Saturday 30 June 2018

3 booklets for teachers and students on how to have fun with literature.

I have written 3 booklets on response, analysis and practical ways to introduce texts as a means to support our MA students (mostly teachers) at Goldsmiths, in their work in schools, and in response to their analyses of transcripts of students' response to books, poems, plays, and stories.

The conventional means of analysing texts lags at least 40 years behind the insights of intertextuality, narratology, structuralism, reception theory and even Hollywood pragmatism (!). A lot of this sounds obscure and difficult and is often only available on literary theory courses for BA or MA courses. I thought that I would  apply these for use in schools in my 3 booklets, available through my website. Much of it can be used for any age of pupil right the way through from the youngest to the sixth form. I've done this because I think these ideas are important, useful, insightful and - when applied in age-appropriate ways, they are fun ways to read, or analyse literature (if that's what you're doing) and, likewise, fun ways to play with stories and poems as part of writing them. There isn't really as much of a distinction between reading and writing as the school curriculum often imposes.

In 'Poetry and Stories in Primary and Lower Secondary Schools' I break down the process of 'response' (ie how we think, what we say, what we write, when we read something),  so that you have a checklist of ways to enable children and students to 'get into' and analyse a text in fun but profound ways.

In 'Writing for Pleasure' I show how you can look at the 'syntax' of a story and create new stories by changing the 'syntax' - sounds complicated but it's dead easy! -  likewise changing the 'paradigms' that's  the 'elements' of a story. I give the example of changing 'The Tempest' into a modern story or film. Again, dead easy.

In 'Why Write? Why Read?' I've broken down key ideas developed by people like Roland Barthes, Wolfgang Iser, Julie Kristeva and GĂ©rald Genette into easy-to-use themes and questions about texts and applied them as an example to 'Christmas Carol'. 

All three booklets are available through my website. The first one is available through Bookmarks Bookshop. All three are available from Newham Bookshop, and Roving Books.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Exams are designed to confirm the capabilities of those who devise them.

I believe that exam systems are designed to reinforce and confirm the capabilities or self-perceived capabilities of those who devise them. They then make this equal ‘education’.

That's to say:  their content, their ways of asking questions, the way they are marked, the kind of preparation needed to do well in them, the amount of preparation needed to do well in them, their ways of being marked, the immediate outcomes of having succeeded or failed at them, the ways in which certain exam subjects are prioritised over others, the way certain subjects, kinds of knowledge, fields of knowledge are not included in the exam system - all this, and probably more, are designed and put into practice in order to confirm, affirm and reinforce the actual capabilities or the self-perceived capabilities of those who design the exams, set them, mark them, big them up as being necessary, good, essential.

This exam system is ultimately what is the 'knowledge' that schools are asked to transmit to pupils. This has become more and more the case as the preparation required for the exams has increased and squeezed out those school activities which are not examined. The testing and exam system not only contains the knowledge required, it shapes that knowledge, it shapes how it is acquired, how it is taught, what activities go on in relation to that knowledge so that it is transmitted, how all this creates a particular kind of behaviour in relation to teaching, learning and knowledge. In fact, there is a good argument for saying that there comes a point at which it is hard for any learner or teacher to fully distinguish between what is learned and how it is learned. As a consequence of the way I was taught 'mental arithmetic' in 1955-1957, I find it almost impossible to separate out the speed with which I am 'supposed to' perform an act of arithmetic from the sum itself. If you ask me what is 9 times 8, I am immediately in a state of rush. 9 times 8 is not simply the content 72. It is the pattern of behaviour of trying to say back to  you (or myself) 72 as fast as I can. Incidentally, I have no other strategies of trying to work that out, other than to go to a calculator. Rationally, while I am writing this blog, I know that I could say to myself that 10 times 8 is 80, and so 9 times 8 is 8 less than that and as I'm 'fast' on base ten calculations and number bonds of 10, but this is not about rationality. The reinforced behaviour pattern of Miss Williams patrolling the class, bent at the knee, trying to find backsliders who haven't learned their times tables, pointing at the failing children (me), shouting the question at us, under threat of failing the 11-plus, is way, way more important in my mind than the rationality of using base ten to solve things. 

The people in charge of education - at the very top - are people with a very narrow 'formation'. They are all university educated, predominantly Oxbridge, many are privately or part-privately educated.  They work to assumptions based on the kind of knowledge that they rate as important. Inescapable from their outlook are such matters as their route to the top of the state power tree, what kinds of schools they put their own children through. They do hardly anything to widen this 'constituency' out in order to weigh up what other possibilities there are in terms of education systems, exam systems, or views of what constitutes knowledge. As they are 'successful', they make assumptions about what constitutes success, what is the best route to what they think of define as success. 

So, when we break the exam system down, we can see that it involves certain kinds of behaviour and a certain kind of stance towards exam-knowledge, and of course a certain kind of exam-knowledge. Because we have high-stakes, centrally organised, norm-referenced exams, there is an in-built lack of questioning of the system itself. The system is the system is the system. There is no way within the system to raise questions about the system itself. It just 'is' the best way, the only way. And yet every year, there are gaffes within the system but because the system is infallible, the only people who are allowed to be fallible are the students and teachers. 

Further, exams can only test what is examinable, on the only combination of people who can be examined ie the individual. The fact that knowledge does not belong to an individual but is created by groups and society as a whole, the fact that we acquire knowledge through language (which is itself a socially created practice), the fact that we acquire knowledge socially (in classrooms, families, labs, etc) is all ignored because we have created the notion that knowledge 'belongs' to the individual - even though it doesn't! Further to this, is the way in which a 'subject' - let's take my own, English, has to be boiled down into examinable units. A play, like say, 'Romeo and Juliet' has to be reduced to what are examinable (ie markable) 'points'. English teachers are required to make lists and schemes of these markable points about 'Romeo and Juliet' and by various systems of instruction, convincing talk, get the students to repeat these points within fixed time limits on a specific day at a specific time, a year or so later. In a sense, 'Romeo and Juliet' is industrialised into a form of mass production. It is split up under various categories of production, so that it can be reproduced at this particular time. That time - the exam day - is in effect when the product (the finished exam) rolls off the production line. 

However, this 'product' is not strictly speaking the individual student. The product is that year's cohort's exam papers. That product is then 'finished' by being marked, graded and then norm-referenced. On this morning's Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4, we heard with clarity from the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb exactly how this norm-referencing goes on. He said that the old GCSEs were too easy, so Michael Gove made them harder. Because they are harder, he said, they had to lower the pass mark, in order to achieve 'comparable outcome' ie to make the hard one's 'outcome' (product) match the easier ones. This meant that the 'bell curve' or distribution curve of the grading system, must always be the same. A few outright fails, loads of people in the middle, a few top grades. This is how people in power who run and control education view children and ultimately the population as a whole. This is data. This, they believe, is the reliable and valid way to think about us! It also means that ultimately, schools, teachers and pupils are helpless in the face of this norm-referencing. Whatever happens, they will impose that bell-curve on the results. They will even remark papers in order to secure that curve, pushing people down or up in order to achieve it. It's called 'moderation' and indeed, as Nick Gibb said, achieving 'comparable outcomes'. 

It is of course absolutely vital that pupils do not understand this process. In terms of 'knowledge', it's interesting to note that education is full of processes e.g. discipline, setting, and this exam system itself which do not constitute what is commonly called 'knowledge'. An obvious example of this is that the framing and language of exam questions are clearly absolutely crucial to how examinees answer questions. In fact, we can all tell of examples of ourselves and/or pupils who clearly knew the knowledge required of a question but were unable to answer the question because they didn't realise or know that that is what the question was asking. In fact, I had an example of this when trying to help my then 11 year old do a sample KS2 SATs English question which asked 'Explain the use of language in....'. I couldn't. I couldn't explain the use of the language in Geraldine Kaye's 'Comfort Herself'. All I could say was that she used a particular kind of language. But I couldn't 'explain it'. Next day, the teacher in charge of setting this particular sample SATs-type paper 'explained' to me what the question meant. He said it just meant that my son had to say 'author intention'. In other words when it says 'Explain', he had to guess (in fact, read off the formulaic stuff about the supposed 'effects' of a particular kind of language) what the author's intention was. Whether this really was the author's intention, and whether this really did have the effect that the formula says it has, is really quite beside the point. This is about producing the required answer ('fact') to a question which is itself written in a particular kind of exam code which you have to learn in order to produce the kind of answer which the system says in important knowledge. The fact that it's unverifiable stuff, created out of and for exams doesn't matter. The fact that how that passage in that novel affected the reader, some readers, many readers, is again - beside the point. 

Now again, according to Nick Gibb, this morning all this is resulting in 'closing the attainment gap' by 10%. I'm not sure how he came up with this figure, but surely it cannot come from within the exam system itself because, as he himself pointed out, they are rigged to achieve comparable outcomes. The bell curve is the bell curve is the bell curve. Is it perhaps one of the international tests? 

There are several insuperable methodological problems here. The international tests do not ask the same questions as the ones asked of national pupils. In other words, the international tests act as some kind of international court of justice, with their own rationale of what constitutes important knowledge and the right way for pupils to demonstrate this. For the moment, this doesn't matter whether it is better or worse than our national system. The point is that it's different. So any 'attainment gap' judged by this system is not determined by the absolute golden rule of all educational testing - compare like with like. 

Further, we now know that the sampling procedures of those selected to sit these tests produces invalid results. Remember, a nation's educational standards are being assessed (produced) by testing a relatively tiny group of people. Take a couple of examples: Nick Gibb always fails to point out that in at least some of the English schools' samples there are children who are being educated in private schools. Children in private schools follow an education process which is not 100% determined by Nick Gibb and the state education system. Another: there are biases in the sampling in terms of e.g. urban and rural. In China, this is crucial because of patterns of migration and what is happening to rural children being 'left behind' in their villages. A statement is made by people like Nick Gibb about the superiority of the Chinese system with no reference to the fact that rural children are not being sampled by these international tests. In other words national outcomes are being mapped on to tiny unrepresentative (perhaps they will always be unrepresentative) samples. Once again this is a product. A result of tests being used as part of a mass production industry, producing results, grades, and outcomes. 

Where does this leave us? It leaves us fundamentally with a new wave of 'thinking' about education, knowledge, teaching and learning which claims to be talking objectively about such matters but which in fact are entirely intertwined and interwoven with these matters of testing, (the 'what' and the 'how' of testing and the effect of how the exam system words its way back through the system. 

In my previous blog about 'what is important about texts', the sub-text (!) is really about which of those alternatives is selected as exam-worthy (and therefore self-evidently 'important' according to the system) as opposed to those that get excluded, overlooked or marginalised as not-important. The next step in that investigation is to ask why is one kind of knowledge important and another not. And what are we missing, what are we leaving out and why,

In relation to English, the core feature which is increasingly being marginalised as the main reason why we read in the first place (and indeed the main reason why writers write!) which is to affect readers. This is not the be-all and end-all of what we can do with texts in schools, but for it to be marginalised or even excluded strikes me as perverse. I know of examples of e.g. the killing of Nancy from 'Oliver Twist' or of the falling in love of Romeo and Juliet which are treated simply as exemplifications of something and/or a series of facts which can be learned about those scenes. 

Whatever literature is for - which will often - perhaps mostly - be about affecting audiences, inviting people to ponder, wonder, muse, reflect, and relate this to the possibilities and events one's own life and society, are being pushed out the door by this method, in favour of important knowledge (?), which is perversely and in a strange self-confirming cycle, the knowledge that is tested! Important knowledge, then,  is that which is tested - but how did we arrive at such a narrow, reductive view of what's important, and what constitutes wisdom and what constitutes the stuff we need to make this world a better place?! We arrived at it because those in charge of it design a system which matches their own or their own self-perceived capabilities. 'It made us, so it must be good.' 

What is important knowledge about a 'text' (a book, a poem, a play, an essay, an article etc)

We say to children and students something to the effect of:

"Here is a text" - that's to say we put a text in front of a class or a text is in put in front of us.

What is the 'important knowledge' about this text? What counts as 'important knowledge' about it?

Is it its history, 
its structure,
its techniques, 
its antecedents, 
its effect on its contemporaries, 
its effect on those who have written texts or spoken about this text since this text first appeared
its effect on you the reader, 
its method of narrations, 
its use of time, 
how the society of its time produced it, 
its genre, 
its use of reveal-conceal,
its use of specifics in the text in order to represent ideas beyond or around the text,
the degree to which it draws attention to how it itself is written and constructed,
the degree to which it appears to invite or not invite questions about itself,
the apparent assumptions it makes about who the audience for this text will be,
the variety (or not) in the registers the text appears to 'speak' with,
the extent of (or lack of) figurative writing within the text,
the recurrence or patterns of vocabulary, sequences, structures and images in the text,
the variations in sound in the text,
the varying grammars in the text,
the extent (or not) to which the text conforms or does not conform to the contemporary expectations of such a text, 

some of the above,
none of the above
a combination of the above?
a priority of some of the above over others?
if this last, in what order should we place these questions? 

and, if any of the above,
why some and not others?
if any of the above
how should we gauge the effects of any of these on a reader, or some readers, or readers contemporary to the text?
how do we know what these effects are? or should be? or do we just invent them? or assume them? or read them off some pre-given, pre-designed scheme of effects? Will a history or sociology of effects help us here? 

Thursday 14 June 2018

National unity? I don't think so.

One of the great claims of the Conservative Party is that it is the truly national, unionist party of the UK. It will always try to portray itself as more patriotic, more loyal to the crown, more prepared to 'defend' the country than any other party. Its real job has been to 'unite' the country to the needs of big business and it frequently uses the flag, the monarchy, and various vague but potent ideas around being the 'natural' party of power, or that they are decent people because they wear suits and talk with southern-sounding RP accents, or that because 'business' is supposedly naturally a 'good thing' for the country as a whole, and because many of the MPs and ministers are themselves business people (owing vast amounts of shares, sitting on company boards etc) then it's 'natural' that we should all support them and 'pull together'.

This of course obscures many things: such as that they are essentially a party (especially when in government) working for the few not the many, putting profit before people, trying to control what they call the 'labour market' (basically that means working people) so that it benefits the few, following fads of places like Harvard business school, trying to depress wages, cut the public sector, trying to wangle the taxation, borrowing, money-printing systems so that they can create vast amounts of cheap dosh for capitalists, and/or bump up vast amounts of private 'small' credit card debt on to the mass of the public because their wages are not sufficient to buy the goods and services being produced.

But let's look again at the flummery of their claim to be the 'national', unifying force. Once the UK got itself into the EU there was a grumbling consensus that this was OK-ish. Yes, some huge EU enthusiasts, some agnostics, and some hugely opposed. For me, it was just another arrangement for 'capital' neither better or worse than what was there before. I didn't go along with Tony Benn's claim that 'democracy' was at stake because UK democracy is no better than anyone else's and probably worse - monarchy, house of lords, constituency-based first part the post elections, established church, rigged judicial enquiries, massive bias towards privately educated oxbridge representation at the top of government and civil service, massive undermining of local government...

So, when UKIP started to get traction, partly (largely?) off the back of a disgusting, xenophobic campaign against 'migrants', and the Tories tried to see it off with a referendum, the whole 'unity' 'uniting' ideology has fallen apart. The old consensus (I'm not trying to claim that this was a great thing in itself - far from it) has fallen apart. Right the way across the ruling class, the professional caste, big business, medium business, small business there are huge rifts, wars, disputes, bitterness. I hear arguments being made on the basis of what can be no better than wild guesses - to do with who will trade with who, at what cost, who will want these kinds of good, who won't, who needs who the most or the least. At the heart of these arguments, as I say, they mostly seem to be extreme guesswork, hardened and reinforced into in/out, yes/no, right/wrong positions. That's on both (or all!) sides of the arguments. But ultimately, they are all 'business' arguments. They are about how well, chunks of capital based in the UK (not even 'UK' ones only!) will thrive (or not) in some new arrangement.

Now the disturbing thing about this (for me) is that these 'business' arguments have dragged in people whose only means of livelihood is their ability to sell their labour-power. Suddenly, people working in hospitals, on the shop-floor, in offices, on zero-hour contracts, being 'self-employed' earning less than £30,000 a year, have been successfully recruited and co-opted into arguments about what's best for massive companies and for their spokespeople in the Tory Party!

This depresses me. The interests of working people in a capitalist system are not the same as the owners of big business. An owner is running the business in order to make money. When it doesn't make money, they sack people. See Rolls Royce this morning. They don't 'create jobs'. They 'use jobs'. When they can't use jobs (to make profits) they get rid of jobs. In fact, there is a strong interest for an owner to employ the least number of people on the least possible wages.

However, the task of getting nearly everyone in the UK to spend hours arguing over what arrangement will be best for big business, is usually made much easier when working people can be recruited and co-opted for the big national project, like supporting Margaret Thatcher in her job of making the country 'free of the unions' (so that working people can't negotiate higher wages for themselves!) , or 'freeing' people to sell their council houses (so that their children can't have a secure cheap home to live in!) and that sort of thing.

But now, this 'national' project is falling apart. There is division in almost all the areas where the Tories usually have (or at the very least claim they have)  unity e.g. around the nation (Scots walking out of the HofC yesterday), around the 'national interest' (at least 5 competing scenarios about what is 'best for Britain') and bitter division amongst top Tories themselves (e.g. Johnson versus May).

Sad to say, the Labour Right are doing their best to join in with this 'best for business, best for Britain' battle. To my mind, the best card that Labour could have played was - yes - an opportunist one: "We are not in power, we can't be in power until the five year term is up because of the way the system was rigged by Cameron; there was a referendum with a result, we are not in favour of reneging on it, that's the end of the story; we are not allowed in to the negotiations (in 'national terms' and 'democratic terms' there was in fact no reason why the negotiations should have been confined to one party only but that's just a boring constitutional matter, so I won't dwell on it), at the end of the day, the best thing that Labour can do is sit back and watch the ruling order (as represented by the Tories), pull themselves apart disagreeing over how best to secure a lowest of the low wages economy, low taxes for the superrich, unregulated City, and as many tax havens as possible."

Sadly, the Labour Right think (as they always do) that they are better at running capitalism than the Tories and so keep jumping up and demanding to be counted. All this does is make it more likely that a social democratic, left-leaning Labour government is less likely to be elected. The media can say, "Ner ner ner... both sides are as divided as each other", as if both sides are in the same position vis a vis the negotiations. Corbyn has been trying to make that point, but it's been heavily undermined by the Labour Right.

Sunday 10 June 2018

Word gap. Is it?

I'm reading a good deal about the 'word gap'. This is the observation that there is a huge gap in the number of words known by different children. This blog is a query.

Language is always more than just words. It's about how we sequence words, whether in passages of speech or writing or whether in conversation. Random production of words is not language. So, if we're going to talk about a 'word gap', we had better be sure that this is at best a shorthand for saying 'language gap' as just counting different words will not tell us enough about how children are communicating with each other. 

This leads to 'methodology' - that is, how was the data collected to find out about this word gap. Ever since this extraordinary study by William Labov:

we have known some important stuff about the effect the researcher has on the people the researcher is talking to - in particular in relation to language. Adults talking to children is no simple thing either.

So, my query is this: in the studies of the 'word gap', how was the data collected? Was any of the data collected when children talked to each other with no adult present? Was any of the data collected when children were e.g. planning a task, talking about something that they had been doing, telling stories, discussing a point of view, or something that is in, say, a picture book? Are there transcripts of these adult-free conversations available which prove the existence of both a word-gap and a communication gap (ie involving sequences of words)? And can any of this be linked to a class or culturally linked failure on the part of significant numbers of children? 

You can get in touch with me on twitter, Facebook or via the email on my website. 

Tuesday 5 June 2018

Why can't we have the arts interpreting the arts again?

One of the things you notice when you go to country houses, and old art galleries is that there was a period from about 1700 to about 1850 when many famous painters spent most of their time painting 'classical' scenes. These were paintings that depict famous scenes from classical mythology, mostly Greek and Roman. Anyone reading this, who has paid visits to these places will remember staring at intertwined beasts and semi-naked men and women, half-man-half-beast creatures, and naked women in woods or by the sea. We peer at the caption and see a classical name or two and then rake through our memory to see if we can remember the exact myth or epic the scene were looking at comes from. 

The point here is that these highly rated paintings were 'interpretations'. They were ways for painters to say something about love, sex, danger, hope, and many other features of human existence using or adapting a moment from a written text - by, say, Homer or Virgil and the like. And this was a high status activity. It was high art. It was rated. It was high art. 

Now race forwards to our classrooms and we see children and school students poring over 'texts' - stories, poems and plays, in order to - to what? To 'comprehend' them ('comprehension') to show that they can 'retrieve' what's there (supposedly), to grasp what has been 'inferred', to show that they can understand 'structure' and 'sequence', to show why a text or parts of a text is 'effective' (who decides what is effective? People who write exam questions?), and, quite often, what 'the author intended' (how do they know? are they mind-readers?).  All this is sometimes called 'interpretation' but it really isn't. Interpretation is a broader idea that may well involve some if not all of these previous aspects but something more, something that involves weighing up possibilities, including opinion, possibilities, provisional ideas, discussing why and how we come to conclusions about poems, stories and plays, making informed guesses (which is what most criticism is anyway!). I've put my thoughts about how we can create more open criticism into classrooms in my three booklets: 'Poems and Stories for Primary and Lower Secondary Schools', 'Why Write? Why Read?' and 'Writing for Pleasure' - all available via my website. 

However, even if this idea of interpretation is broader - and I would argue - more valid, it leaves out the notion that the arts themselves are a valid form of interpretation - the very thing that those artists did with Greek and Roman myths. Somewhere along the line in the creating of schools, schooling, and the modern curriculum, the people who run the show downgraded the use of the arts to interpret the arts. It's as if the only thing that's valid and worthy is 'textual analysis' - a craft originally created and perfected for the purpose of divining God's intentions from biblical texts - or 'exegesis' as it was called. Education imported 'exegesis' and applied it to literature and put the methods of such painters as David or indeed the pre-Raphaelites like Burne-Jones out the door. 

I would like to re-state the case for the arts as one way to interpret in valid and important ways. When I say, for example, that one of the ways we can write poems is to read a poem and then say to ourselves, 'I can write like that' - that's a way of interpreting a poem. It may be that we will adopt the poem's sound, or shape, or imagery, or meaning, or we may be 'triggered' by one single aspect of a poem: a mood, a phrase, a suggestion. These are interpretations. They involve selecting an aspect, generalising it in our heads - perhaps in an instantaneous or intuitive way - and turning that generalisation back into a form, a shape, a set of words that conveys something that is in common with the original. This is no trivial act. It is in fact a step towards abstraction, finding something in common between two things, two phenomena. 

To draw, sing, dance, make films, make pottery, write poems, stories, plays in response to any other art form, or - as we're talking about here, literature - is to my mind one way to interpret. In a classroom context, it can be the first, the middle or the last way. Wherever it sits, it will be valid and can, if we want it to , contribute to the written analyses required by the education regime, or they can be treated as entirely valid in themselves, boosting pupils' sense of entitlement to explore texts through a medium they are confident in. 

In turn, these new creations - let's say it's a film shot on a mobile phone - can then become sources of conversation and debate about how the one relates to the other. These conversations will inevitably include generalisations and abstractions - the sort of thing we rate highly in education: 'higher order thinking' as we call it. Indeed, we watch TV art programmes when clever art critics do just that - explore the interplay between e.g. myth and painting, emotions and ideas. 

This short blog, then, is a plea for us to not forget the arts as an interpretive method. A poem about a poem; a picture about a moment in a play; a film about a feeling in a novel and hundreds of other uses of the arts to interpret the arts.