at definition may have a positive impact on what we are planning and may also take us off in some surprising new directions. Or not. Either way, it’s probably worth doing.
‘Poetry is whatever you think it is’?
One perspective that has been informing our project’s discussions is derived from ecological psychology and the work of James Gibson (1966). Gibson used the word ‘affordances’ to suggest that the meaning-making potential of any artifact arises in the interaction between human subject and that artifact. Affordances are a matter of perception. Both ‘perception’ and ‘interaction’ are important in this account of meaning-making in that artifacts are not held to have intrinsic, universal or transcendent meanings that can be uniformly decoded. The artifact itself is a product of a specific cultural system that has evolved historically; the artifact is also perceived by an individual who, in turn, is embedded in a particular sociocultural context, at a particular point in time.
Such a view of meaning-making allows for the affordances of the particular artifact to change within the lifecycle of the individual perceiver as well as over longer historical cycles. Understanding particular kinds of texts as having certain affordances (or as having greater affordances than other kinds of texts) allows us to make some categorisations that are based on their potential for certain kinds of meaning-making (the uses of poetry) rather than based on a text’s correspondence to any list of formal features or generic characteristics.
It is important to note that such an approach to categorizing poetry is not inevitably a relativistic one. Although there are no absolute rules that would allow for the historically unqualified determination of a text as ‘poetry’, the perception and evaluation of that text by language-users would inevitably draw on culturally and historically contingent criteria in the same way that is true of perception in the visual arts. So, words spoken by a US Secretary of State for Defense (Donald Rumsfeld) in a press conference six months after the September 11th attack on New York in 2001 were seen to have some poetic affordances at the time even if their affordances in the longer-term have diminished. We don’t regard Rumsfeld as a poet and the utterance is now seen more as a realistic comment on the limitations of intelligence gathering:
there are known knowns;
there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns;
that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
Such a view of the properties, potential or affordances of particular kinds of language-use can also be informed by a more broadly cultural psychology of the kind elaborated by Michael Cole (1996), by training a cognitive anthropologist of literacy. From this perspective, a poem would be regarded as a cultural artifact of a symbolic kind that is used to mediate the individual perceiver-subject’s activity in the social world. Again, the artifact does not have intrinsic meaning in and of itself but becomes the site for meaning-making as the person uses/reads/writes the poem in the process of acting on the world. The object or goal of the subject’s activity is a driving factor from this perspective – why is the artifact being used and for what ends? Used for the purposes of stimulating recall of food items during a visit to the supermarket, a poem is probably not as useful as a short list. But a poem would probably hit the spot more effectively if directed at a lover on Valentine’s day than a short list of the lover’s notable features. Again, the affordances of the text are related to the ways in which that text is perceived and used. The cultural psychological perspective also helps to understand the relationship between individual perception and the more public phenomenon of meaning-making – the semiotic heritage that enables individuals in similar cultural-historical contexts to share meanings. Seeing a poem as a mediating (between the person and an aspect of the world they seek to work on) artifact rather than an exhibit in the ‘canon of literature’ is a profoundly different understanding of the uses of poetry in any setting whether educational, therapeutic or literary. None of which is to say that meaning is determined by the single interaction of perceiver and artifact but that the affordances for meaning-making evolve historically as the perceiver-subject develops and as the collective, social evaluation of the artifact-in-use develops too.
Poetry as a mode of language use
Although we might say that anything that is recognized as poetry (on the basis of its meaning-making potential) is probably poetry, it is also worthwhile to try to account for differences in the language of texts recognized as poetry from language in other types of texts that usually are not. To address this question, the work of Britton (1972, 1982, etc.) is useful.
James Britton worked at the University of London Institute of Education and then Goldsmiths’ College until the early 1980s. He was writing about poetry and the teaching of poetry from as early as the 1950s but his later work became informed by various empirical projects (such as the study of the development of children’s writing abilities) as well as by long-standing philosophical interests (Langer, Polanyi, Rorty, etc.) and by the arrival, in 1962, of the first English translation of Russian psychologist Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. Vygotsky offered Britton a theory of mind itself derived from the empirical study of human development as well as the study of philosophy and literature. And Vygotsky was also to influence the work of Cole and his form of cultural psychology mentioned earlier. But Britton’s interests and resources were wider and more eclectic while at the same time being interested in improving educational practice.
The first distinction Britton made was between literary and non-literary discourse and in doing so he drew on linguist and literary theorist Roman Jakobson and semiotician Thomas Seboek. From Jakobson, Britton drew the different functions of language in speech situations and writing: expressive (or emotive); referential; poetic; phatic; metalingual; conative (related to action). The poetic function in this taxonomy was equivalent to ‘verbal arts’ and Britton followed Jakobson in insisting that one could only talk about or categorize on the basis of ‘dominant function’; all utterances and texts are informed by and characterized by structures from other functions. From Sebeok in particular, Britton took the position that the poetic function of language went wider than that deemed to be poetry:
Any attempt to reduce the sphere of poetic function to poetry or to confine poetry to poetic function would be a delusive over-simplification. Poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a subsidiary, accessory constituent (Sebeok 1960; cited in Britton 1982, p. 62)
So how can we understand the ‘poetic function’ of language?
One of Britton’s earliest distinctions was between language in the spectator role and language in the participant role (1963). Participant role was characterized by language intended to recount or describe an event or past experience in order to get the listener/reader to do something or to change their opinion. Spectator role was characterized by language intended purely to interest or excite the listener/reader, re-presenting events or past experiences in language for their own sake. Britton argued that spectator role was not only confined to self-consciously literary discourse but also featured in non-literary discourse such as anecdote. At the time of making this distinction, Britton cited Suzanne Langer’s work on symbolization but he later found (retrospective) support in the work of British psychologist D.W. Harding (1937) who had already distinguished between the onlooker role and the participant role. Harding prompted Britton to consider the role of attention and evaluation in the listener/reader’s perception of language-in-use.
Britton related the spectator role to the findings of the empirical study he made of children’s writing. Examination of the writing samples produced three main categories: transactional (getting things done, in the participant role); expressive (articulation of emotion and first-hand experience, where the participant and spectator roles are mixed); and poetic (where, to use his formulation, we are ‘making something with language rather than doing something with it’; it was poetic discourse that met the demands of the spectator role).
The intention of making something with language suggested to Britton that the use of language would become more ‘organised’, more crafted to be complex (at a symbolic level) and it was from this interest in the organization of language that he came to the stylistics of Henry Widdowson (1975). Widdowson identified three organizational patterns at work in texts that set out to be literary: phonological (e.g. metre and rhyme); syntactic (e.g. parallel structures); and ‘patterns formed by semantic links between individual lexical items’ (e.g. puns). Britton, after Widdowson, suggested that the patterning created in self-consciously poetic language use (patterning of sound, syntax and meaning) went ‘over and above’ the everyday pattern of communication. Use of the systems of patterning drew attention to the language as a kind of invitation to take up the spectator role. Britton suggested (perhaps playfully) that poetry could therefore be considered ‘deviant discourse’ in that it drew attention, stylistically, to how it differs from non-literary discourse. Its deviancy, for Britton, was that poetry draws attention to how it works as communication and ‘drawing-attention-to-itself’ was a characteristic of language in the poetic mode.
Again, Britton comes back to Langer (1967) and her distinction between discursive and presentational symbolism, between a ‘message encoded in a symbol system’ and a message encoded in a unique complex symbol’ (p. 65) to illustrate the different ways in which language is used in the poetic function, the ‘deviant’ display of the symbol system as symbol; the self-conscious patterning to draw attention to its difference from everyday discourse as well as encoding meaning.
Patterning and meaning
The relationship between organizational patterning in language and the meaning-making affordances of a text can be illustrated by the quotation from Donald Rumsfeld’s press conference provided above. In the original transcript on the US Department of Defense website, the utterance is presented in continuous prose; a lengthy and somewhat tortuous answer to a journalist’s question. In making the quotation, I selected a stretch of the utterance and then edited it by changing the layout – creating separate lines and varying the length of lines in order to emphasise the three assertions (known knowns; known unknowns; and unknown unknowns) and the repetition of key words to create assonance and consonance and some sense of internal rhyme. As I did so, I also recalled, probably unconsciously at first, my own reading of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, in particular, and its ethos of existential questioning. Overall, the aim was to focus attention on the use of language – to invite the reader to take up the spectator role. My attempt was self-conscious and related to my aim of helping to contribute to our definition of poetry – or categorization of poetic functions of language – in our project.
But as poetry, the Rumsfeld quotation probably has limited affordances. Not only is it still strongly tied to another context and another mode of language use (press conferences, political justification) but it makes quite a limited and instrumental distinction between categories of knowledge, albeit in a repetitive way. The short stretch of Rumsfeld’s utterance doesn’t have much potential for meaning-making outside of a very specific set of circumstances. To use Langer’s formulation, it is a message encoded in a symbol system but it is not encoded as a unique complex symbol. None of which is to say that it is not poetic at all; like many utterances it has characteristics of the poetic function but I would argue that the poetic function does not dominate.
There are many examples of the poetic function in everyday utterances wider than poetry per se. Football songs and some stand-up comedy use language characteristic of the poetic function. Carol Fox (1993), in her landmark study of young children’s oral storytelling, argued that the poetic (metaphoric) was a major part of their language right from the start and, in doing so, she argued with Halliday (1973) who did not assign much importance to the poetic function in the process of developing adult language. Fox’s study raises the very important question as to why children seem to have such a strong need for the poetic right from the start, at the inception of language itself. Her argument, somewhat similar to Langer’s, was that the poetic function, rather than being the icing on the cake, is the cake itself. The poetic function of language meets the human need to symbolize.
The two perspectives discussed here can help us develop a working definition of poetry in ‘The Uses of Poetry’ project although they are clearly not the whole story. What they can help us to capture are the uses of speech and writing regarded as poetic; Gibson’s, Cole’s and Britton’s work encourage us to move away from an understanding of the poetic as a transcendental category of language and they can liberate us (if we need liberating) from a view of poetry as a cultural judgment passed down from on high. Instead, they can help us focus on the potential or the affordances of a text for meaning-making and on the relationship between meaning-making and the self-conscious organizational patterning of language. At the heart of this relationship is the role the reader/listener is invited to take up in perceiving and apprehending the poem as a cultural artifact – the spectator role. The deviance of poetic discourse derives from its self-conscious drawing-attention-to-itself in the course of communicating. The poetic function of language is ubiquitous in human communication but the category of language-use we describe as poetry is defined by its self-conscious effort to draw attention (through sound, syntax and patterns of meaning) to its symbolic nature.
Britton, J.N. (1963) The Arts and Current Tendencies in Education, London: Evans
Britton, J.N. (1982) Spectator role and the beginnings of writing. In Prospect and Retrospect: Selected Essays of James Britton, edited by G.M. Pradl, London: Heineman
Cole, M. (1996) Cultural Psychology: the Once and Future Discipline, Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.
Fox, C. (1993) At the Very Edge of the Forest: The Influence of Literature on Storytelling by Children, London: Cassell
Gibson, J.J. (1966) The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, Boston, Ma: Houghton Mifflin
Halliday, M.A.K. (1973) Explorations in the Functions of Language, London: Edward Arnold
Harding, D.W. (1937) The Role of the Onlooker, Scrutiny 6: 247 – 258
Langer, S.K. (1967) Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, Baltimore, Md: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Sebeok, T. (1960) Style in Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Vygotsky, L.S. (1962) Thought and Language, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Widdowson, H.G. (1975) Stylistics and the Teaching of Literature, London: Longman
The Luxembourg conversation was an interesting one. Posing the question from a continental European perspective, we were asked whether we needed an Education discipline, one focused on the academic study of education as a cultural and historical phenomenon but a discipline nonetheless committed to the improvement of educational practices. In countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, this discipline might be named Pädagogik. In those countries, the general feeling in the room was that Pädagogik was becoming ‘marginalised’; new, more ‘psychological’ or ‘sociological’ perspectives were coming to dominate and a more instrumental subject was emerging that might be named, in some contexts, ‘learning sciences’.
I use quotation marks around psychology and sociology as there seem to be a widespread understanding in the room of both as positivist and scientistic: either behaviouralist experimentalism or political arithmetic. More critical views of both psychology and sociology were not apparent and psychology, in particular, was often used as the whipping boy. Philosophy, albeit of different colours, dominated the discussion. Key references throughout the two days were Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776 – 1841), whose Allgemeine Pädagogik was probably the most cited text, and Kant, Hegel, Hume and Leibniz. Allgemeine Pädagogik is still being studied in European university courses and not only those intended for student teachers. Herbart, whether he was loved or loathed, was one of the centres of the debate.
I was the only UK academic in the discussion and I tried to show how pedagogy has existed as an academic interest in England, despite Brian Simon’s book chapter that famously asserted otherwise. I discussed the work of the English teacher educators at the University of London Institute of Education in the 1960s and ’70s who studied key educational concepts but were simultaneously interested in improving educational practices. I referred particularly to the work of James Britton and Harold Rosen whose work was deeply informed by contemporary and classical philosophy, new Vygotskian psychology, literary theory and emerging fields such as sociolinguistics and the ethnography of communication. Their work was with pupils and teachers in schools and committed to improving school as a context for pupils’ and teachers’ learning. Both Britton and Rosen not only raised educational questions and defined educational arguments, they also sought to address those questions and materialise those arguments in ways that were not only comprehensible to teachers but presented in such a way that teachers could take the ideas forward themselves, developing the theory as well as their practice. I tried to argue that this sort of work, exemplified by Britton, Rosen and their colleagues, instantiated pedagogy or Pädagogik as a discipline in the way my European colleagues were elaborating as an ideal.
I am not sure whether I convinced many in the seminar but was impressed by the thoughtful articulation of a new perspective on pedagogy as an integration of theoretical and empirical interests by Johannes Bellman from the University of Münster. Unusually, I found myself wanting more account taken of the American contributions to pedagogy, of the critical variety, whether influenced by Freire, Gramsci, Marx, Butler, Warner, Fanon, Giroux, Shor and so on. An ‘international’ conversation would have looked west a little and drawn its resources from wider cultural and intellectual resources. And I would also like to have seen further exploration of how an academic discipline, practised in universities and colleges by all these Professor Drs, might make a positive difference to educational practice without just expecting teachers to listen to or read what we say or write.