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.

9 thoughts on “How to choose study texts in English: Part One”

  1. Interesting post, James. I liked your presentation of the ‘suboptimal decision’. The boundaries are inevitable for most of us. I wondered what you thought about challenge as both a boundary and an opportunity? If possible, with the legacy AQA GCSE with a top set, I’d opt NOT to take the short cuts possible by doubling up Lang and Lit texts, but do different texts for all the CAs. I want to prepare them for the demands of A level and keep their reading ‘turnover’ high if I can. Similarly, I wondered what you thought of using simplified and abridged texts? Is it original text/language only? If we simplify at KS3, is this adequate preparation for KS4, especially with the new GCSE ahead? Interested in your thoughts.

  2. Lots of good questions, Lisa. My answer to most of this would be: challenge, challenge, challenge!

    I don’t have a problem with abridged texts during the curriculum. Also simplified versions at KS3 for weaker readers. See Katie Ashford’s blog for lots on this. She advocates Classic Starts:

    Hopefully, Part Two of this post will make some of my points a bit clearer and give some further reading on this.

  3. A very thought provoking post – thank you for this.
    The school I work at has opted to stick with WJEC but if I was teaching AQA (and was allowed to choose texts to teach at GCSE) I would love to do Frankenstein, Lord of the Flies and Macbeth. I love texts that have real depth to them and give students the chance to get to grips with literary explorations of human nature. Complexity, length, cost, etc is important and I love your logical approach but for me (in my wholly hypothetical dream world!) decision making would be based on ‘can I teach it well to all?’ and ‘why do I want to teach it?’ If my answer to the latter wasn’t rooted in genuine passion for the text, its context or its genre then I wouldn’t teach it as well as I could teach something else. I think there are too many teachers who simply choose texts based on ancient schemes of work and worksheets they have rattling around in dusty cupboards – there’s nothing wrong with recycling but ease must be counterbalanced by the factors you’ve highlighted (and my selfish and emotional response to texts!)

    1. I completely agree. Really important for teacher to have passion and connection with the text. A lot of schools don’t give teachers that choice. Imagine being made to teach a text you absolutely hate and see no value in?

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