Hey Gove, leave those teachers alone

Michael Gove

On the surface, Michael Gove’s desire to steer teachers away from Of Mice and Men seems reasonable. It’s not because he doesn’t like the book, and he hasn’t banned it, he just wants to encourage breadth of study and exposure to a wider range of texts. This general statement of intent sounds good.

The manner in which this vision is being rolled out, however, is ill-conceived and misguided. In his efforts to achieve this breadth, Gove has ironically laid down very tight guidelines about the texts teachers are required to cover. And once the required texts have been covered there will be very little time to teach anything else, so Gove’s reforms will determine most of the literature pupils will study at GCSE.

This kind of prescription never wins any friends within the profession, because not only is it potentially detrimental to pupils' education, it also looks like you don’t trust teachers to do what they have trained to do (as well as flooding the nation’s classrooms with your value judgements about literature).

One size doesn’t fit all

If you present pupils with literature they aren’t interested in, they’re unlikely to achieve in the subject, never mind form a lifelong reading habit.

One of Gove’s requirements is that, amongst other things, teachers cover a selection of poetry since 1789, including Romantic poetry. It would be an understatement to say that this is unlikely to work with disengaged learners, and actually presents a danger. Many pupils in my ‘lower ability’ classes probably could have been higher achievers in English, but they had switched off from reading because the texts they had been exposed to weren’t the right ones for them. If you continue to present them with literature they aren’t interested in, they’re unlikely to achieve in the subject, never mind form a lifelong reading habit.

At National 4 in Scotland, there is a wide definition of ‘text’ and there is freedom to choose the best text for the learner: it’s one part of the new qualifications which is genuinely innovative, and allows teachers the kind of freedom they need.

Classic literature doesn’t always make for meaningful learning

Would it be any less challenging for a class to wrestle with Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus than it would be for them to approach Sunset Song?

Gove has stipulated that at least one Shakespeare play must be studied. Let me be honest: for the amount of time it took me to familiarise my classes with Shakespearean dialogue before actually discussing what the characters do in the plays, I would much rather have given them a more rewarding and immersive experience with a play like Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, where the dilemmas and themes aren’t obscured by lofty prose and archaic language. I'm not saying that we shouldn't teach Shakespeare, just that it isn't necessarily for everybody.

Theoretically, would it be any less challenging for a class to wrestle with Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus than it would be for them to approach Sunset Song? I can’t see that there’s any disparity between the two texts’ maturity or the gravity of the issues they deal with.

Passion has value

There is nothing more likely to switch on your pupils to reading than letting them see your enthusiasm for what you are teaching. I'm not really fussed about 19th century literature and it would be impossible for me to sell a 19th century novel to pupils as well as I could enthuse them about a novel I was genuinely passionate about. 

Recently I spoke to a teacher who was determined to devote one National 5 period a fortnight to simply read his pupils a book aloud, a book which had nothing to do with the course. He simply wanted his pupils to continue to enjoy reading so that they might form a lifelong reading habit. This gives me faith that whatever the parameters of an English course might be, teachers maintain a passion to do right by their pupils. 

The only stipulation an English teacher should work to is that they pick a text which will engage and challenge their pupils. And if a teacher feels that Of Mice and Men is the right book for their class, then they should be entitled to make that choice.

 

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