I don’t want to change the world, I’m just looking for the heart of English

January 26, 2013 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

They have given us into the hand of new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger or honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.

Just because the RSA circumnavigates party politics doesn’t mean we can’t get political. And just because I misquote Billy Bragg doesn’t mean I can’t quote the over-quoted GK Chesterton.

Earlier this week, led by the chair of RSA Academies Sue Horner, and supported by the Royal Shakespeare Company, we hosted the launch of Meeting High Expectations, a collection of papers from a the creative, wise people who are leading Looking for the Heart of English, ‘a national discussion for everyone who cares about English and how it should be taught in the 21st century.’ A full Great Room heard anger, inspiration, pragmatism and poetry – Watch the event, read the twitter conversation, and take the time to reflect on the contributions.

The collection’s first contribution provides an elegant statement of principles for all of us to debate, question, and take forward in a number of shape-shifting ways. Although it deserves a full read, its summary critique is that the current (draft) Primary English Curriculum requires:

-       imitation not imagination

-       conformity not creativity

-       looking within a book not seeing it as a window on the world

-       correctedness not communication

-       the application of skills, not interpretation and evaluation

-       pupils to learn a script, not find their voices

The Heart of English collective has begun an interesting movement for change, one that the RSA aims to play a role in and hopes that our Fellows also contribute to. Although its next move will partly be informed by the impending final version of the national curriculum, the feeling in the room was that this shouldn’t become the dominant issue. Rather than gear up for a probably unsuccessful lobbying effort to change the national curriculum, the heart-lookers seemed up for creating new frameworks to enable schools to see the national curriculum as the good politicians had intended – a minimum entitlement from which many more exciting approaches can emerge. Teacher Jenny Lubuska showed how Hayes School in Kent had already used the ideas in Heart of English to start a conversation with teachers and develop new approaches to teaching and learning English across the whole school. With limited resources, we might need to lose the national curriculum battle to win the whole curriculum war. Any development of complementary new approaches to assessment and qualifications in English could also become key tools to turn imaginative ideas into rigorous classroom practice.

In some ways, this feels like a polite, educationalist version of the Occupy movement. I am not sure where OccupyEnglish will go next – that’s up to those who step up to lead the next steps. But, in l’esprit de l’escalier, here are three ideas that only came to me three days after the event.

  • In fifty years time, people will laugh at our snobbish attitude to learning about non text-based English. Given its surround sound in our lives, media literacy deserves to be at the heart of any English curriculum, is probably safer and better integrated there than as a discrete school subject called ‘media studies’, and is better defined locally than nationally.
  • If you want to find the heart of any school, check out their approach to English. This will tell you more about ethos and values than any prospectus, school improvement plan or mission statement.
  • Any subject’s curriculum development should involve those who failed at or struggle with the subject. My guess is that all current contributors to The Heart of English are book devourers, notebook fillers, frustrated or fulfilled poets. Let’s find some reluctant readers and recalcitrant writers to join the crew.

As it’s a Saturday, here’s my favourite ‘looking for the heart’ from a man who definitely found a voice.

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