The Only Truth is Narrative Truth

sacks

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

In his essay on ‘The Fallibility of Memory‘ Oliver Sacks offers us an insight into why discussions about the importance of ‘knowledge’ in education are often superficial, and at times futile. While we debate the relative importance of skills and knowledge, we might be more productively engaged in discussing the elusive nature of knowledge itself:

‘We, as human beings, are landed with memories which have fallibilities, frailties and imperfections – but also great flexibility and creativity. Confusion over sources or indifference to them can be a paradoxical strength: if we could tag the sources of all our knowledge, we would be overwhelmed with often irrelevant information. Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say, and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. Memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.’

The connection between memory and knowledge is a vital one, and Sacks seems to be suggesting that the most reliable knowledge is that which has been ‘contributed to’, a notion which would chime particularly well with the idea of ‘wiki-learning’, where everyone has a contribution to make, however small (for further reading on the use of Wikis for learning follow this link).

In discussing the fallibility of memory, and (again) on the importance of narrative, he has something important to teach us when it comes to understanding the human brain and how it records and analyses what it sees:

‘Christopher Isherwood starts “A Berlin Diary” with an extended photographic metaphor: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

But we deceive ourselves if we imagine that we can ever be passive, impartial observers. Every perception, every scene, is shaped by us, whether we intend it or know it, or not. We are the directors of the film we are making – but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.’

‘There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves – the stories we continually recategorise and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the brains we have. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare and that for the most part our memories are so solid and reliable.’

Our only truth is narrative truth. Now there is something to contemplate.

 

 

 

Learning. It’s Complicated.

I read and follow many educational writers, bloggers and theorists in an attempt to understand how learning works, and, by implication or association, what makes for good teaching and an effective education system. However, not everything about education is to be learned in educational texts. A good example of this is to be found in reading ‘River of Consciousness‘, a collection of essays and the last publication of the English-born neurologist and polymath Oliver Sacks. Here, in the course of a few relatively short pieces, the author of such works as ‘Awakenings‘ and ‘The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat‘ takes on evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience and the arts, as he searches for an understanding of the conscious mind and what it is that makes us human. In doing so, he touches on subjects which I see ‘debated’ on eduTwitter on a daily basis. On the importance of Play, for example, especially in young children, he has this to say:

‘All children indulge in play, at once repetitive and imitative and, equally, exploratory and innovative.They are drawn both to the familiar and the unusual – grounding and anchoring themselves in what is known and secure, and exploring what is new and has never been experienced. Children have an elemental hunger for knowledge and understanding, for mental food and stimulation. They do not need to be told or “motivated’ to explore or play, for play, like all creative or proto-creative activities, is deeply pleasurable in itself.’

Which begs the question, if children have an ‘elemental hunger for knowledge’, why do so many children stop engaging with school? I suspect the answer may have something to do with who determines the knowledge which is on the menu, and the extent to which the consumers have a choice. A very important element of play of course is the storytelling element, and Sacks has an observation on that which touches on one of our favourite themes here at The Literacy Adviser:

‘Both the innovative and the imitative impulses come together in pretend play, often using toys or dolls or miniature replicas of real-world objects to act out new scenarios or rehearse and replay old ones. Children are drawn to narrative, not only soliciting and enjoying stories from others, but creating them themselves. Storytelling and mythmaking are primary human activities, a fundamental way of making sense of our world.’

Put very simply, storytelling should be at the heart of any education programme, at all ages and in all subject or topic contexts. And speaking of educational contexts, here is what Sacks has to contribute on the nature of schooling, and the perennial debates about ‘skills v knowledge’ or ‘progression v tradition’ or ‘freedom v structure’:

‘Intelligence, imagination, talent, and creativity will get nowhere without a basis of knowledge and skills, and for this education must be sufficiently structured and focused. But an education too rigid, too formulaic, too lacking in narrative, may kill the once-active, inquisitive mind of a child. Education has to achieve a balance between structure and freedom, and each child’s needs may be extremely variable. Some young minds expand and blossom with good teaching. Other children (including some of the most creative) may be resistant to formal teaching ; they are essentially autodidacts, voracious to learn and explore on their own. Most children will go through many stages in this process, needing more or less structure, more or less freedom at different periods.’

So there you have it. It’s complicated! Schools and education systems have to be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of all learners, which incidentally are not fixed, even within an individual. You begin to see why there is no such thing as a perfect system or a perfect school, and why as long as we have formal schooling, everything within it is a compromise of ideas and ideals.

Next time I will be sharing what Sacks has to say about the nature of memory and conscious thought.

 

Ten Books For English Teachers

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”

Charlie Munger

Ten Books To Give An English Teacher For Christmas.

 

 

booktree11This was first written as a guest blogpost for the lovely people at the Scottish Book Trust. Visit their website for some wonderful resources and ideas on how to inspire reading and writing in the classroom.

There is no shortage of books for teachers. In fact a huge industry has been created to produce them, and largely they are books whose aim is to tell teachers how to ‘do it’, to give them the magic ingredients which will turn their classrooms into beacons of organisation and efficiency, while all the time improving their students’ grades, with titles like ‘How To Teach Like a Demon’, ‘How To Prepare The Perfect Lesson To The Nth Degree’ or ‘How To Please an Inspector’. I have no doubt that many of them are informative, some of them are useful, and a few of them may even contain wisdom. I believe however, that all good teachers have one thing in common, and that is that they are readers (and by definition learners) first and foremost. So this is a short selection of some of the books I think all English teachers should read, not because they are about teaching, but because they are about books, and about the importance of reading and storytelling.

The Seven Basic Plots (Why We Tell Stories) by Christopher Booker

Stories lie at the heart of learning, whether we are trying to make sense of the stories which have existed in the world since the dawn of communication, or whether it is our own attempts to create, control and update our life stories. In this fascinating study, Booker explores the notion that there are only seven basic story ‘types’ and that all successful stories fit into one of the seven categories. Whether you agree entirely with his thesis is neither here nor there, but it certainly opens up for you and your students a whole new understanding of the concept of ‘genre’. As for the reason we tell stories, it is summed up best by the author in these lines: ‘One of the deepest human needs met by the faculty for imagining stories, is our desire for an explanatory and descriptive picture of how the world began, and how we came to be in it.’

The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller                                                                

Donalyn Miller says she has yet to meet a child she couldn’t turn into a reader. No matter how far behind her students might be when they reach her 6th grade classroom, they end up reading an average of between forty and fifty books a year. Miller’s classroom is filled with books, all of which she has read herself, and her unconventional approach dispenses with worksheets and assignments that make reading a chore. Instead, she helps students navigate the world of literature, nudges them gently towards their next discovery and gives them time to read books they pick out for themselves. Her love of books and teaching is both infectious and inspiring. The book includes a list of recommended young adult literature that helps parents and teachers find the books that students really like to read. It’s an American-centric choice but useful nevertheless.

How To Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C Foster                              

One of the methods employed by sophisticated readers in the search for understanding is the recognition of pattern, memory or symbol (where have I seen this before?) and therein lies the curse of the professor of English, according to this lively and entertaining study by Thomas Foster, in which he gives us an insight into the crucial skills of ‘deep reading’. What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey? Shares a meal? Gets soaked in a rain shower? Good mechanics, he argues, the kind who used to fix cars before computerised diagnostics, used pattern recognition to diagnose engine troubles. Literature is full of patterns, and your reading experience will be much more rewarding when you can step back from the work, even while you are reading it, and look for those patterns. Comes with a very useful reading list as an appendix.

99 Ways To Tell a Story by Matt Madden                                                                              

In 1947 the French poet, novelist and mathematician Raymond Queneau wrote a collection of short narratives in which the author retells an apparently unremarkable story in 99 different ways. Using a variety of styles ranging from the sonnet form, through Cockney rhyming slang to mathematical formulae, Queneau’s work is both comical and experimental, a tour of literary forms and a demonstration of playful invention. The text became a cult classic and was the inspiration behind a similar experiment more than half a century later, when the graphic novelist and comic illustrator Matt Madden, in homage to Queneau, set out to explore the same idea using visual narratives. In a fascinating series of drawings which questions the very definition of narrative, Madden stretches the limits of the comics genre by telling the same story from different narrative perspectives and in a range of styles including maps, graphs, ‘public service announcement’ and even ‘paranoid religious tract’.

How Fiction Works by James Wood                                                                                  

James Wood is an English-American literary critic, essayist and novelist. Here he provides an ‘alternative’ history of the novel, by taking apart the mechanics of storytelling and looking closely at the main elements of fiction, such as narrative and characterisation. This is a slim volume, but using examples ranging from Homer (not that one), to beatrix Potter, the Bible and John Le Carré, Wood encourages us to look again at some of our favourite books with new insight, and to question our assumptions about the essential elements of one of the oldest forms of storytelling. Is realism real? How do we define a successful metaphor? What is point of view, and how does it work? Why does fiction move us? What is imaginative sympathy? Both playful and profound.

Reality Hunger by David Shields                                                                                           

“I think of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, and all forms of storytelling as existing on a rather wide continuum, at one end fantasy (J.R.R. Tolkien and the like) and at the other end an extremely literal-minded register of a life, such as a guy in eastern Washington – named, as fate would have it, Shields, – who (until his recent death) had kept the longest or longest-running diary, endless accounts of everything he did all day. And in between at various tiny increments are greater and lesser imaginative projects. An awful lot of fiction is immensely biographical, and a lot of nonfiction is highly imagined. We dream ourselves awake every minute of the day. ‘Fiction’/’nonfiction’ is an utterly useless distinction.” A weird and wonderful cut-and-paste of a book that questions the meaning of everything.

The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell                                                                        

An extraordinary writing experiment as well as a challenging reading experience, this short ‘novel’ consists entirely of questions, a structure which should have you throwing it away in frustration after just a couple of pages, but which amazingly….er…..works. The book is clearly not a novel in the conventional sense, but manages to achieve what many novels set out to do but fail to achieve i.e. to create a character who is able to engage and move us in ways that have us examining our own lives more closely. While not strictly a book ABOUT reading, Powell will have you questioning what else might be possible when it comes to creating works of fiction. One of the quirkier choices on the list, you will either love it or hate it. Either way, it will make your brain jump.

The Art of Fiction by David Lodge                                                                                  

When one of England’s foremost writers and critics was asked to write a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday on ‘The Art of Fiction’, this was the result. Collected here into 50 ‘chapters’, each essay focuses on an aspect of prose fiction (The Intrusive Author, The Sense of Place, Magic Realism, Allegory, Coincidence, The Title………) with one or two extracts from modern or classic texts by way of illustration. Although the book is intended for the general reader, and can be consumed in bite-size morsels, the author has used technical terms where necessary, and without apology. Lodge argues, in the course of his ‘Preface’, that he always regarded fiction as essentially a rhetorical art, that is to say, the novelist or short-story writer persuades us to share a certain world-view for the duration of the reading experience. A good read for for experienced teachers and beginners alike.

The Storytelling Animal (How Stories Make Us Human) by Jonathan Gottschall     

In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall, of Washington and Jefferson College in the USA, explains how stories shape and define us as human beings, arguing that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems, just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations.This is a fascinating exploration of just how central the concept of ‘story’ is to the human animal, how much the idea of creating a narrative form is to our existence. Humans have been telling stories as long as we have been recognisably human: early cave paintings are telling a story of hunting and conflict, and Gottschall argues that the act of storytelling allows us to ‘act out’ or experience things without the inherent perils involved. At its heart, he argues, all story is about conflict, about overcoming obstacles, about triumphing over disaster or evil.

Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf                                                                   

 ‘We were never born to read’, begins this story of the development of the reading brain in humans. Wolf describes the origins of reading and writing from early Egyptian and Sumerian scripts and fascinatingly likens concerns over the current shift from a written culture to one that is increasingly driven by visual images, to the concerns of Socrates in ancient Greece that the transition from an oral tradition to a literate one would lead to a lack of virtue and discipline in young learners. Professor Wolf contends that this is akin to the concerns of many modern-day teachers and parents who watch their children spend endless hours in front of the computer, absorbing but not necessarily understanding huge amounts of information. One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is her theory that dyslexia may be linked to ‘unparalleled creativity’.

Time For A Slow Reading Movement?

I’ve been a bit quiet of late on the blogging front, what with new ventures taking up much of my time, but yesterday I was contacted by a young woman from BBC Radio5 Live to ask if I would go on their breakfast programme to comment on a story which appeared in the newspapers over the weekend. ‘The Real Truth About Boys and Books: They Read Less Than Girls – And Skip Pages‘ was the headline in The Observer, and it told you all you needed to know really. Or perhaps not.

The real truth had emerged from two research studies by Keith Topping, professor of educational and social research at the University of Dundee, and we are told early in the story that the research was based on extensive data from a ‘computer system used in schools across Britain to test the progress of pupils’ reading.’ What is this computer system that is used across Britain? I wondered, so I looked a little closer.

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Reading For Boys. And Girls.

The innocent reader might instinctively believe that it would be a government-funded programme, designed to improve reading, but in fact it is a commercial product called ‘Accelerated Reader’, which in the words of the company’s website is ‘a powerful tool for monitoring and managing independent reading practice, motivating your students to read for pleasure.’ So hold on a minute. This is a computer system designed to monitor progress and a powerful tool to motivate students to read for pleasure at the same time? Highly unlikely, I would have thought, but I would be glad to hear from anyone who is using it, and there are many of you, if indeed it is being used extensively across Britain.

I have no doubt that there are issues with boys and reading (see previous posts Here Come the Boys and  Boys Will Be Boys – If You Let Them), and that sometimes the motivation for boys is different from that of girls, but there is no quick fix, such as plugging them into a computer or providing a multiple-choice quiz at the end of every book. What it takes is a well-trained teacher or librarian who reads loads of children’s books and transfers that enthusiasm to the young developing reader. What it takes is love and care and attention and the right conversations at the right time. What it takes is patience and nurture and a room full of books. What it takes is investment, not the closure of school libraries. And what it takes is time, not more ‘reading schemes’. It’s a bit like comparing factory farming to the slow food movement. We already know that you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it, but force-feeding it doesn’t strike me as a healthy alternative.

Incidentally, the interview on Radio 5 was bumped after the death of Jimmy Perry, and rightly so. Cheer yourself up by reading the story of his life in yesterday’s Guardian.

The Inestimable Dr Memes

There is much talk about leadership in education these days, and there isn’t a day goes by without the publication of a book or a paper, or a tweet or a blogpost on how it should be ‘done’, or how it should be ‘done better’. It was quite refreshingly amusing therefore to come across the following description of a school ‘leader’ from an earlier age, the inestimable Dr J.S. Memes, rector of Ayr Academy from 1826-1844. If leading by example is the best form of leadership, I don’t think you could find a better example than this.

Dr John Smythe Memes, LL.D., came from Brechin, and had distinguished himself as a student at Aberdeen University, taking Latin, Greek and Divinity classes, to which he added Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Chemistry, as well as Botany and Anatomy. Initially finding employment as a tutor, he travelled during 1821 and the next two years on the continent, becoming fluent in French, Italian and German, and picking up a knowledge of several unspecified ‘Oriental languages’. He lectured to the Philosophical Society of London,contributed to the proceedings of the Astronomical Society, and interested himself also in literature and art. And so it was that this ‘gentleman of varied and elegant accomplishments’ took over as rector of Ayr Academy in February 1826 just after his 31st birthday. The Academy itself was enjoying a growing reputation, having re-fashioned itself in 1796 from the old Ayr Grammar Schule, famously attended by a young Robert Burns for a very brief period in his fourteenth year.

JDDr Memes flung himself into the work with enthusiasm. He took over classes in Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Geography. He added History, Botany and English Composition with Rhetoric and Logic. He applied his skills as a draughtsman to preparing a series of large wall maps for his geography classes. He persuaded the directors to erect scaffolding so that he could personally paint two large terrestrial spheres on the ceiling of the school hall. In 1837 he introduced geographical ‘excursions into the country’. To extend the study of Natural History he acquired botanical specimens and created a botanical garden. He inspired the pupils of his senior English class to original composition and had printed two collections of their poems.

When, in 1838, the Classics and Modern Languages post became vacant, Memes convinced the directors that the remaining masters could easily cope if they ‘devote their individual attention to their classes’. In the summer of 1840 he spent six weeks in Paris, visiting six colleges, twenty-four municipal schools, the military academy and a college of education, ‘to acquire the most perfect methods of teaching the French language’. In the meantime, he was producing books on a number of subjects: A Memoir of Canova and Modern Sculpture (1828) and A History of Sculpture, Painting and Architecture (1837); Works of William Cowper (1834) and A Life of Cowper (1837); Memoirs of Josephine (1832) and a translation of Memoirs of Bonaparte (1836); with one of the earliest books on photography, Daguerre’s History and Practice of Photogenic Drawing (1839).

His enormous energies were recalled by staff and pupils alike – he was known on occasion to take extra classes as early as 6 a.m., teach for twelve hours with ‘trifling intervals’, sketch large maps for his geography classes till eight in the evening, meet with the Library Society to superintend their arrangements, and dismiss them at ten or eleven o’clock. Next morning, as early as four o’clock, he could be found working with his mathematics class, making plans of the town harbour to be exhibited at the annual examination.

Dr Memes became recognised and respected in the wider community of Ayr, and his polymathic powers were widely appreciated. He conducted evening classes in Astronomy, and gave free instruction to the  Ayr Mechanics’ Institute. When he delivered a series of Sunday evening lectures on the ‘Evidences of Christianity’ in Wallacetown chapel, all 900 seats were occupied, and people had to be turned away. He provided evidence to be presented in parliament on behalf of the Glasgow and Ayr Railway Company. His knowledge of anatomy was recognised by the Ayrshire Medico-Chirurgical Association. With a party of senior pupils he made a survey and prepared a report on the feasibility of bringing piped water from the Carrick Hills into Ayr – for which he was rewarded with a public dinner in his honour. He assisted the Sheriff of Ayr by calculating the trajectory of a bullet from an air gun. When Ayr Town Hall was struck by lightning in January 1838, Memes ‘quieted public alarm’ and earned the gratitude of the town council by climbing the steeple and assessing that the structure was safe.

Under his leadership the school continued to make steady progress, but an outbreak of cholera in 1832 meant a declining roll, and by the time he left the Academy in 1844 to take up a role as minister in Hamilton parish church, his boundless energy seemed also to be in decline. One pupil recalled how in the senior Geography class, which was held daily in the hour before lunch, Dr Memes would have a glass of wine and a biscuit brought to his room to sustain him, after which he would frequently nod off to sleep.

At this point it would be easy for me to apply the usual clichés – they don’t make them like that any more, what happened to all the ‘characters’ in education, and so on. However, it’s probably best just to read all that again, take a deep intake of breath, and say, ‘Wow!’

Source: 750 Years of a Scottish School – Ayr Academy 1233-1983 by John Strawhorn

You Must Be Joking

funny_chemistry_teacher_quote_no_reaction_postcard-rf4872fee293747cbaf640617e0744679_vgbaq_8byvr_324A guy is sitting at home when he hears a knock at the door. He opens the door and sees a snail on the porch. He picks up the snail and throws it as far as he can. Three years later there’s a knock on the door. He opens it and sees the same snail. The snail says: ‘What the hell was that all about?’…………..Boom!

Three guys stranded on a desert island find a magic lantern containing a genie, who grants them each one wish. The first guy wishes he was off the island and back home. The second guy wishes the same. The third guy says: ‘I’m lonely. I wish my friends were back here.’

Two of the funniest jokes of all time, according to a team of researchers at Oxford University, who put them to a group of students at the London School of Economics and asked them to rate them out of ten. The jokes were from a pre-selected list of course, which makes the exercise less than useless, but nevertheless, jokes, and the ability to tell them, have been a part of our popular culture since God worried that Adam would be forever lost in the Garden because men hate to ask for directions, and most jokes are just another form of storytelling, which is at the heart of learning and teaching. Right?

How often, as a teacher, have you recognised in a young person the ability to tell a good story, to hold an audience rapt for minutes on end without script or prompt, and yet were never quite sure how the talent could be developed and nurtured? Well, fear not, because an outlet for that creativity is about to present itself, in the shape of a joint project from the BBC and the National Literacy Trust.

‘Comedy Classroom – Having A Write Laugh’ will officially launch on the 19th of April, and it isn’t just for extroverts. The project organisers are calling on teachers across the UK to get their students writing comedy – whether it be stand-up, sketch-writing or simply photo captions. And being the BBC, they have a huge collection of resources to help you on your way.

Footnote: For those teachers who think that telling jokes isn’t real learning, or for those who simply like ticking boxes, here are some of the literacy outcomes which may be enhanced by undertaking such an endeavour. Have fun, but be careful not to overdo it. Learning is a serious business, after all!

Speaking:

  • Take a role within group discussions.
  • Communicate clearly and confidently with an audience.
  • Verbally evaluate the work of themselves and others.
  • Be able to participate in discussions and presentations.
  • Demonstrate they can gain, maintain and monitor the interest of the listener(s).
  • Be able to discuss words and phrases that capture the reader’s interest and imagination.

Reading:

  • Comment on the differences between spoken and non-spoken text.
  • Consider why texts can change to be applied to specific audiences.
  • Be able to prepare comedy pieces to read aloud and to perform, showing understanding through intonation, tone, volume and action.
  • Demonstrate an ability to recognise different forms of comedy writing.
  • Be able to assess the effectiveness of their own and others’ writing and suggest improvements.

Writing:

  • Communicate meaning, adapting their style where necessary.
  • Organise their ideas in an easy to understand, coherent way.
  • Demonstrate an appropriate level of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
  • Demonstrate they can draft and edit to improve their work as well as critique others’.
  • Be able to plan, draft, edit and proofread.
  • Be able to use relevant strategies to build vocabulary, grammar and structure.

See also:

 Eleven Jokes Only Smart People Will Understand

Top Ten Teacher Jokes

Best School Jokes Ever

Teacher, School and Education Jokes

 

 

Play It Again, Sam

It has been a long wait – almost seven years – since I wrote about the wonderful world of Samorost, and the creative opportunities it provides for an inventive teacher (see Sam, The Spaceship and Me), so you can imagine how excited I am to get my hands on Samorost 3, just released by Amanita Design, and described thus:-

‘Samorost 3 follows a curious space gnome who uses the powers of a magic flute to travel across the cosmos in search of its mysterious origins. Visit nine unique and alien worlds teeming with colourful challenges, creatures and surprises to discover, brought to life with beautiful artwork, sound and music.’

What’s not to like? If that doesn’t tempt you, have a look at the preview.

See also Machinarium, from the same company.

For teaching ideas across all curriculum areas, see previous post by following the link.

You WILL Survive. Popularising Shakespeare.

tennant

David Tennant in the stunning 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet

As it happens, I am one of those boring old traditionalists who believe that no school education is complete without some experience of the genius that was William Shakespeare. After all, if the purpose of formal education includes preparing young people for a rich and fulfilling life, helping them understand their place in the world, showing them that they are not the first person ever to agonise over the complexities of human relationships, then who better to turn to for guidance?

However, Shakespeare is a bit like maths at school. Badly taught, it can have a more profound effect than when it is taught well. ‘I hated Shakespeare at school’ is almost as common a refrain as ‘I was never any good at maths…….’.

Imagine the scene. As an English teacher you find yourself in the position of trying to convince a group of young people, many of whom wouldn’t know the difference between a sonetto and a cornetto – even if they did know that the latter was not originally an ice-cream cone –  of the beauty and relevance of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You will teach them, of course, about the Italian origins of the sonnet, its traditional structure of two quatrains and a sestet (14 lines in all), the regular musical rhythm that they will come to know and understand as ‘iambic pentameter’, and you will demonstrate along the way how Shakespeare was dealing with the grand themes of love and loss, of jealousy and revenge, of lust, hatred, fear and hurt. You may give them some very useful notes, or you may even ask them to make their own. God job done.

Well, sometimes, and for some kids, yes. But, consider the potential difference it could make if you were to ask them to ‘be Shakespeare’ for a while. Write a sonnet as if your life depended on it, which his almost certainly did.

‘Too hard!’ they cry.

Well, OK. The language is challenging, 400 years down the line, the themes a bit adult. But how about if you started by actually giving them the content, and asking them to ‘translate it’ into a sonnet? Which is exactly what Erik Didriksen has done in ‘Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins on Your Favourite Songs’ from publishers Fourth Estate.  Starting with songs from modern-day pop artists like Beyonce´and Taylor Swift, Didreksen has re-written them as Shakespeare might have done. And here’s the real payback, one of the things we struggle to impress upon modern-day students of the great man – the themes don’t really change!

Gaynor

Gloria Gaynor is given a Shakespearean make-over in Erik Didriksen’s ‘Pop Sonnets’

This technique, which is sometimes referred to in film education as ‘generic translation’ (see previous post here), can be a very useful strategy when trying to develop a better understanding of any text, as it allows the reader to think about what it would look like from the inside, in a different context and for a different audience, while demanding that they look more closely at the conventions of the genre.

Footnote:- While writing this blogpost I just happened to discover this excellent collection of resources from TES for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

See also Shakespeare’s Words

 

 

 

 

Yet Another Watershed Moment

This blogpost has also been published on Bella Caledonia, the pro-independence alternative media site. Please visit, subscribe and contribute if you can.

Given the recent devastating floods across Scotland and the rest of the UK, ‘watershed moment’ may or may not have been the best metaphor to describe the current state of Scottish education, but that was the description borrowed from a recent OECD report by Education Scotland’s Chief Executive Bill Maxwell last week, in his ‘state-of-the-union’-style blogpost on the Education Scotland website. We seem to be living in an age when ‘watershed moments’ in education come thick and fast, but as for this latest case of hydro-hyperbole, I reflect on how big the gap is between the rhetoric and the reality. Dr Maxwell’s post on the Education Scotland blog is fairly brief, so I have quoted it in full here, along with my own thoughts (in italics) on the current state of state education in Scotland.watershed

Scottish mountain-bike daredevil Danny MacAskill in the making of ‘The Ridge’

Bill Maxwell: Scottish education has had an excellent opportunity to “see ourselves as others see us” to borrow a famous Burns quotation.

We have been receiving a lot of international attention recently. December’s report on Scottish school education by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks, was followed this month by the premier annual gathering of education researchers from around the world – some 500 of them – in Glasgow.

The main message I took from these international engagements is one which rings true with the evidence we gather at Education Scotland. That message is that the wide-ranging programme of reform of education in Scotland over the last decade is setting the right ambition and has the potential to ensure young Scots are amongst the best educated young people in the world, but we have more to do to make sure that happens.

The Literacy Adviser: The ‘programme of reform’ in Scottish education has actually been painfully slow, and in the case of the reform of secondary education, virtually non-existent. It is absolutely true that the vision for education set out in Curriculum for Excellence has the potential to ensure that young scots are ‘amongst the best educated young people in the world’, but we knew that ten years ago, and nothing much has changed in the interim. Indeed, we do ‘have more to do to make sure that happens’. However, recent signs are not good, and there are strong indications from the Scottish Government – through the ‘National Improvement Framework’ (sic) – that some of the core principles of CfE are about to be eroded in favour of more ‘teaching to the test’, in the mistaken belief that this will close the attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and those whose parents have more than enough money to be going on with. Incidentally, the OECD may be regarded by some as ‘one of the world’s most authoritative think-tanks’, but that view is by no means universal. Others believe that the PISA tests used by the OECD to make international comparisons are riddled with ambiguities, and do more harm than good when it comes to governments using them to determine educational policy (see for example this Guardian article from May 2014)

BM: We need to hold firm to the vision, but we also stand at a ‘watershed moment’ to use a phrase from the OECD report. We need now to move confidently beyond managing the introduction of key structural changes such as the new National Qualifications and strengthened professional learning arrangements for teachers, to a new phase which shifts the focus firmly onto teachers and school leaders capitalising on the scope which these changes give them to develop more effective, more customised learning experiences for all their learners.

TLA: In reality our schools currently spend more time making sure they are watertight rather than sensing that they are in a ‘watershed moment’, and the fact that Education Scotland describes the introduction of new National Qualifications (which are not that different from the old National Qualifications) as ‘key structural changes’ reveals much about the appetite of the educational establishment – and by implication the Scottish Government – for radical changes to the system. Putting aside for the moment all the major changes which would be required to realise Curriculum for Excellence as envisaged in the original blueprint – such as a shift to project or problem-based learning, the re-definition of ‘practical’ subjects, an overhaul of school buildings, timetables and the school day, a drastic reduction in the amount of testing, greater investment in teachers’ professional development and so on – these ‘new’ qualifications change nothing. They are still predominantly pen-and-paper tests, an anomaly in today’s largely digital world, taken by young people when they reach a particular age rather than when they are ready to take them. If you truly want to move education forward in this country, you need to shift the emphasis away from National Qualifications as the end goal.

BM: The new National Improvement Framework, also launched last week, has now set out a clear set of priority objectives for all schools to address, as they exercise these new levels of professional freedom. It places a strong onus on teachers’ professional judgement in the assessment and evaluation of progress. There is also a strong role for educational research, both to help inform the decision schools make about what changes to make in their own provision and to generate a wider body of evidence on what is working well, and what is working less well, across Scotland.

TLA: This nothing short of double-speak. A key aspect of the National Improvement Framework is a return to standardised national tests, meaning a significant reduction in ‘professional freedom’ and a diminution of teachers’ professional judgement. Teachers, especially when they are provided with robust, good quality professional development opportunities, are perfectly capable of assessing learners’ progress and reporting on it to parents. Standardised testing is not about helping teachers to make judgements about a child’s progress, it is about holding teachers to account, or – to put it more crudely – judging teachers by their students’ test results. The suggestion that there is to be a strong role in the process for educational research is to be welcomed, though one would have hoped that this was already the case.

BM: The framework also stresses the need for schools to engage strongly with young people, parents and carers and their local communities as they develop and refine new ways of meeting the needs of learners more effectively. If you are a parent or carer, a learner, an employer or just someone with an interest in education in your local community, you should expect to see increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue about the education being provided in the schools in your locality. Parents and carers, in particular, should expect expanding opportunities to be involved actively as partners in their child’s learning.

TLA: One of the key features of Curriculum for Excellence – quite rightly – was the emphasis on parental and community involvement. The fact that little progress has been made in that regard will not be addressed simply by re-stating it ten years later in another ‘improvement’ document. It has always been the case that parents are more involved with their children’s primary education, and that as they progress through secondary school that involvement tends to be limited to one or two parents’ evenings a year, where they are on the receiving end of a brief summary of progress, usually in the form of grades or scores. It may well be that that is what most parents (and their children) want, but opportunities to be involved in the learning process – teaching methodology, homework policies, curriculum content etc.) tend to be very limited. I am sure communities across Scotland will look forward to the ‘increasing opportunities to be involved in real dialogue’ and the ‘expanding opportunities’ you mention, but since there is currently no indication as to what this means in reality, I guess they will have to simply reserve judgement for now.

BM: All of this has implications for my own organisation too. Education Scotland was created back in 2011 as a new type of improvement agency which brings a rich mix of education experts in development, support and inspection together in one place. This allows us to flex the way we deploy our staff over time, shifting the balance of the support and challenge we provide from year to year to reflect what is most needed at any particular point in time. In recent years that has meant a strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE in local authorities and schools, including a major commitment to supporting the transition to new qualifications and to new teaching and assessment approaches from the early years onwards.

TLA: The order in which you list that ‘rich mix’ of education experts is interesting, because when Education Scotland was created in 2011, the balance between development, support and inspection shifted quite dramatically away from the former towards the latter, a shift that was reflected in the number of staff who were retained from the original agencies of Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE. I am not sure that many schools – or indeed local authorities – will recognise that ‘strong emphasis on supporting the process of implementing CfE’ of which you speak. In fact, perhaps the greatest obstacle to the implementation of CfE has been the inability of local authorities to provide clear leadership and adequate support for schools – a situation brought about largely, but not solely, by chronic under-funding – as they have struggled to adapt to the changing world around them. In such circumstances, and fearing that school inspections may reflect badly on them, local authorities often adopt an ‘accountability’ mind-set and impose another layer of inspection on schools. This encourages a fear of failure which stifles innovation and creativity. The solution to this is to end the process of national school inspections and replace it with a form of local democracy, which makes schools more accountable to the communities they serve, but I guess since you represent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (even though you aren’t called that any more), you are not going to argue for your own demise any time soon!

BM: Looking forward, as we move into a new phase of embedding Curriculum for Excellence, I see that balance shifting. That will mean we move to a stronger emphasis on evaluating what is working best as schools individually, and together in networks, devise new ways of delivering the best possible learning experiences for their pupils. We will increase inspections to help gather and spread that evidence more effectively. We will also accelerate our work on new approaches to promoting improvement in key areas, particularly the Scottish Attainment Challenge as it leads a nationwide effort to close the Attainment gap.

The next few years will be crucial in ensuring our young people reap the full harvest from the seeds of change that have been planted and nurtured thus far. The OECD praised Scotland for its foresight and patience in taking an ambitious education reform programme to the stage it has reached so far. We now need to follow through and tackle the next phase of improving Scotland’s schools with renewed focus and vigour.

TLA: Here we get to the heart of the matter. ‘What we need to improve Scottish education is more school inspections’, said no-one ever, yet that is the one clear promise in your whole blogpost, and, ironically, what you describe as the shifting of the balance from ‘supporting’ to ‘evaluating’ is one that we can all see happening, just as you do. The difference is that very few people in the educational community will see this as a good thing. And interestingly, while your post emphasises words like ‘research’, ‘evidence’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘vigour’, it makes no mention of teachers, and specifically does not mention increasing support for them in their professional development, which is an absolute pre-condition for improvement in any education system. 

There are many good things happening in our schools at the moment, but I suspect most of them are happening despite the system, rather than because of it. An Education Scotland whose role was to support teachers in every way possible, rather than trying to measure everything they do, would be a welcome step on the road to irrigating those seeds that you mention, without flooding the landscape in the process.