These past few years I have both seen and delivered a number of interview lessons. I believe these lessons reflect the philosophy of the observer as much as they do the capability of the teacher. The stakes for an interview lesson are high: will you be given a job? Or as an observer, can you judge that that teacher’s wider operation? These outcomes are pragmatically important but also reflect more profound approaches to the profession. So with this tension in mind, here are some of the ways I think about interview lessons:
1) Firstly, interview lessons reveal how people frame the subject.
As a literature/English teacher, the subject can be put together in many ways. Brian Cox’s Report in the 80s gave five distinct ways to consider the purpose of the English classroom. These are listed below:
The role of English in the curriculum
2.20 It is possible to identify within the English teaching profession a number of different views of the subject. We list them here, though we stress that they are not the only possible views, they are not sharply distinguishable, and they are certainly not mutually exclusive.
2.21 A “personal growth” view focuses on the child: it emphasises the relationship between language and learning in the individual child, and the role of literature in developing children’s imaginative and aesthetic lives.
2.22 A “cross-curricular” view focuses on the school: it emphasises that all teachers (of English and of other subjects) have a responsibility to help children with the language demands of different subjects on the school curriculum: otherwise areas of the curriculum may be closed to them. In England, English is different from other school subjects, in that it is both a subject and a medium of instruction for other subjects.
2.23 An “adult needs” view focuses on communication outside the school: it emphasises the responsibility of English teachers to prepare children for the language demands of adult life, including the workplace, in a fast-changing world. Children need to learn to deal with the day-to-day demands of spoken language and of print; they also need to be able to write clearly, appropriately and effectively.
2.24 A “cultural heritage” view emphasises the responsibility of schools to lead children to an appreciation of those works of literature that have been widely regarded as amongst the finest in the language.
2.25 A “cultural analysis” view emphasises the role of English in helping children towards a critical understanding of the world and cultural environment in which they live. Children should know about the processes by which meanings are conveyed, and about the ways in which print and other media carry values.
At this time my Key Stage 5 curriculum concentrates on a cultural heritage model. Frye famed literature as a discipline balanced between history and philosophy. Literature gets its best ideas from philosophy whilst the cultural framework from which to contextualise its work must be historical. Moving my practice into an IB curriculum next year, a cultural-analysis model is needed whereby ancient and humanist ideals are tested against the power of advertising and social media.
An adult-needs model is essential; without exam and occupational success, no-one gets paid. Yet it is also the most ineffective and unimaginative framework for a curriculum. If students are repeatedly reading the same texts in a curriculum, or if they approach texts via ‘question 3’ or other such deadly methods, then much is being missed.
The adult-needs model seems to be matched to an English ‘language’ curriculum. But the idea that an English teacher can be solely a ‘language’ teacher does not really sit well with me. To be a linguist surely requires the understanding of several languages on a meta-level. That meta-understanding moves beyond social commentary on contemporary ‘gendered’ or ‘power-based’ language use and instead tackles wider corpus-based issues. To be a linguist also surely requires a tremendous understanding of politics and cultural-historical events in order to frame how language has developed amongst varied demographics.
Within these political and socio-historical frameworks exist forms of literature that attempt to interact with those social events. Language in such works is not functional but rather adventurous and magical. They challenge prescriptivist approaches. Language in, say, Nabakov attempts to unpick the limits of perception and to tease us with the attraction of aesthetic magnificence and unsettle us with moral questions. Such works reflect wider social ideas of challenging social norms and an increasing relativism in received morality. To not understand or even ignore the range of literary texts is a deficiency as an English teacher.
2) Secondly, how do people (especially teachers) approach learning? Is it something limited to that which can be ratified? Is learning something where difficulty been embraced and failure faced? Has personal time and money been invested in continued education? Is reading a regular habit?
Teachers who have not enjoyed teaching themselves must, I think, find it hard to make learning enjoyable for others. Such teachers are perhaps in education because it is a job. That is still an acceptable notion for there are not enough people in any profession to run that profession if we are to demand vocation. But such teachers are limited in the vision and management of their classroom. Without having experienced enjoyment of learning in themselves, how can they encourage an enjoyment in learning in others?
Firstly, let’s consider how the teacher approaches the interview lesson. Are they planning a bunch of tasks? Are they selecting the tasks as interesting in themselves? Or are they treating the thoughts and ideas in themselves worth knowing? What are they trying to get the learner to understand?
For me a lesson needs to start with the ideas and implications themselves. Such ideas need to be contextualised within their ancient or at least original context. Immediate and contemporary relevance should also be found and threads found between the two. Tensions and problematisations should be identified. For example, I recently taught a lesson on ‘Rising Five’ by Norman Nicholson Understanding that Rising Five refers to the urgency for public success and a prioritising of rationality over sensibility activates some of its tensions. Situating the poem within the lived reality of a UK government placing children in school early, with teachers then judging those students on against more developmentally advanced peers, makes it real and relevant. Political and social questions can be raised and expectations activated.
But there is more than this. Understanding the poet’s life – of his relative poverty and cynicism about institutions – allows us to consider his message, of how we should recognise his bias and reveal where he has made choices.
From this the approach of the poet can be considered in the frameworks of our own perceptions.
We can do this by bringing such questions and choices into the public discourse of our classroom. Relevance is challenged and provocative questions are raised and explored. Maybe the necessity of placing ‘Rising Five’ students in schools early needs to be understood within the reality of the mass-schooling system. Are there not yet feasible alternatives to place people in school at a time personalised to them? Where else do we make necessary social compromises?
After such content has been understood, questions and concrete metaphors can be formed and framed. These questions do not need to be presented in a linear fashion, but rather responsively to the perceived frameworks of the class’s critical and cultural understanding. The tasks, therefore, can be largely presented as a series of questions debated publicly and leading to the consideration and engagement to difficult and real knowledge. There needs to be excitement and thought, but this excitement and thought needs to be as close to the conceptual origins of the text as possible. Engagement should become social and constructivist, with the management of the social dynamics of the class harnessed to access the content in its purest and most difficult forms. Personalisation should exist at the level of where the students engage with the knowledge, with simplified and more fundamental considerations possible for those less able. Such personalisation should look primarily towards the most-able and passionate, with extensions of lectures and books that drive such ideas without limit. We are talking Massolit and Yale Lectures and David Lodge books for all.
In comparison to this approach, I have seen lessons taught and planned that reflect a task-based approach. One interview lesson I saw aimed to excite students about Romeo and Juliet. Rather than foregrounding the tensions between desire and obligation, between parents and children, into the classroom discourse, a choice was made to employ funky and novel tasks. Artefacts in an interview lesson – such as writing ideas onto plates to make Venn diagrams – make me a little suspicious (although in themselves are not defunct).
Another choice made in a lesson was to compare the Shakespearean text to a contemporary pop star. The comparison was only possible on the basis of figurative language being present. Knowledge of iambic pentameter, or of Renaissance stagecraft, or of the patterning of classical and religious allusions would surely be more appropriate choices. Students might complete a task by filling in a table or interacting with an artefact, but are they thinking about something useful for their knowledge of drama and poetry, Renaissance or otherwise? And if not then, then when?
When teachers overemphasise the tasks they plan, believing that they have an ‘outstanding’ interview lesson to wheel out for observers, I am suspicious. Such lessons can be visually impressive and students can be happy and excited. A naive observer will be impressed. Yet are the students actually thinking? Don’t get me wrong – students need to be excited in their learning at many points. But such excitement should exist as close as possible to the ideals and scholarship of academia itself. Such excitement perhaps starts with the teacher’s experience. Maybe those who find the concept of Renaissance drama or Victorian Fiction tedious are themselves rather boring, especially if they express it.
3) How should an approach to a literature curriculum be considered?
I believe that literature as a discipline sits between history and philosophy. It must be recognised that literature reflects the concerns of the elite but should be understood by everyone.
Literature, especially pre-modern literature, can be challenging to the non-selective cohort. Modern populations more worried about personal success or urban survival might be less enthralled by complications of how wider society can be better organised. The forces of neoliberalism prize the newness of things and by implication their separation from what has come before, as if something being separate from the past is itself an innate virtue. I know myself that my university lecturers promoted post-structuralism as the best approach to analysing literature, perhaps knowing that a historicist approach to literature would alienate too many of the cohort.
But literature must be taught to everyone regardless of the historicist knowledge and context of that context. Any other approach is culturally, and perhaps morally, deficient.
Such a digital declaration of pedagogy is not enough, though. Young people of non-selective cohorts can suffer particular deficiencies of cultural knowledge of elite society, not to mention difficulties of formal literacy and reading stamina. To realistically learn literature in a mixed ability classroom requires compromises in the same way that to train elite footballers requires a different approach than mediocre athletes like myself. Therefore, as I will say elsewhere, I believe approaches based on both genre-expectations and text-world theory to be particularly useful in engaging all cohorts, including non-selective ones.
There are three text types when teaching literature according to conventional exams: novels, plays and poetry.
Over 15 years it has become most apparent that students will approach each text-type as indistinct, noticing only the ideas and context of the text and its aesthetic ambitions. This is a disservice, but one enforced by how sold schemes of work are put together by various bodies, both official and private.
I believe that a curriculum needs to openly teach narratology, with various choices emphasised and worked within. Within narratology, students simply identify figurative language and word order in isolation. Responses then become limited to responding to these fragmented examples.
A curriculum also, I think, needs to teach stagecraft. Teaching drama as dead words on the page is deficient. Acting choices need to be made explicit. Drama itself should be framed as conflict, with conflicting motivations and Stanislavskian ideals foregrounded for all students. Understanding how characters suffer conflicting motivations makes a Shakespeare recital far more interesting than just hearing difficult words and allusions tumble out breathlessly.
Finally, a curriculum needs to teach prosody. I have never been formally taught this, perhaps because teachers themselves have been undertaught it. I have achieved first class marks and straight As when analysing poetry without referring to choices of form.
At a recent CPD even I heard a teacher and Head of Department exclaim, without irony, that another school’s encouragement of students to write poetry was naive and pointless because such a task is not directly on an exam. This comment was not even a troll as it was apparent this teacher believed their point of view was sensible and dominant, a status quo. In fact, they believe the other school needed to ‘sort out its curriculum’ because their approach was wasteful and pointless and indulged in personal growth in precious classroom time.
I could only challenge that teacher with an assertion to the contrary.
Firstly, to be able to analyse poetry for an exam requires identification of prosody. Attempting to write poetry fosters a sense, and perhaps an understanding, of meter and rhyme. Such practice, shared with by the teacher allows us to also appreciate the length of syllables, of how they often contrast stress, and how they might be matched against meaning. This is difficult.
Such appreciation of the difficulty of matching meter to meaning encourages aesthetic appreciation by the students. Aesthetic appreciation through the process of creation is part of the power and interest in the subject – writing choices are not always made consciously, and joining literary traditions, no matter how clumsy or childish the attempt, fosters an appreciation for literature’s position amongst the disciplines.
Presenting poetry as something to pass solely for exams or assessments would fail in even attempting that base aim.
That a teacher believed it wasn’t farcical to critique a curriculum that required the writing of poetry is beyond my expectations. I can only think that it is because their perceived purpose of schooling is to pass exams. And that they presume that writing poetry is unimpactful on passing exams.
4) How to revise literature for exams.
The new AQA exam has a tremendous emphasis on the memorisation of quotations. I also saw teachers chanting quotations with students. Again, quotations without context, quotations without reference.
Some colleagues here have expressed awareness that quotes etc need to known in context. But they don’t have pedagogy or other ideals for this. Their own knowledge of texts is deficient: I saw them set a character log task over several weeks that saw underdeveloped and naive recordings of texts created.