Ignite English in the classroom

The teaching of English at secondary school has a content problem: students think they speak it well enough on arrival and, nowadays, don’t bother reading it much because there is always a screen around. Writing by hand is a drag. If we teachers don’t beef up our offer then some demagogue is going to take us all giggling to hell. We need to rethink the substance: what is going to separate our students (65% of whom will work in jobs which don’t exist yet) from the robots currently gobbling up manual jobs and already snapping at office work? English must use its pre-eminence in the curriculum to take the lead in fostering human-centric, non-cognitive skills to suit the innovation-economy and instil a love of lifelong learning. This century will see workers reskilled and upskilled several times but they need pre-skilling at school not skewered with off-the-peg PowerPoints and dry assessments designed to satisfy data managers, senior managers and school inspectors. First, we teachers, who should be trying to spot their students’ spark, must retain our own against the deskilling effect of being told what to deliver in the classroom, teaching to the next assessment and recommending reductionist revision materials from Pearson and co, designed to strong-arm our students through to the ultimate goal, GCSE. In the face of such joyless pressures, most schools are unable to provide meaningful Continuing Professional Development for us teachers because that directed time is now monopolised by data-tracking of underperforming exam candidates, safeguarding updates and behaviour management systems. There is no time for reflective discussion of our subject-specific pedagogy which we can only get at teacher training college unless, as is now the norm, it is somehow to be absorbed on the job with some twilight tuition (more PowerPoints!). What are we English teachers educating children to become? Units of economic activity, filled with facts, ticked off with high-stakes summative testing or (here’s hoping) creative, resilient beings who can adapt to the massive change already rolling in? Just as the Silicon Valley bosses discourage their own children from early-life tech, just as Chinese yuppies are eschewing the arid Communist educational offer in favour of Steiner and Montessori, just as the Forest School movement offers an alternative to toxic childhood in the UK, so the mainstream needs to think outside the bog standard maintained sector box. Only then will we English teachers stop sending so many students off who see no further point in our subject, turned off forever and offered up to the snake-oil persuaders and the fake news merchants. Oracy is vital in this cause but it cannot be inspired by technology. Flat screens make flat lessons. Discussion, debate and effective presentation have to be taught, much more creatively, in English classrooms where students must consciously develop their talk – and their listening – especially post-COVID which has spawned such anxiety and diffidence. We need to facilitate oracy, not with our own talk from the front but by creatively pushing students to speak and listen to each other. Phil Beadle, the super-teacher who sees literacy as ‘the road to human progress’, declares oracy to be ‘the most fundamental and important skill’ while former English teacher Geoff Barton, now representing 20,000 school leaders, describes the ‘intangible richness of the way speaking and listening underpins and enables learning in the classrooms of great teachers. It’s not something we see often enough.’ Because, in our schools, we all know oracy remains stifled and undervalued by both students and staff. Of course there is class discussion but we are encouraged to manage it through questioning which only engages the hands-up minority (probably those same students who did the worksheets spewed out in the first lockdown) and allows others to rest up, attracting no attention (or learning) towards themselves, just like the overwhelming number of online lurkers in this last lockdown. Even if we are allowed to engender aerosolic discussion again, it may still be no more than gossipy larking because even the most obliging students do not truly care about this stuff: in the end, they know speaking and listening will bring them no marks at GCSE although they still have to submit some oracy evidence – the ultimate lip service. Interpersonal skills which will sharpen the remaining human edge (presenting, collaborating, reasoning, critically thinking, persuading, negotiating, and empathising), these need to be what we ignite. Curiosity about communication styles and the words they employ can be set alight with explicit teaching of vocabulary (especially to reluctant readers) and playfulness with language can be planted with everything from etymology to palindromes, through anagrams, jargon-busting and cliché-spotting all the way to Victorian word-games and that ear-ringed playwright. If our wordy students can be led to enjoy manipulating language, they are much less likely to be manipulated. And in their own writing our students must be given the chance for an audience beyond exercise books which are insufficiently reflected upon before being thrown away. Here technology can provide personalised support according to need, building writing skills and technical accuracy. But then they must be allowed to flex their words (preferably in much longer form without unwriterly time constraints) and see their impact far and wide through creative publishing and social media. As readers they must be guided through the brilliant YA fiction now available – and yet not often advertised in schools effectively. In addition to the classic diet, they need to be tipped much more into this contemporary literature and poetry which reflects their experience to build empathy, diversity and cultural awareness. Students who say they don’t read must be found the right book by skilful and well-informed librarians who are valued as central to the school. English classrooms and the spaces around them have to become creative cauldrons bubbling with a very different teaching magic. We must reward our students with a reformed approach towards a progressive GCSE so students are ready for and excited about going on with their more effectively communicated lives.




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