Discover more from Rebecca Birch - On Education
On knowledge in English
When a syllabus is not really a syllabus
I know that a lot of the problems with education in the US come down to not having a coherent national, or even sometimes state syllabus. We have an Australian Curriculum, which informs the NSW NESA syllabus, and while changes to these are always contentious, having them at all is almost universally thought to be a good thing. One would expect that these would contain content to guide teachers, indeed the History Wars are testament to the fraught debates about what to include, with the implication that these inclusions show what we privilege and perpetuate as a nation. But what if I were to claim that in the important area of English, an area of so much policy focus, effectively doesn’t have a curriculum or syllabus? Are educational bureaucrats shying away from claiming which ‘knowledges’ are fundamental or important in literature? Is there a fear of backlash against reducing teacher autonomy in making these text choices, and by extension knowledge choices?
I spoke on a panel last year at ResearchED Australia about the integrity of the curriculum and the importance of canonical works as a foundational element of a knowledge-rich curriculum in English. I heard Paul Martin, the CEO of NESA, speak in good faith about the inclusion of canonical works, the contemporary canon and accessible texts in the HSC text Prescriptions. I think the Prescriptions do reflect a balanced and rigorous programming approach. The problem for me is the 7-10 curriculum, which provides very little direction and relies heavily upon heads of department recognising Year 12 as a standard on which to model their text selections. I will outline some of the non-negotiables in the syllabus, intended to prompt rigour and give direction. I will also show how these can be diluted or perverted to support low expectations and avoid difficult conversations about powerful knowledge.
Some non-negotiables with text selection
Shakespeare has to be studied once per stage. The value of this is obvious - everyone deserves to study Shakespeare and given a choice, some teachers would opt out for reasons of student engagement, perceived elitism and low expectations.
Indigenous and Asian texts need to be studied. This is a cross-curricular priority, meaning that all subject areas need to look at Asian and Indigenous knowledge and culture.
Two works of fiction, film, non-fiction and drama per stage - note that Shakespeare can double as drama. To me, this puts non-fiction and film on an equal footing with fiction, and places drama low on the list of priorities as a discrete text type. However, film is avoidable in HSC English but needs to be studied twice per stage in 7-10.
A range of poetry, with no mention of bodies of work or movements.
Outcome 6 demands a comparison of textual ideas or stories over time, which is intended to draw from canonical works but often has the opposite effect, with teachers placing greater emphasis on the later, cooler, more accessible version. More on this below.
In addition to this, we have a shopping list of concerns with media trends and cultural politics to contend with:
Across Stage 4, for example, the selection of texts must give students experience of:
texts which are widely regarded as quality literature
a widely defined Australian literature, including texts that give insights into Aboriginal experiences in Australia
a wide range of literary texts from other countries and times, including poetry, drama scripts, prose fiction and picture books
texts written about intercultural experiences
texts that provide insights about the peoples and cultures of Asia
everyday and workplace texts
a wide range of cultural, social and gender perspectives, popular and youth cultures
texts that include aspects of environmental and social sustainability
nonfiction, picture books, graphic novels
an appropriate range of digital texts, including film, media and multimedia.
So while there’s an appearance of choice, the requirements send teachers into a game of textual Tetris, trying to find texts that will plug some of these holes, rather than mapping and prescribing powerful knowledge. I feel there’s an abrogation of responsibility here. Most of these requirements have very little to do with literature or literacy, and more to do with perceived relevance, and cultural or identity politics. A good example of a text that I consider to be a ‘threefer’ is the truly awful novel, Trash, by Andy Mulligan. It’s set in Asia, has sustainability themes, it’s ostensibly a novel. Compare this with the classic Modernist play, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, which ticks one box. As far as I’m aware, functionally literate adults still take most of their media from legacy institutions, albeit via digital platforms, and they still take their novels and non-fiction on paper or Kindle. The importance of digital and multimedia texts is wildly overemphasised, considering their reach and relevance outside of the collective teacher imagination.
Some other ways that text requirements can be diluted are programming decisions like:
Units full of extracts, which satisfy the need for a wide range of poetry, but can also include a mishmash of Asian and Indigenous poets, youth culture and multimedia.
Looking at appropriations of canonical texts over time. Students don’t like Austen? Spend all your time on Clueless and tick the film box too! Graphic novels are also great for avoiding quality literature.
Shakespeare doubling as drama. Plays are elitist anyway!
The syllabus itself is basically a list of skills. Yes, that’s hyperbole, but there is very little knowledge prescribed. I will republish this piece with corrections if I’m proven wrong. I’ve written about the role of prior knowledge in learning here and the evidence supports me in saying that background and general knowledge in reading is fundamental. The teaching of quality texts demands a strong knowledge base and the sophistication of vocabulary offered develops students’ reading skills in a way that a diet of YA novels and film cannot.
The History Syllabus designers think that the Industrial Revolution is important enough to specify and prescribe. The Romantics that arose in response? Apparently not so much. The History Syllabus is also, to an extent, driven by skills but the knowledge is prescribed because it’s broadly considered to be fundamental. Are we avoiding the difficult and politicised conversations that might arise from the English Wars by avoiding discussions about powerful knowledge? I already know the answer.
This post is a kind of thought experiment. I’m not sure I want to teach in a world of prescribed texts and ideas, especially not if they’re more representative of the Zeitgeist than literature that endures because of its universality. And this would take away choice for so many teachers who believe in powerful literature. But univserality is a bit of a dirty word these days. Many teachers feel strongly that education is to reflect and validate identities, and that local knowledge is the best knowledge. Instead of looking at the canon in a critical way, it’s often cancelled altogether, seen by Woke-Edu as racist, sexist and cisnormative. Teacher choice, while a double-edged sword, means that some students will continue to have access to knowledge. Classic texts provide a platform for thinking critically about legacy attitudes and ways of life and an ability to reflect on how far we have come from taming shrews.
Aside from anything else, knowledge makes students smarter, and isn’t that what we are all aiming for? I will leave you with some David Didau who gives a handy rule of thumb for spotting which elements of culture endure, and by extension which text choices will make our students smarter, more literate and more critical.
To have a firm footing in an uncertain future, children require solid foundations – and how long a thing has lasted is a good indication of its dependability.
This is the Lindy effect, named after a delicatessen in New York where actors and comedians used to get together for post-show gossip, which led to the observation that the longer a show had lasted, the longer it was likely to continue to last. This, it turns out, can be applied to some but not all domains. Nassim Nicholas Taleb reckons that if a book has been in print for 40 years, we can expect it to still be in print in 40 years’ time:
This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not ‘aging’ like persons, but ‘aging’ in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!
This may, on first glance, look like a post hoc fallacy (seeking to explain events after the fact) but it actually allows us to make interesting and accurate predictions. Obviously, many things – like people – are the victims of senescence. The rule only applies to the realm of ideas, not to the realm of things. The survival of an object tells you nothing about its likely continued survival. Things break, technological inventions are superseded. But if an idea spreads and takes on a life beyond its original context, it has the capacity to last for generations. Some ideas die early, but we can bet that those ideas that have persisted for hundreds or thousands of years will still be around long after we’re gone.
Didau, David. Making Kids Cleverer. Crown House Publishing. Kindle Edition.