If you were a newly-qualified teacher of English today, would you know who James Britton was? If you had done a PGCE, it is an interesting question. As an English graduate, it would have been unlikely for you to have encountered Britton in your EngLit course. But would your PGCE tutor, at any stage, have made you aware of Britton’s contribution to English and literacy teaching (a truly worldwide contribution, at that)? Would you have looked at the Bullock Report, for example, even just Chapter 4? Or Language and Learning? Or would you have read his piece ‘Vygotsky’s Contribution to Pedagogical Theory’? For it was Britton, perhaps above all others, who first made the teaching profession in England aware of Vygotsky’s work, soon after the first English translation of Thought and Language in 1962.
Britton was more than a populariser of Vygotsky, however, if indeed he was that. Britton was then and now, in my opinion, the exemplary academic educationist: once a teacher, always fully engaged with the work of school teaching and motivated by educational questions; hugely supportive of the profession developing its own leadership (through subject associations, for example); intellectually ambitious in ways that crossed the academic humanities and social sciences – in today’s grotesque parlance, a writer of ‘four star’ papers; and a researcher with huge impact, both in today’s reduced ‘REF-compliant’ terms but also over longer timescales and across continents and disciplines. Britton shows the way you might, as someone who works in a university Education department, do good work in every sense. It’s an aspiration many of us struggle with and fail at – but it’s worth the struggle nonetheless. It is ‘the Blob’, otherwise
The London Association for the Teaching of English (LATE), the longest-standing subject association for primary and secondary English teachers, is organising a day conference on Saturday 12th March at the Institute of Education in Bedford Way to look at the legacy of Britton’s work and what it means for the teaching profession today. A flyer for the event is available here. The organisers of the event – Tony Burgess and Myra Barrs (themselves highly distinguished teachers and researchers in the same mould) – have also produced a really lovely anthology of extended quotations of Britton’s work which they will introduce at the conference. The selection gives you some real insights into the depth and reach of Britton’s thinking.
If you are interested in finding out more about James Britton in the context of teacher education and the HE discipline of Education, he features prominently in an article I wrote called ‘Disciplines as Ghosts’ which is available to download from the Articles page of this site. Karen Simecek and I have also drawn substantially on Britton’s work about the poetic mode of language use in an article that will be published shortly in the Journal of Aesthetic Education.
Prof Valsa Koshy and I will be at the annual Mayor of London’s Education Conference at City Hall on 27th November this year. Valsa will be presenting the findings of our two-year ‘Enhancing Mathematical Learning at Key Stage 1′ research project. We worked with 31 primary schools in London, 31 teachers and around 800 KS1 pupils, alongside the quite brilliant Davina Salmon from Wandsworth LA. In an eight-month intervention period, we focused on developing teachers’ knowledge of and confidence with mathematical concepts and also their knowledge and confidence in developing powerful classroom interaction, particularly mathematical reasoning but not necessarily in abstract, argumentative mode.
We have just concluded the statistical analysis of the pre- and post-intervention measures. Not only has teachers’ knowledge and confidence increased, so has the attainment of the 800 children according to pre- and post-intervention measures and at statistically significant levels compared to the control group. This is fantastic news for those kids and their teachers and schools. Valsa and I will be drawing out the key messages of this research for policy and practice at the Mayor’s conference.
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.
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.