Literature: What Is It, and Why Do We Study It?

Screenshot 2017-10-20 at 18.15.54This is a slightly edited version of a talk I gave to all Inspiration Trust primary staff on 20th October 2017.

This morning, I want to examine what we mean by literature as a subject. How is literature different from other kinds of reading? How does it connect to literacy? And what exactly is the substantive knowledge within the academic subject called literature? By substantive knowledge, I mean factual, or know-that knowledge, as opposed to disciplinary, or know-how knowledge, such as the knowledge of how to write an essay on literature. The two are always intertwined, of course.

Let’s start with out overall vision. We need to ask ourselves, where do we want to be in five years’ time? We want to have pupils who love literature. What do we mean by that? We mean that they are interested in the types of stories that they find in great novels and plays. They want to read them, because through them they enter into other worlds which have great significance for them.

We all love stories. We tell stories and we listen to stories all the time. We tell stories about each other and we listen to them. Films and television are full of stories. We don’t have to persuade our pupils to be interested in stories. They naturally are. But we do need to build their curiosity about the kinds of stories they find in great literature.
How are we going to build this curiosity? How are we going to reach the situation where our pupils have a hunger for reading more high quality fiction? Where they want to read all seven Narnia books, not just one? How are we going to convince them that the plays of Shakespeare are full of rich meaning for them?

Firstly, we need to understand what curiosity is. It is not immanent – it is not something that you just have inside you, to a greater or lesser degree. It is emergent – it grows and develops, depending upon how it is nurtured. People in general, including children, are curious about things with which they have some familiarity. For a young child, this is quite a limited range of things. They are curious about the world that is immediately surrounding them, so curious, in fact, that it can be dangerous, as any mother of a toddler will tell you.

It is our job as teachers to develop and nurture the curiosity of children by giving them more things to be curious about. We do this by introducing them to areas of knowledge with which they were previously unfamiliar. You can’t be curious about something if you know nothing about it.

This is why reading aloud to young children is so important. When we read them classic tales, their minds are opened upon many different and fascinating worlds. But when they hear stories that are based only around what they already know, they remain in that limited sphere.

During the twentieth century, there was a move away from using folk tales and fairy tales in the education of children, towards using stories that reflected their own lives – stories of lost teddies, or of starting school, or of coping with the birth of a younger sibling. It was argued that fairy tales were not worth sharing with children, because they were so far removed from their everyday experience. What children needed was something that was immediately relevant to them.

By removing the fantastical and strange from children’s fiction, we remove precisely what is needed to introduce them to classic literature. If they only hear about lost teddies when they are four, they will only want to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid when they are ten.

This is why our core primary books are based around classics and folk tales. We want to build, from the earliest possible stage, the appetite for what is different and unfamiliar – for other worlds. These other worlds help us to understand our own world, because they give us different points of reference. When we are locked into our immediate surroundings and our present reality, we have no points of comparison.

The desire for escape into other realities will be fed in other ways, if we do not feed it through introducing children to classic literature. It will be fed through films, television and computer games. We all have a thirst for escape into different worlds, just as we all have curiosity. The question in both cases is not whether the appetite exists, but on what does it feed? Just as a child who is not fed wholesome food will be more likely to fill up on crisps and sweets, a child who is not fed classic tales will be more likely to fill up on the escapist fantasies of Disney films and video games.

We have to offer children these alternative realities. We have to be convinced that the alternative realities of fairy tales and classic children’s fiction are more nourishing to their imagination than the latest Disney film or the latest thrilling video game. They are more nourishing because they ‘hold a mirror up to nature’: they help us to reflect on our own lives with renewed wisdom. We do not leave reality behind entirely. This is the difference between imagination and fantasy. In the world of imagination, we build stronger relationships with reality by thinking about it through new symbols that reflect it more luminously. In the world of fantasy, we become the centre of our own private universe, and our connection with reality is weakened. This is preeminently the case in video games, which do quite literally make the player the centre of an alternative universe.

When C S Lewis wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the middle of the twentieth century, his publisher was worried at first that it would tarnish his reputation. It was Lewis’ first attempt at writing children’s fiction. He already had a strong reputation as an author for adults. His publisher fretted that such a book would not be popular even with its intended audience, as the fashion was against tales of talking beasts and evil witches, and in favour of greater so-called ‘relevance’.

But as we know, Lewis’ novel was a runaway success, and it remains one of the most popular children’s classics of all time. It is a classic because it is rooted in Lewis’ deep knowledge of myth and folklore. Lewis was a professor of literature, and this expertise was not a dry set of ancient facts, but a living body of stories and symbols which he could deploy in creating his wonderful, magical tale. Lewis drew on the many alternative realities which he knew intimately, in Greek, Celtic and Icelandic mythology, as well as biblical sources, and created something which ran completely counter to the prevailing ideas about children’s fiction. He and his friends J R R Tolkien and Roger Lancelyn Green knew that these timeless stories had not lost their power to tell us something about our own lives. Human nature had not changed, and humans could still respond to the stories told by their ancestors down the centuries.

We need to keep this belief alive as we initiate the young into the world of classic literature. We are introducing them to tales which have a timeless value. Precisely because they are not set in our current reality, but somewhere else, they afford us comparisons and contrasts that help us to understand our lives in a richer way. Just as we cannot understand the present without knowing the past, we cannot understand this reality unless we have access to other realities. The strangeness of fairy tales and of classic literature is precisely its strength.

But how can we most effectively initiate the young into these alternative realities that are so rich in meaning? Firstly, by reading aloud from a carefully selected range of classics. Hearing classic tales from a young age will shape the taste of our pupils. If from a young age our pupils are hearing about dragons and giants, about heroic quests, they will experience vividly the possibilities that classic literature affords. There is real danger and real excitement in fairy tales that is entirely absent from the sanitised, mundane world of books which only reflect what is already familiar.

Building on this familiarity with the world of classic tales, we have selected books which will develop further the taste for alternative realities that are rich in meaning. We need to make the books themselves the centre of what we are doing. The content of the literature needs to be at the heart of our teaching. We want them to know these stories intimately. The more they know about classic literature, the more likely they are to want to read it independently, because curiosity is always based upon what is already known.

This is the key: we need to keep the content of the literature central to what we do. This is not in conflict with achieving better SATs results. When we make the substantive literary knowledge central, we are building the knowledge and vocabulary of our pupils in a highly coherent and therefore highly effective way. It is better knowledge and vocabulary which lead to better reading and better writing, which will mean better SATs results, and more importantly, better educated children, well prepared to go on to more demanding literary content in their future academic careers.

So what is literary knowledge? It is the knowledge of plots, characters and themes in literature, and the knowledge of the language used to communicate these plots, characters and themes. Integrated into knowledge of plot, character and theme is the contextual knowledge which is essential to understanding them properly. But we must not let context swamp text. Our literature lessons should not become history lessons. The work of literature must hold centre stage.

Plot, character and theme sound rather technical, but we could express them as stories, people and ideas. And who isn’t interested in stories, people and ideas?

First must come plot. If our pupils do not grasp the whole sweep of the plot of a work of literature, they are wandering in a mapless wilderness. It is the plot which makes a path through the work of literature. This is how we find our way through it. This is what keeps us turning the page: we want to find out what happens next. We need to ensure that whatever methods we use, we do not lose sight of the plot, because if we do, whatever we teach will lack the satisfying coherence that the plot provides. If we choose to use extracts, we need to make sure that all pupils know at least a summary of what happened between those extracts.

What do we actually enjoy about reading? We enjoy discovering what happens next. If we use extracts that are not rooted in this overall sense of the plot, we are turning the work of literature into a mere tool for practising reading. Our pupils will never become curious about literature through lessons like this. They will see it as a tedious, dry exercise in test preparation. We will have inoculated them against literature, not initiated them into it.

We, as teachers, need to know the plot of the literature we teach inside out and back to front. It’s no good just being a chapter or two ahead of the class. We need to memorise the plot, so that whenever we deal with specific incidents within the text, we can place them effortlessly, and communicate that coherence to our pupils.

Next must come characters. We are all interested in people. That’s why we gossip. The characters of the literary works we teach should become so familiar to our pupils that they gossip about them, or wonder what they would do in this situation. C S Lewis actually brings Aslan into the dreary world of the awful school attended by Eustace and Polly in The Silver Chair, the sixth Narnia book. We want our pupils to imagine Aslan on the playground too, because they know him so well.

We, as teachers, need to know the characters intimately, just as we need to know the plot inside out. These characters need to be familiar friends for us, so that we can confidently introduce our pupils to them. Once you have really got to know someone, you never forget them. Could you ever forget your best friend from school days? These characters need to become our best friends, and our pupils’ best friends, so that they will never forget them.

Then there are the great themes of literature. We shouldn’t shy away from the big questions asked by literature, because it is this which raises it above the puerile, sanitised content of the latest Disney animation. Literature leads us to examine the meaning and purpose of human existence. Frequently, it is a memento mori too – a reminder of our mortality. Instead of being threatened by such deep questions, we need to embrace them, so that our pupils come to see books not as mere escapism, or worse, as some kind of dry academic exercise, but as a source of truth. Yes, I used the ‘T’ word. And why not? Without it, literature is so boring.

A word about poetry. Plot, character and theme are the substantive content of literature, particularly of novels and plays. They apply to narrative poetry too, but with shorter poems, theme may be more present than plot or character. Nevertheless, we can tell a story around a poem to bring it to life for our pupils. There is always a story to tell, because there is always an author, and the story of the author’s life. There is also the story of literary movements: the drama of Romantics reacting against neoclassicism, for example.

Within the framework of this substantive knowledge about plot, character and theme, examples of the language used by authors of great literature become meaningful. There will be no danger of meaningless feature spotting if we make sure that every example of language use is anchored in specific knowledge about the meaning of the work of literature.

Plot, character and theme, or stories, people and ideas: this fascinating content must be at the centre of what we do when we teach literature, and if we make sure that it is, we can be certain that our pupils are building a coherent body of knowledge that has a priceless intrinsic worth, as well as being invaluable for developing their ability to read with understanding, and write fluently, articulately and creatively.

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English Language: The Vampire Subject

2000px-Little-vampire.svgMichael Fordham has already written eloquently about how English, as a whole, is a Frankenstein subject, a monster composed of a myriad of vastly different parts artificially stitched together. Within that jumble of odd parts, there are real academic disciplines that can be separated out. The key academic discipline, for the purposes of general education, is the study of literature.

By studying literature, our pupils have their minds opened upon other worlds; they encounter the great narratives that have shaped human thought and culture down the centuries; they gain cultural capital that will enable them to take part in educated reading and conversation for the rest of their lives. Studying literature is a hugely enriching part of every child’s education, and no one should be denied this opportunity.

But there is another GCSE which everyone takes: English language. What knowledge, precisely, does this test? In fact, it does not test anything in particular. It involves being given a more less random selection of extracts and writing tasks, that are supposed to be a test of the pupils’ general ability to read and write.

This might seem like a reasonable idea. Surely we want to know something about whether pupils are able to read with understanding and write accurately? Well, yes, but here’s the problem: once you get beyond the basics of decoding (in reading), and spelling and grammar (in writing), there’s no such thing as general reading and writing ability. Your ability to read and write well about any topic depends upon specific knowledge and vocabulary about that topic. Whatever topic happens to come up in the English language exam will be more accessible to those who happen to have more knowledge about that topic. General tests of reading and writing are always, inherently, unfair, because they can never take this into account.

So English language is a non-subject. If we want to find out whether pupils can read with understanding and write accurately, there is no reason why this should not be done through the vehicle of all the actual subjects that have real, specific substance. If we care about accurate writing and intelligent reading, then we need to make sure the GCSEs in literature, history, geography and science test these things. They can test them much more fairly than the English language exam, because the test will be based upon a specific body of knowledge which pupils are supposed to have mastered. No one will randomly gain an advantage because the test is based on randomly selected knowledge.

The Key Stage 2 Reading SATs suffer from exactly the same problem. They test reading in a general way, instead of basing the test upon specific knowledge which pupils are supposed to have mastered. Therefore, they are inherently unjust.

As well as the inherent unfairness of general tests in reading and writing, their existence and importance creates serious curricular misunderstandings. When high stakes tests are based around general reading, schools tend to spend lots of time teaching general reading, with endless comprehension worksheets and test drill. This has been happening in America for many years, where a very high stakes annual test of reading has led to a hollowing out of the curriculum, with the abandonment of real academic subjects which contain real substantive knowledge in favour of tedious lessons in how to ‘find the main idea’ in random bits and bobs of text. E D Hirsch has pointed out that these reading tests, which he previously supported, have had such a deleterious effect on the curriculum, that they are what he calls ‘consequentially invalid’ (see Chapter One of Why Knowledge Matters).

So as well as being a non-subject, English language (or English language arts, as it is called in the USA) is a vampire subject: it sucks the life out of the curriculum, emptying it of specific content in favour of teaching generic comprehension skills that don’t even exist, because comprehension is always based upon specific knowledge, and generic writing skills that don’t exist, because good writing is also based upon specific knowledge of the topic about which you are writing.

It doesn’t seem likely that the curse of general reading and writing tests is likely to be lifted any time soon, so we have to make the best of this bad situation. For a start, we could scrap most of the curriculum time currently devoted to the non-subject of English language and spend that time teaching pupils a meaningful body of knowledge within proper academic disciplines. If we want them to read and write well, we need to stop doing generic lessons on reading and writing, and do more and more on the rich knowledge and vocabulary that will actually enable good reading and writing. We’ll need a little exam drill in the final run up to GCSEs, because of their fiddly nature, but really, there shouldn’t be much need for English language at all once the basics of decoding (in reading) and spelling and grammar (in writing) are in place. There are effective programmes already in existence to train pupils in those areas, such as Expressive Writing. Implementing those will mean that there should be very little need for any other specific English language lessons at all, so we will be free to teach pupils specific, interesting, coherent content instead.

(Image from Wikimedia).

The Problems with Grade Forecasting

Pig

You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.

‘We know what we are, but not what we may be’- Shakespeare, Hamlet

It has become a truism in education that good professionals are able to predict the grades of their pupils accurately. Like most truisms, this needs further examination.

If a running coach spends their time making trainees run race after race, and times each one, he will be able to predict their performance in the final competition very accurately. But does that mean he is a good running coach?

No. Good running coaches do not spend their time making trainees run race after race. They break down the complex skill of successfully running races into its component parts, and assign their trainees exercises to build up those component parts. Instead of wasting time having them run races so that they can measure their performance, they have trainees build stamina and speed through a carefully designed set of exercises. If they want to know how their trainees are progressing, they look at how they are improving in those exercises, because they know that improvement in those exercises will ultimately lead to a better final performance.

Likewise, good teachers do not waste time making pupils do the final performance so that they can measure their attainment in it. Instead, they break down that final performance into its component parts, and focus on improving pupils’ abilities in those. If it’s an essay on Macbeth that pupils need to write, the component parts consist of knowledge of the play’s plot, characters and themes, knowledge of the literary and dramatic techniques used by Shakespeare to communicate these, and knowledge of the historical background which informs the play, such as James I’s Daemonologie and the struggles for power in medieval Scotland.

Instead of wasting time making pupils write essay after essay on Macbeth, the effective teacher will build gradually towards that final performance with lots of low stakes testing on core knowledge. These tests will look very little like the final performance. They could be multiple choice questions on Jacobean beliefs about witchcraft, or oral quick-fire questioning on the staging of the banquet scene in Act Three, or tightly focused analytical paragraphs on the imagery of damnation in one of Macbeth’s soliloquies, or a myriad of other methods of formative assessment that both measure and embed the knowledge and skills required for the final performance.

None of these formative assessment tasks will generate data that is useful for forecasting grades. But all of them will be integrated into a programme of teaching which leads to an excellent formal performance. Thanks to the benefits of retrieval practice, every little test will make the knowledge that much more secure.

The teacher who uses these methods will be focused on actually teaching, not generating data. They will be focused on pupils, not spreadsheets. And they may well forecast final grades less accurately than another teacher who puts their pupils through endless repetitions of the final performance, in the mistaken belief that this is the best way of preparing for it.

The obsession with accurate grade forecasts is anti-educational. If managers think it allows them to target their interventions more accurately, they are wrong. The kind of assessment that makes forecasts more accurate is not the kind of assessment that builds a precise picture of where knowledge gaps are, so that teaching can be more finely tuned. A whole essay is too complex to allow teachers to gauge exactly where they need to reteach key knowledge.

So let’s drop this obsession and focus instead on making the grades as good as they can possibly be. Otherwise we’re just generating self-fulfilling prophecies and preening ourselves on our professional skill, while in reality we are limiting the attainment of our pupils.