Saturday, 31 December 2011

How Genre Theory Saved the World

There's a Walter de la Mare poem that begins: "Slowly, silently, now the moon/Walks the night in her silver shoon...' ('shoon' = shoes). I've often thought it describes rather well how Genre Theory took over school literacy in the UK. 

Without ever having a public debate, without ever even announcing its arrival as a guiding principle, Genre Theory slipped between the pages of the Literacy Strategies and has stayed there ever since. This is not an academic analysis, so please excuse the lack of references, but this is how I see it:

In 1987, I was in Australia and Genre Theory was raging all around the teachers' conferences. Using the linguistics of M.A.K.Halliday, it identified genres of discourse (which means essentially, 'ways of using language') going on in school literacy practice and matched these against genres of discourse in society. It claimed that English teaching of the time was prioritising a kind of literacy work that repeatedly asked children and school students to repeat the same tasks and that these were preoccupied with getting children to write subjective stuff about what they felt or what had happened to them. This, they said, was a form of class oppression because it was depriving working class children of access to those forms of discourse used by people and institutions of power: the law, politics, public debate. Only by consciously and purposefully inserting these genres into English teaching could working class children (usually referred to in educational circles as 'deprived', 'disadvantaged', 'under-achieving' or occasionally 'poor') overcome the 'cycle of deprivation' and the like. 

So, it came with an excellent pedigree, M.A.K.Halliday, who is a grammarian with a fantastic record in turning the study of 'grammar' into something that treats language as if it is attached to real live human beings who are trying to  say and write things that mean something! Unlike most grammar which pretends as if you can treat language as a 'system' detached from meaning, intention and purpose, Halliday's grammar tries to intertwine meaning ('semantics')  with why and how grammar is the way it is. If you like that sort of thing, his 'Introduction to Functional Grammar' is a great read. It even has gags. 

I digress. So Genre Theory built on what Halliday has to say about purpose of language and of course the moment anyone starts on such a job you have to engage at some level or another with the politics of language. Clearly, people in different sectors of society, doing different jobs and indeed at different times in their lives use language in very different ways. Whether you disembody that language from its users and look at it as 'text' or whether you look at its use sociologically and psychologically ('sociolinguistics'/'psycholinguistics'), you will end up with a sense that the words, grammar and meanings going on are very different. 

The question that Genre Theory raised - quite legitimately - was if there is a 'language of power' is there differential access to it? Are some people being deprived of learning it? Was this the secret, invisible way in which class was being perpetuated through education - even by those least wanting to do so. Or, more sinisterly,  were 'progressives' ie those who were advocating 'child-centred' learning, 'personal' writing, the real villains of the piece? They, surely, were the ones who were keeping these 'disadvantaged' children away from the structures of extended prose, the prose of debate, argument, 'recount' (ie re-telling coherently what happened) and the like. 

You can see here that Genre Theory was now drawing on the ideas of people like Bourdieu and his 'habitus' theory and what he calls 'Reproduction in education' (ie how the education and home class morées and dispositions work hand in glove to secure domination for those who are already dominant), and indeed with some of the work of the 1970s around schooling, power and control coming from Michael Young and others. 

Needless to say, Genre Theory started to attract some interesting adherents from both left and right. Some leftists in education thought that they had found the silver bullet: this was clearly the way, they thought, that working class children were failing in schools and, now, teachers could really change things. Some on the right were delighted because it confirmed just what they thought:  that 'progressive' education had eaten away at a fine , purposeful system that really taught, wasn't ashamed to be didactic, and taught children how language is - no ifs, no buts, good, solid, rigorous grammar and language-the-way-it-should-be.

As it happens, (and I think this is a coincidence), Genre Theory was circulating around the teachers' conferences and journals just as in the UK, small cabals were ushered into the Department of Education to formulate 'Strategies' or even 'the Strategy' for what used to be called 'English in Education'. The result was that Genre Theory got mapped on to the 'matrix' of the National Literacy Strategy. It was a staggering coup. One single theory was used as the main prop and justification for how different ways of writing and speaking would take place in every primary (later, in secondary) schools. (I forget for the moment if this was at the time the whole UK or parts of it or how that eventually distributed itself. Either way, it called itself 'National'!)

Teachers, children and, in my case, observer and parent, were suddenly deep in genres - and, let's shorten the story a bit here - we still are. For over ten years now, children spend massive amounts of their 'literacy' time in schools being taught different ways of writing. This is done according to certain schemes which say that this or that way of writing has a name eg 'Recount' or 'Persuasive Writing' and the children learn what Halliday might have called its 'grammar'. The children then do 'recount' or 'persuasive writing' for eg two or three weeks and then move on. These are often called 'units'. 

So, presumably, the disadvantaged are disadvantaged? er...less underachieving? Genre Theory having now run in schools for well over ten years should really have saved the world. 

Well, not. 

But why not? It all added up. 

It didn't uplift the masses and re-possess the dispossessed because it failed to address two key issues:
1. How power works in classrooms and schools.
2. How written language is best acquired

1. Power
The fundamental way in which power works in education is invisibly. That's to say, all the structures within schools are transmitted to children as if they are self-evident. So, if you break 'knowledge' down into two broad categories - the knowledge that the curriculum presents and the knowledge which informed that schools and learning should be structured that way (ie with headteachers, classes, reward and punishment systems, 'lessons' or 'units' etc etc) are both presented to children as 'givens'. There isn't within education as experienced by a child some part of regular practice which discusses and debates this. 

What this means is that for most of every day, you as a pupil are in a 'discourse' in which you have virtually no power - no power to affect it, change it, or indeed, even to be aware that there is a discourse or that there are other ways of going on. 

Now, it can be debated who this affects and how. One argument says that the pupils most affected are those who come from homes whose parents  are similarly locked into discourses over which they have no power ie they have the least possible chance to question or even see how those discourses are working. To my mind, this is very much up for debate. Either way, if you insert into this system of invisible power, a system that is essentially top-down instruction, I think that all you do is reinforce the system of power and control and domination over the pupil. Knowledge is presented as a given, you the pupil either pass or fail to acquire it. You have no means to question it, play with it, 'get behind' it. You just do it. Or you don't do it. If you don't do it, you're crap. Again. The fact that it is supposed to 'liberate' you, is, to my mind irrelevant. It's too busy making you depressed and feel incapable.

2. Acquisition of written language.

Written language can be considered to be a kind of dialect - a way of using language that is clearly part of the mother tongue of those around you but in many ways different from the way people speak. The matter of acquiring it doesn't end (and probably doesn't begin) with simply learning how to decipher words that you can see.  You have to 'get' the way the words stick together (in Halliday's terms: the 'cohesion' of the 'wording'). 

The argument of education for centuries is that teachers have to teach it. They have to get children to do exercises in each and every part of this cohesion getting children to fill in blanks in sentences, answering questions about parts of speech and all the rest. Meanwhile, under our noses, children from homes where there are hundreds of books just seem to 'get' it without all that. How do they do that? How can just hanging about books seem to deliver a child who can write extended prose?

The most obvious way is through 'immersion'. Migratory labour shows that you don't need an education to learn a new language. You just have to go somewhere and engage in everyday tasks and pleasure in the new language. To a certain extent, the business of acquiring the written dialect is the same - or should be. Surround a child with books - (in school, in the classroom and in the home) give them fun things to do with books, the written language is acquired more easily, more fluently, more willingly, more meaningfully than in any other way. 

Combine 1 and 2

Genre theory practice works in the opposite way. It says (without saying it) that 'education' (as exemplified by the large, clever person in the room - the teacher) owns certain kinds of language use. You the pupil do not. The way to acquire these uses is to do exercises. These are in effect rehearsals. They aren't real language use because they don't actually 'do' anything. They mostly end up in 'exercise' books which are in effect 'rehearsal' books not 'real' books where they are covered in red marks which show that Education owns this writing not you the pupil. 

I think what has happened is that Genre Theory has almost perfectly matched the kind of education I had in the 1950s: repeated exercises of filling in gaps in sentences, writing short, prescribed passages according to this or that rule or to illustrate this or that way of writing. 

Aha, say some, when I say this. Precisely! And that's how you passed the 11-plus, went to Grammar School, got your O-levels, A-levels, BA,. MA and Ph.D. Precisely, they say. You were lucky enough to have got what was in effect Genre Theory 1950s-style.  

Er - no. I came from a home that elevated reading, argument and debate into a secular religion. Not a day went by when my parents didn't concern themselves with what I was reading, talking about reading, talking about talk, talking about what was coming out of the radio, talking about what they read out loud to each other or to us coming out of newspapers, Radio or TV listings mags - any bit of written text. They didn't stop telling stories about their lives, and relating those stories to the values that underlay them - as most people do, when they tell stories, actually!

Now, I hesitate to elevate my personal experience to the status of an educational programme but, and I will return to this - I will ask the question - what are the alternatives to Genre Theory education within schools and schooling? If home literacy is crucial, what does 'Education' do about it? And how?