Professional Autonomy versus Curricular Coherence

Geoffrey_Chaucer_(17th_century)As with so many areas of education, one of the main arguments used by progressives with regard to teaching serious literature is . . . that there isn’t an argument. Apparently I am making a straw man when I claim that most teachers and schools avoid serious literature in favour of ‘relevant’ fluff.

I wouldn’t deny that there are many English teachers who love teaching Shakespeare, and primary school teachers who include great folk tales and legends in their teaching, but how many schools are there who have a coherent, chronological approach to literature which will build foundational knowledge in all pupils through the years? I’ve only come across two: my own (because I’m head of department, and I’m building the curriculum) and Michaela. The other five schools I’ve worked in over the last thirteen years have all had a disparate and disorganised approach to teaching literature, in which the cupboards are full of books of highly variable quality, and individual teachers pick and choose as they see fit. Many teachers hardly use the books at all, preferring lots of worksheets on their pet topics, which often have more of a whiff of media studies than literature about them.

A quick browse through school websites reveals the usual suspects: teen page turners such as Noughts and Crosses, studies of ‘spoken language’ including such eminent figures as Dizzie Rascal, and very little of anything earlier than the twentieth century other than Shakespeare. There is also a complete lack of any attempt to build up an understanding of literature chronologically. Units wander about between texts and eras, with no overall plan to build coherent knowledge.

Most English teachers associate ‘professional autonomy’ with being left alone to make up a curriculum as they see fit. Some consistency arrives at GCSE level, with the exam board syllabus, but by that time, a decade has been largely wasted doing bits of this and that. Even at GCSE, the diet has been very thin for many years. There is a bit of improvement now, but three texts and a few poems? Is that an education in literature?

During those ten years of meandering, the pupils could have built up a fantastic level of knowledge, a schema into which they could place any new information which comes their way. For example, at my school, because the pupils study Chaucer in year eight, they are well placed, by the time they reach year nine, to critique the idea that the Romantics were doing something novel when they introduced ordinary people and events into poetry. The Canterbury Tales is stuffed full of ordinary people and events! And because they have studied the bitterness of unrequited love in Wyatt’s ‘My Lute, Awake’, they know that intense emotional experience is not new to the Romantics either. Immersion in history is a wonderful antidote to the empty claims of the revolutionaries.

It’s possible to achieve curricular coherence within a department when all the staff accept that it is their duty to pass on to pupils their cultural inheritance. All must be convinced of the priceless value of traditional knowledge, and determined to deliver a curriculum which gives all pupils the opportunity to acquire this intellectual treasure from an early age. This is a very far cry from selecting Shakespeare from the supermarket shelf as one of many options for the ‘autonomous professional’.

I would love to be proved wrong. If there are lots of other English departments around the country building a core knowledge curriculum, please get in touch! I’d love to share ideas with you.

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11 thoughts on “Professional Autonomy versus Curricular Coherence

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    This is an important issue. Does professional autonomy mean coherent curriculum teaching?
    Read this post from The Traditional Teacher blog.

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  2. Is there a rational argument for teaching Chaucer or is this belief an act of faith, similar to religious faith.

    I would happily agree with what you say if it made sense on any level, but to me it does not. We live in a multi cultural society in which the vast majority of the population are educated. I use Chaucer as an example as you have done this.

    I wonder to what extent your view is due to the fact that you teach English and therefore like to see your subject as fundamental to life itself. If Chacer and others were seen as less important then I am sure your self esteem would suffer as would the importance of your values and beliefs.

    As an “outsider” it looks to me as though your approach is ethnocentric which is good for perpetuating homeostasis but not so good for progress (evoluation rather than revolution). You seem to fear progress and are happy to push your curriculum onto young people to simply perpetuate the culture that you hold onto as precious.

    Is it the ethnocentric perpetuation aspect that attracts you to this appoach or is there some other rational argument?

    I am intrigued and would like to see some sort of evidence for the efficacy of the “teaching old literature” approach. I have a feeling it is the perpetuation of the exisitng to fight off progress that you are looking for, but I would love to be proved wrong.

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    • There isn’t time to teach every literary tradition. We need to teach the English literary tradition so that young people actually gain a good grasp of it. If we intend to do this, including Chaucer is uncontroversial.

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  3. I would submit that literacy rates are falling, and have been for some time. Perhaps this has something to do with the “literature” that’s being studied. I would love to be able to do this. It’s so valuable when I can refer to the text a class read last year and help them make connections to one we’re reading now. Unfortunately, teacher “autonomy” is too important. So I have one in my dept who does John Green books and another who loves “book clubs,” where students pick whatever they want to study. By the time I get them in grade 12, I have a mountain to climb to get them to the exam. But hey, I guess that’s my choice.

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  4. Hi,
    I’m so glad that I found your blog… via twitter. I’m a primary school teacher and have been working on precisely the ideas you discuss… that the literature curriculum should be correctly sequenced from nursery – year 6 rather that chosen at the whim of the teacher (or the easy of accessing worksheets from twinkl or rising stars etc). I would love to send you my curriculum outline (no-jargon-just-easy-reading because-it’s-all-just-common-sense-plain-English-traditional-content-information) so that you could compare it to what you would want for boys entering at 11 and what you’ve thought would work for your children at school. Can I do this?

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  5. I’m completely with you on curricular coherence. And we must place great books above worksheets. But must we teach literature chronologically? Could we not group texts thematically for a rewarding study? This method would not preclude us from connecting texts to their place in history.

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    • Calls for diversity lead to curricular incoherence, which deprives children of firm knowledge foundations from which they will be able to appreciate diverse cultures. Confusion and ignorance do not promote tolerance and understanding.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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