Feeling stuck? Does ‘impro’ help get unstuck and solve problems?

The ‘Stuck’ project is well underway, with four schools in the west of England taking part, funded by a US charitable foundation, and part of a collaboration with the British theatre company Peepolykus. The research team consists of Paula Zwozdiak-Myers, Kenny Frederick and myself (based at Brunel in London) and we are working with John Nicholson, Mark Bishop and Toby Hulse (from Peepolykus, based in Bristol), steered by the venerable Kim Lawrence, the Peepolykus administrator and sage.

The overarching aim of the research is to discover whether training in improvisation techniques derived from theatre and comedy helps children get ‘unstuck’ when they freeze and can’t work out what to do next – or how to do it. As the research goes on, we are increasingly interested in whether the teachers themselves benefit from the training also. It is a small project – a pilot – and we are working out what kinds of evidence might help us answer our questions.

Devising workshop at the Brewery Theatre, Bristol
Devising workshop at the Brewery Theatre, Bristol (February)

We began in February, in a rehearsal room in Bristol, with a diverse group of teachers, actors and interested others, trying out games and activities we thought might promote the sort of improvisational agency that would be of benefit to students of various ages. Lots of laughter, crisps and fizzy drink. We drew a little on the published work of The Second City, the legendary impro theatre in Chicago and a book (written for teachers) about the power of improvisation, as well as the professional expertise of John, Mark and Toby.

Jeff Gandy, Head of Youth and Education, The Second City, Chicago
Jeff Gandy, Head of Education and Youth, The Second City, Chicago

I followed up on the Second City connection in Chicago in April (during the American Educational Research Association conference) and visited the theatre and the ‘training center’ and met with Jeff Gandy, Head of Education and Youth. Jeff showed me the extensive and highly impressive programme of activities they offer – everything from workshops for teachers, business people, after-school activities for children and young people, credit-bearing courses in comedy, improvisation, writing and acting. I also saw a show by the teen and youth groups and marveled at the photos of alumni lining the walls of the building. As well as being a pipeline of talent for Saturday Night Live, Second City has also trained many of the leading film and TV actors of the last few decades.

Tina Fey, Second City alum, and the amazing claims for impro
Tina Fey, Second City alum, and the amazing claims for impro

Two things stood out for me during my visit: first, the consistent emphasis in every workshop space and theatre on ‘Yes, and’ as both mantra and tool for improvisational work, stressing the non-judgmental and combinative approach to creativity they seek to foster among young people and performers alike. You take what the previous person has said, accept it and build on it. Second, the importance of ensemble as a concept: the collective is what’s important in this form of improvisation. Jeff and others distinguished between improvisation and stand-up along these lines: improvisation can’t work in the individualistic way that stand-up comedy does. In both senses, the approach to improvisation they take chimes with a broader approach to what is sometimes called ‘democratic classroom cultures’ in the US – an approach that values equal participation rights in classrooms, with all participants accorded respect and dignity. In a book co-authored with Second City, McKnight and Scruggs (2008) make this connection in a powerful way.

Viola Spolin quotation

One of the key figures behind the early development of The Second City was Viola Spolin (1906 – 1994), author of the ‘bible’ Improvisation for Theater and leading exponent of the ‘theater games’ ideas – tools it was claimed could unleash anyone’s creativity. Spolin’s background was in social group work and as a settlement worker during the Great Depression. Spolin also taught at Jane Addams’ Hull House on the near west side of Chicago and, as with so much that has come out of that setting, was influenced by the pragmatism (and feminism) of the Chicago School. In this sense, ‘theater games’ were never only for the theatre. They were ways of channeling the human creativity that was a force for good in society and a means of resisting the oppression of instrumentalism. In her own words:

Theater Games are a process applicable to any field, discipline, or subject matter which creates a place where full participation, communication, and transformation can take place.

McKnight, K. & Scruggs, M. (2008) The Second City Guide to Improvisation in the Classroom: Using Improvisation to Teach Skills and Boost Learning, San Francisco: Jossey Bass

The Empire Strikes Back: Reforming Teacher Education in Australia

Hot on the heels of the Carter Review in England, comes Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, Australia’s very own review conducted by a ministerial advisory group. It is the season to review teacher education, it seems. In fact, it is always the season to poke around and point a finger at the supposedly feckless employees of university faculties of Education who, when they are not turning impressionable twenty-somethings into Marxists are generally incompetent and disinterested in helping anyone to learn how to teach in a school. This kind of finger-pointing has gone on for so long, it is now traditional. And I’ve clearly internalised the criticisms!

Reform of initial teacher education is one of those globally travelling educational ideas that researchers such as Jenny Ozga and Terri Seddon have been investigating for years. Every aspiring knowledge economy has to be interested in reform of teacher education, regardless of how successful their own school systems really are. Built on a kernel of truth – that the quality of teaching is the in-school factor that makes the biggest difference to student achievement (overall, poverty is the factor that makes the biggest difference) – it now seems compulsory for any self-respecting economy to be ‘committed to reform’ of teacher education (amongst other things) on market-based principles and promoting a mix of provision (universities but also organisations such as Teach First, Teach for Australia and its parent body, Teach for All).

One of the strangest examples of this form of compulsory participation in the rhetoric of teacher education reform is Norway, where the city of Oslo hosts a Teach First Norway affiliate of Teach for All. The city of Oslo has one of the most successful school systems in the country and, in order to find the grit and challenge they believe is necessary to create good teachers and leaders, they send their Teach First Norway trainees to England to some supposedly ‘challenging’ London schools. For ‘challenging’, we might read diverse and multicultural. One might argue that this is a perverse form of tourism for a country and a school system with its own rather different problems to solve.

Action Now, from Australia’s Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG), is a fine example of this rhetoric of reform. First, on the positive side, it is a good deal more systematic and weighty than its English cousin, the Carter Review. TEMAG has a modest but relevant list of references; it provides copious information about the historical context in Australia; the perceived challenges are set out carefully and they are argued, at least, rather than simply asserted. In comparison, the Carter Review looks slightly amateurish.

On the other hand, Action Now is a very strange document indeed, one that sometimes gives the appearance of being bought ‘off the shelf’ from the steady stream of former policy-makers/consultants from England that ply their trade internationally when they or their bosses lose power. I know that it was authored by TEMAG but when one reads about national program accreditation and national standards and national quality assurance mechanisms (all of which makes a horrible kind of sense in England), you do wonder how these directions fit within the shifting political settlement of federalism in Australia where education technically remains the responsibility of individual states, although universities are funded federally. Also, TEMAG seems to focus its attention on younger people with poor academic qualifications whereas the majority of new entrants in Australia are older and many are career-changers (rather unlike England). Part of the proposed solution to anxiety over academic quality is to insist on national skills tests in literacy and numeracy – a solution implemented for years in England and one that has never resolved concerns about teachers’ intellectual authority (but that has made a tidy sum for the purveyors of these tests under contract to the state). As one reads the report, it is easy to recognize familiar acronyms and bits of jargon that look likely to have been imported from Blighty. One example is the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership with its echoes of the (soon to be abolished, it seems likely) English National College for Teaching and Leadership. One might suggest it is still a case of ‘the empire strikes back’ when it comes to TEMAG and Australia’s teacher education reform agenda.

Zeal to reform, I have
Zeal to reform, I have

TEMAG’s most obvious borrowings are the literacy and numeracy tests for student teachers. As I said, England has operated a national system of online testing in literacy, numeracy and the use of ICT for over fifteen years. A small industry of test preparation activity has grown up alongside the tests and that has been good news for educational publishers, of course. But the mere existence of these tests has done nothing to change the panic over teachers’ academic capabilities that has been whipped up by governments around the world. Even though they pass these tests, teachers continue to be criticized for their academic capabilities. Globally, politicians continue to argue that if only we could get more of the highest qualified graduates into teaching, the attainment of their school systems would rise to the top of the PISA league table. So the introduction of these relatively trivial literacy and numeracy tests in Australia (trivial in the sense that they can never offer more than a one-off measurement of a narrow set of decontextualized skills of people who are already graduates) is little more than a token response to this widespread anxiety.

And in most cases, it is pure anxiety. The policy tourists often refer to the case of Finland where getting into teaching is a highly competitive business. As former Finnish school official and Harvard professor Pasi Sahlberg has recently demonstrated, the basis on which teaching has become such a competitive profession in Finland is not on the basis of academic qualifications alone. The selection that takes place in Finland is of a much wider range of knowledge, skills and dispositions – dispositions such as being able to relate to and work with children and young people, for example.

Similarly, prior academic qualifications are not always a reliable predictor of effectiveness as a teacher. The American Educational Research Association’s panel on teacher education surveyed the research literature and concluded that the only school subject where there was some evidence that teachers’ high levels of specialism in a subject made a difference to their students’ outcomes was in secondary Mathematics. That said, the teachers of the students who made the most progress in Mathematics had joint degrees in Mathematics and Education rather than Mathematics alone. And primary school children whose teachers had PhDs in Mathematics did less well than children whose teachers were not as highly qualified in the subject. So the lesson as far as teachers’ academic capabilities are concerned is a complex one. That’s not to argue that teachers shouldn’t be literate and numerate, of course. But while introducing such tests in Australia may have some temporary symbolic impact, they are unlikely to solve the problem – which is one of improving teacher preparation as an aspect of the improvement of the whole school system.

In Transforming Teacher Education: Reconfiguring the Academic Work, Jane McNicholl and I analyse the reform/defend dichotomy that bedevils attempts to improve the education of teachers all around the world and relies on some globally travelling reform ideas (both neoliberal and neoconservative) that often make little sense in local contexts. Instead, we argue, countries that are genuinely interested in improving school systems and the preparation of teachers might focus their attention on reconfiguring the kind of work academics in Education faculties do in relation to the profession of teaching. Of course partnerships with schools are important, as is quality mentoring in practice. And of course it’s a good idea to model workforce requirements to predict the number of teachers you need and to anticipate shortages and over-supply. TEMAG recommends all these good ideas. But neither the Carter Review nor TEMAG confront the central challenge of how university Education academics should work with the profession of teaching, how the division of labour between universities and schools in the preparation of teachers might be better conceptualized, and how we can support the early and mid-career development of teachers so as to retain them in the profession and help them to develop to their highest potential. It would be a shame if Australia borrowed some ideas that have had little genuine impact elsewhere.

‘The force is with you, Skywalker, but you haven’t transformed teacher education yet.”

Trojan Linguistics: Underneath the headlines at Park View

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).

M.A.K. Halliday, founder or sponsor of SFL
M.A.K. Halliday, founder or sponsor of SFL

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.

Poetry: Perception, Patterning and Symbol

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 as 'Howl'
Patterning ….but symbolisatiom?

 ‘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.

But there are also unknown unknowns

— the ones we don’t know we don’t know. [i]

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.

Concluding remarks

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.

References

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 Uses of Poetry: New AHRC Project

The Uses of Poetry: Measuring the Value of Engaging with Poetry in Lifelong Learning and Development (Arts and Humanities Research Council; Cultural Value project)

With the wonderful Kate Rumbold (PI, Birmingham University) and Tricia Riddell (Reading University), I have started work on a new interdisciplinary research project that will bring together literary, psychological and educational interests to focus on the ‘uses of’, meanings and definitions of poetry – or the poetic mode. The research is part of the AHRC’s major Cultural Value project and will include public events for both data generation and dissemination purposes. Our guiding questions are:

What are the perceived benefits of poetry to people’s learning and development at all stages of their lives? How do researchers and practitioners in literature, education and psychology currently express the value of poetry in their separate spheres? How can we best combine those insights into a rigorous interdisciplinary approach that will more effectively measure and evaluate the value of engaging with poetry?

And our research will address the following questions:

  • What research exists across our disciplines about the value of engaging with poetry?
  • What constitutes ‘evidence’ in our respective fields?
  • What is the assumed value of poetry in our fields, and how can we test that assumption? How is ‘value’ defined?
  • Which of our approaches, from e.g. subjective well-being analysis to reader response, comes closest to being able to measure, evaluate and articulate people’s actual experiences of engaging with poetry? Can existing research techniques transcend individual experiences without simply aggregating them?
  • On what forms of measurement do we currently rely, quantitative or qualitative? How could these be combined?
  • Does our disciplinary approach tend towards understanding the affective, cognitive or aesthetic role of poetry? How could we better understand these from an interdisciplinary perspective?
  • How can we optimise the strengths of our approaches to pilot a new, truly interdisciplinary valuation of the benefits of engaging with poetry?

I will post about future seminars and related events about the next six months. I am particularly keen that we try to offer practical educational alternatives for working in the poetic mode that go beyond ‘feature-spotting’ and have the potential to transform young people’s engagement with the spoken and written word inside schools (just as so many things have outside).

Maths Talk Grant from London Mayor

Brunel colleagues Valsa Koshy (PI), Deborah Jones and I have been awarded £275,000 by the London Mayor’s Excellence Fund for the research and development project ‘Maths Talk at Key Stage 1’.

Building on Brunel’s strong tradition of practice-developing research associated with Valsa, the project will focus on the development of mathematical language and reasoning among very young children and their parents. Sociocultural approaches to concept development and talk-in-interaction will form the my main contribution to the intervention along with the analysis of language data. With Deborah and project Maths consultants, I am particularly looking forward to planning workshops for parents and carers. Fieldwork for the project will take place in the London Borough of Wandsworth.

For further information on the Mayor’s Excellence Fund, click here.