The Problem with English Lessons

I’ve been reading a brief of UK Education Secretary Michael Gove’s planned changes to the GCSE system in England.  This doesn’t affect Scotland (which is introducing its own controversial changes to education) but it is still fascinating for me to read.  Some aspects I’ve always been opposed to, such as the emphasis on external examinations as a means of assessment.  I’ve always been in favour of coursework for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, I do not believe that one bad experience during the exam should invalidate a whole year of work; and secondly, it’s totally unrepresentative of the kind of work people will face in adulthood (when will someone ever have to write a detailed essay in 45 minutes with no reference material?).

But I’m digressing.  What shocked me was that, for the subjects I have a claim to – English and History – the proposals to the actual course sound almost decent.  In English, the BBC put emphasis on how pupils will have to read ‘whole books’ or ‘whole Shakespeare plays’, rather than the ‘chunks’ they can get away with now.  This would be a very good change.  No wonder pupils resent English and reading so much when they’re forced to learn plots, characters, arcs, themes etc. without having had the opportunity to enjoy the piece.  I still remember my absolute horror of my Higher English teacher skimming through Macbeth, murmuring “No, you don’t need this bit, um… A major character dies here but that’s not very important…”  Sure, pupils can opt to read the whole text themselves – as I did – but realistically, with the stresses of exams, not many books are going to be read that year.

Another problem with English lessons is the uniform way in which we are taught to do it.  Formulas are driven into us (STAR = Statement, Text, Analysis, Relate) which becomes the basic way in which we construct essays; creative writing is seemingly judged not on innovation but on the number of metaphors used and the ability to follow a standard narrative.  Then, once we reached Advanced Higher level, our teachers were surprised at how rigid our approaches initially were.  I think in my case this was a particular problem because our school made Higher English mandatory for all students, so teachers were faced* with classes of pupils who loathe the subject.  Which is why they understandably react with simplification and the abhorrent STAR system.

As for history, there will supposedly be a greater focus on essays for GCSE level, which I also think is a good thing.  Answering questions is alright as an introduction to the subject, but teaching pupils to construct reasoned, developed arguments as early as you can is not a bad thing in my opinion.  That said, it’s incredibly difficult to do just that during exam conditions and, although a good idea on its own, will most likely exacerbate the problem of focusing entirely on exams.  I’m also not too keen on a move away from ‘World History’; the Scotland-centric curriculum I’ve had to put up with, as much as I enjoyed them, became rather repetitive.

Make no mistake, I think Michael Gove is making a terrible Education Secretary – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard a news headline: “Teachers vote of no confidence in Gove” – and I’m extremely glad he has no power over education here in Scotland.  Yet, some elements of education do need reform.

*Using past tense still feels incredibly weird.

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