How to choose study texts in English: Part Two

In the Part One, I introduced the idea of satisficing: a decision making process that that entails accepting choices that are ‘good enough’ for purpose, but aren’t optimal. I suggested that these choices are made when selecting texts to study because we base them on the false boundary of the fulfilment of the study, or to put it simply: the assessment.

My contention is that, if we remove the utilitarian boundary of the assessment, there are greater and more powerful attributes upon which to base our decision when choosing a text to study. And, importantly, I believe that, beyond this boundary, the goals of assessment can still be met with equal – if not greater – success. (English teacher Chris Curtis has written an excellent argument on why seemingly more accessible texts “do not naturally incline themselves for analysis by inexperienced readers”, and that complex texts serve them better. I urge you to read it.)

The attribute which I believe has the highest evaluability when selecting a text is the extent to which it gives pupils the ability to participate in what Michael Oakeshott calls ‘the conversation of mankind’:

“As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”

Robert Peal explains in his book, ‘Progressively Worse’, how pupils can be denied participation in the conversation:

“People discussing a specialist subject, it is often remarked, sound as if they are communicating in a foreign language. This is the sensation gained when you hear Americans talk about a sport, as Hirsch demonstrates by writing the simple sentence, ‘Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run’. To Americans, this is an everyday explanation of baseball tactics, but to a British listener it is meaningless. Now, imagine if every conversation, television programme or news article you encountered, which covered history, economics, literature, politics, world events or science, left you with the same sensation. Condemned by your un-ambitious schooling, the common reference points of the well informed would forever be a foreign country.”

In terms of teaching literature, we have the opportunity to give pupils access to texts that will be referenced throughout their lives. Texts that have endured and seeped into public consciousness will offer us touchstones and reference points that help us contribute to and understand the conversation of mankind. They supply us with a shorthand to use and understand throughout every stage of our lives.

In reference to Oakeshott’s ‘conversation of mankind’, MP Jesse Norman calls education ‘an adventure’Martin Robinson takes up this argument:

“How refreshing to think of education, not as a journey but as an adventure; if we jettison the idea of journey and the obsession of getting somewhere ‘worthwhile’ and on time, we can also jettison such concerns as the need for grit and resilience to endure this journey. Yes, there may danger, we might have to take risks but we all have the wherewithal for adventure, especially when it is of itself and not a way to something else. This is an adventure, an exploration about what it is to be human.”

That “somewhere” that Robinson implies we often journey is perhaps, ultimately, jobs or careers. But it could equally be the false boundary of assessment. If we discard this boundary we can make choices that extend to informing the lives of the pupils and open up the ‘adventure’ of life. If we choose not to teach certain texts because of a falsely bounded rationality, we may deny our pupils participation in aspects of the conversation of mankind.

Here’s a reminder of the text choices offered by AQA for the Modern texts component of the new GCSE English Literature, the study of which begins in September 2015:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 19.52.55

Texts like DNAAnita and Me, The Curious Incident and Pigeon English, whilst arguably enjoyable, are hugely overshadowed in their contribution to the conversation. Books like Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm, however, give pupils threads which will return to them throughout life, through shared references that reverberate throughout society. We see references to both of these texts not only in other literature but also in music, movies and television. Other mediums make these references because they know they belong to a shared understanding. Whilst The Simpsons will dedicate an entire episode to a pastiche of Lord of the Flies, they are unlikely to do the same for The Curious Incident.

This is because there aren’t the widely shared reference points in The Curious Incident that Golding gives us. Take a situation in which a group of young people are acting out a power struggle and/or savage cruelty. Whilst Lord of the Flies and DNA both follow these themes, it is likely that people will make a reference to the former rather than the latter in succinctly expressing the politics and/or barbarity of the situationTake this, for example:

Or the way this visual reference carries connotations that tell us a lot more about Ron Burgundy and his news team if we’ve read Lord of the Flies:

Of course, I am not arguing that Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm are necessarily – to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase – “the best which has been thought and said”. The very existence of a short list of GCSE texts means that our choice is still bounded. But, within the boundaries the exam boards have foisted upon us, perhaps those texts are more prevalent in the conversation.

As such, references to these texts abound in popular culture.

For example, the television series Lost references Lord of the Flies not only thematically but also literally, with characters using it as shorthand for the atavistic behaviour of others: “Folks down on the beach might have been doctors and accountants a month ago, but it’s Lord of the Flies time now”; “They seem to have had a rough time of it. It looks like they went bloody Lord of the Flies out there.” On a simple level, Lost is actually a good example of the conversation of mankind in everyday operation, as it also references Animal Farm: “The pigs are walking,” proclaims one of the characters, expressing succinctly how the oppressed have become the oppressors. Of course, you can understand Lost without understanding these references, but it is like missing a part of the conversation or being left out of a private joke.

But these are only a few examples of how the references in these texts reverberate into popular culture. They stretch beyond that to permeate human experience. By satisficing when we choose our texts, by accepting bounded rationality, we cut pupils off from the touchstones of, in Oakeshott’s words, the “conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.”

So, when choosing a text for study, avoid satisficing. Because one thing we shouldn’t give in to is satisf… wait, what is the noun we use for the act of satisficing when choosing texts to study?

Of course…

Satisfiction.

Boom-tish. Ahfankyoo. I’m here all week. Try the veal, etc.

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How to choose study texts in English: Part One

Imagine I ask you to buy a pair of shoes for yourself. Hold on… before you rush off to ask Tom Bennett where he gets his cowboy boots from, I have a (rather obvious) stipulation: you should try and find a pair that fits your feet.

Now imagine that you come back with a pair of shoes that are half a size too big. One might assume that you have utterly failed in your task.

But suppose that there were a couple of other pieces of information that you knew about. Firstly, the shoes are to be worn to a wedding you are attending this afternoon. Secondly, you would have been able to purchase a pair of perfectly-fitting shoes, but only if you had visited 10 shops in variously dispersed geographic locations.

Now that we both know this other information, it might be considered a rational decision on your part to buy a pair of shoes that are half a size too big. The fact that you need the shoes by this afternoon and that you are uncertain about where to obtain them means that the decision to plump for slightly ill-fitting ones and bear some discomfort for a short while seems a reasonable one.

This is what economist and sociologist Herbert A. Simon calls ‘bounded rationality’. In the case given above, a suboptimal decision was made, but it is one that could be seen as rational when the decision-maker acts within boundaries and limitations.

I think a similar bounded rationality can sometimes be present when we make decisions about which texts pupils should study. There are various factors that limit the choices we make. Cost and availability are such factors, obviously caused by budgetary constraints. Therefore, a school without any money to buy new books might reasonably choose to study the only text that is currently sat in the English department’s book cupboard, no matter how appropriate it is for the purpose of study. There is bounded rationality in this choice: it isn’t necessarily a good choice, but it is rational given the circumstances – it’s either that book or no book.

I am going to argue, however, that there is a false boundary which is often put in place when selecting texts for study. In fact, I think it is a boundary that, whilst entirely constructed, is more influential than any other when selecting texts to study – particularly when it comes to GCSE texts. That boundary is: the fulfilment of the study.

By this I mean that there is a tendency to see a text’s utility as bounded by the study itself: the assessment is often seen as the conclusion of that study; once the assessment has been completed, the pupils will no longer utilise the text. At GCSE level, this means that the boundary is the final exam. This boundary is reinforced by the fact that we probably won’t ever see our pupils in a classroom again once they’ve sat the exam. But I think this boundary is illusory and that we should look beyond our classroom and, even further, to beyond the school life of the pupils when deciding what to study.

As an example of what I mean, let’s look at the choice of GCSE English Literature texts from the new qualification, the study of which begins in September of this year. Here are AQA’s choices for the Modern texts study:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 19.52.55Now this study is assessed in a closed book exam – pupils will be expected to study the text at length but won’t have access to it in the exam. So a choice that observes the exam as a boundary might choose the book based on attributes such as: length of text, proximity of historical and social context (the extent to which pupils need to learn contexts that are new to them), and complexity (of narrative, characters, themes, language).

Each of these attributes has a different level of evaluability – that is the level of importance placed on it in order to inform the decision. For example:

  • If a school sees length of text as having high evaluability, they might choose to study the plays on the list – they are all shorter than the novels. At around 60 pages, DNA would be the most rational choice based on this attribute; whereas they might discard Lord of the Flies, at over 200 pages.
  • If proximity of context is deemed to have high evaluability, texts like Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English and DNA would be rational choices, given that they were written in the last 6 years, set in contemporary British society and they focus on teenagers. These are familiar contexts to GCSE pupils. (Of course there may be other contexts within those texts that they aren’t familiar with – Pigeon English is set against a backdrop of gangs and migration, of which many pupils may not be knowledgable. However, the familiar contexts still exist alongside these and help make them ‘comfortable’ reads.)
  • Complexity actually presents a very real boundary, but I would contend that it is a boundary that can be more easily breached through study than we often tend to assume. (If you doubt this, you should read blogs by Joe Kirby and Katie Ashford on how they do it at Michaela Community School – this from Joe is an excellent start.) In this sense, it is a moveable boundary rather than a static one. Again, the more modern texts – Pigeon English, DNA, Anita and Me, Curious Incident – appear to be less complex than the others, mainly because the language is more immediately accessible. These are also stories told through the voices of children or teenagers, so the vocabulary and expression in them are more limited than, say, Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm. If complexity has high evaluability for schools in making the choice, they will probably elect to study the more modern texts on the list.

I would argue that making choices based on these boundaries is what Simon calls satisficing. A portmanteau of satisfy and suffice, satisficing is a decision-making process that entails accepting choices that are ‘good enough’ for purpose, but aren’t optimal.

In Part Two, I will look at how removing the utilitarian boundary of the assessment allows us to make choices using the attribute that, in my opinion, has the highest evaluability in the choosing of texts to study.


The shoe-buying example given above was taken from the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on bounded ratonality.

The bearable discomfort of being… a teacher

“The aim of this project is to avoid as much as possible stationary postures and promote mobility. My will is to introduce a “bearable discomfort” for our well-being.”

Benoit Malta

The above quote could very easily be a mission statement for a school. Certainly it would fit any school that follows what Keven Bartle calls a ‘deficit model’.

In schools up and down the country, a combination of the weight of accountability with the relentless and endless stream of (what we are told are) education’s aims and objectives means that teachers are in a permanent state of motion.

We are unable to adopt “stationary postures” –  the essential states for completing many staples of teaching, such as reflection and planning. As such, we are in a constant state of “bearable discomfort”: as a collective entity, we just about endure despite the crippling workload, constant changes, regularly updated directives, scope creep, regenerating to-do-lists and time theft; however, as individuals many of us don’t survive: this is when the bearable discomfort becomes unbearable and teachers become headline-grabbing statistics.

In the quote that opens this post, however, Benoit Malta isn’t talking about teaching. As far as I know, he doesn’t have any influence on education policy. He is actually a designer from France. The quote is actually about this:

As you can see, the Inactivité is a two-legged chair. The thinking behind the design is that it forces the user to constantly make slight movements in order to maintain balance. One cannot simply sit back for a moment and relax in this chair – it is necessary to be in a perpetual state of response to external forces in order not to fall. This is the bearable discomfort of which Malta speaks.

I think the chair seems perfectly symbolic of what it is to be a teacher today.

The principles of the Inactivité are like the lot of the teacher: we must constantly respond to the forces around us to achieve stability. Of course, some of the forces we face are to be expected: those that come from direction of the students. This is because learning and behaviour are often unpredictable and so cause a disequilibrium that it is our job to stabilise.

However, I’d argue that the majority of the forces that cause teachers bearable discomfort come from other sources. This is a result of the endless accountability measures and extensive managerialism of the education sector.

What is the answer to this? Well, to continue the analogy of Benoit Malta’s chair… in order to be balanced, teachers need to be supported. To resist the forces from above, we need more stability at ground level. Teachers need to feel bearable comfort in the shape of a genuine focus on teacher wellbeing.

Nicky Morgan, Nick Clegg and Tristram Hunt have all taken up the issue of teacher workload in the run-in to May’s General Election. However, whilst this issue is in the hands of politicians, it is conveniently taken out of the hands of schools. Politicians aren’t going to provide the stability that teachers need for bearable comfort. That stability comes from the schools themselves. The best thing that politicians can do is to incentivise teacher wellbeing and retention and put the responsibility into the hands of schools. From here, we might begin to see some change in the manner in which schools respond to directives and trends.

Like many of these directives and trends in education from recent years, the two-legged chair seems eye-catching and innovative. But, of course, like many of those directives it could equally turn out to be counterproductive and harmful.

One of the questions we often ask when considering introducing something new into schools is: “Has this idea got legs?”

But perhaps we should be asking, “How many legs has this idea got?”

Now, how many times do I need to tell you – sit on that chair properly or there’s going to be an accident.