English teaching not perfect, but it works
New Zealand's education system is not perfect, but it is quite robust as well as flexible and this is the combination our students need, argues Dr Gillian Hubbard.
Professor Elizabeth Rata has argued that we need “experts” to determine text choices for New Zealand English classes. She has created an impression that English teachers are ideologues who choose texts without judgments based in the discipline just because students prefer them and so the delivery of English in NZ lacks quality, doesn’t serve the fabric of the nation and is inadequate.
I would like to counter this impression.
Professor Rata is right to raise the issue of the justice of delivery of the curriculum, and here I suspect her argument comes from the school of thinking that some students are denied access to powerful disciplinary knowledge. My own research suggests that the formula Professor Rata seeks for the selection of text through, in what I think is a marvellous phrase, “an unstable consensus of experts” reflects what happens now. Except that the experts now are the teachers who know the students and so are able to be flexible to respond to identified need. This gives our curriculum a great strength that is the envy of English teachers in other countries.
When our students get to secondary school, they are taught by secondary school English teachers who are all English graduates who have been educated in the discipline.
The examinations and internal assessments are all moderated nationally and students just can’t get good grades in NCEA if they write and talk about lightweight and unsophisticated texts or can’t present increasingly sophisticated disciplinary arguments as they move up towards Year 13. But they can write about a wide variety of types of texts and can do so in creative and innovative ways.
I have conducted three pieces of research into text choice and would like to refer to a study conducted at the end of 2011.
I interviewed 17 experienced English teachers, all heads of departments or acting in an equivalent role. I went to a wide variety of schools from the top of the North Island to the lower part of the South Island. There were some clear differences in things happening in different types of school as teachers responded to local interests.
For example, in a Northland school Year 13 students had had sophisticated debates about the way Māori were portrayed in Jane Campion’s film The Piano, using the director’s commentary as a springboard. In a rural South Island school sometimes reluctant Year 11 readers had responded well to a NZ novel about the consequences of drink driving because they were at the age when they were trying to get their driving licences and it was relevant to them. It got them hooked on reading and enabled the teacher to teach the transferable disciplinary concepts of structure, characterisation, theme, symbolism and language use.
Three clear themes emerged from my study.
The first is that the NZ English teachers in the study were deeply committed to finding texts that hook in reluctant readers. So, invariably, when I asked which text choices had been most successful in the year, the teachers responded first with the texts that had captured the interest and attention of the students with the highest needs for literacy development. They reported students coming to school having stayed up for the first time in their lives to read a book, or who, if they were reading aloud to a group in the library, would call out from the other side of the room, “Keep reading, Miss”.
It would be a mistake, I think, to imagine there is any clear consensus about the nature of academic English... [I]t is important that secondary school English doesn’t get stuck in any one fashionable or ideological position about the nature of English.
English teachers know that these are great victories because the path to powerful disciplinary knowledge in English involves lots of reading. Teachers’ choices here were not guided by ideological political or social views. Such views, and I know the theoretical positions to which Professor Rata is obliquely referring, were just not articulated to me. They were based in pragmatic and professional judgments centred in their knowledge of their group of students. So teachers were responsive to student preference to some extent but for strategic reasons. It would be incredibly hard for any outside experts to replicate this level of flexible response to need.
The second theme surprised me in its unequivocal nature and mostly emerged from a question about advice to give to beginning teachers. This response was that you have to love the texts you teach.
It is here I think that we see how firmly grounded NZ English teachers are in the academic discipline of English. Because the teachers saw their role as having to “sell” their text choice to their students through their own passion and enthusiasm. And this implied that they expected some resistance from students to content that might be unfamiliar or hard in some ways, so they were required to get their students over a hump of understanding. They were thrilled when students reported texts that they might not have initially liked had become their favourite or, the ultimate compliment, that they preferred the novel to the film. Here what comes into play is the teachers’ skill both in choosing text and their skill in delivering disciplinary knowledge. This pedagogical part of conveying disciplinary knowledge is not acknowledged by Professor Rata.
Teachers are also strategic about text choice that enables students to be successful in assessments and this was the third emerging theme. This makes them in some ways more cautious about being innovative because they are so conscious of how high the stakes are for students. So they fall back on text choices that have been successful for students in the past, ones that have been tested against the rigour of the examiners’ reports. But they are delighted when their professional judgment about new texts that will enable students to display their disciplinary knowledge is borne out by externally moderated results.
The study gave me some insight into how an informal canon of texts is developed by the English teaching community.
Examiners and teachers share their knowledge of texts that have worked well in assessments, have led to high engagement or interest in class and so a resulting high quality of work, and/or texts that have grabbed the attention of reluctant readers. Teachers stick with the texts that have worked well and this includes Shakespeare and “classics” that might be found on international lists as well as an informal canon of NZ “classics”.
But, and this is the strength of our system, teachers are also able to be responsive to newly identified classics, ones that emerge through book or film awards, good reviews, public readings, the professionally based recommendations of school librarians, and the preferences of students with advanced reading skills. So the informal canon has absorbed, for example, the poetry of our poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh, Karlo Mila and Glenn Colquhoun, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the German language film on the Stasi The Lives of Others.
It is possible that Professor Rata’s “unstable consensus of experts” might ultimately come up with interesting, relevant and academically appropriate texts. But why not trust the experts who are working with the students to do this in the efficient and highly responsive ways they are already?
Finally, I would like to comment as someone who retains a foot in academic disciplinary English. It would be a mistake, I think, to imagine there is any clear consensus about the nature of academic English. I watch the field shifting in my own other area of research, 16th-century English literature. So it is important that secondary school English doesn’t get stuck in any one fashionable or ideological position about the nature of English.
The current system is not perfect, of course. But it is actually quite robust as well as flexible and this is the combination our students need.
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