Tag Archives: English curriculum

5 useful online resources for English teachers

There are a number of resources I return to again and again online, in order to either find useful texts for pupils to read, or to deepen my contextual knowledge of texts. Here are five sites I think are really helpful.

JSTOR Understanding Shakespeare 

This is a brilliant resource that connects digital texts from the Folger Shakespeare Library with articles on the JSTOR digital library. As the strapline tells us: “Pick a play. Click a line. Instantly see articles on JSTOR that reference the line.” 

Below is a screenshot that shows you how it works. I’ve chosen the line “‘Tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed.” from Hamlet’s first soliloquy (Act 1, Scene 2). You can see that there are 53 references to this line in JSTOR. It lists them on the right of the screen, and by hovering over each one, you can see the page of the article on which it is referenced.
In the referenced page on the example above, you can see how the line can be seen as part of a tradition of similar references to husbandry as a metaphor for kingliness and national security across a number of Shakespeare’s plays. Illuminating, right?

The British Library Articles 

I love these. Here you can browse some really interesting articles on Shakespeare and the Renaissance, Romantics and Victorians, and Twentieth Century literature. All of the articles are linked to items in the British Library’s collection (mainly original manuscripts), with embedded slideshows throughout the articles exploring these items. There’s some really useful contextual stuff here.


This is an American website containing “a free collection of fiction and nonfiction for 5th-12th grade classrooms”. It is a wonderful digital resource.

You can search texts based on the grade they are aimed at (just add 1 to get the UK equivalent age: 6th grade is the same as Year 7 in the UK), or by the text’s Lexile range. Or – and this is where it is really useful – you can search it based on theme, genre (looking for speeches or short stories?), or by a short list of books that the texts link to (for example, searching for texts linked to Animal Farm returns some nonfiction articles on Stalin and the Russian Revolution, among other things). You can also search for texts based on linguistic and rhetorical devices, so if you are looking for examples of hyperbole or dramatic irony, the search will return texts that contain these.

What’s more, each text comes with a series of questions to help comprehension. And you can download each text as a PDF (which includes these questions).

BBC History – British History

With some articles, some iWonder pages and some BBC archive videos, this is a really useful source of contextual information for literature texts. With pages on the Tudors, the Victorians and some key moments of the Jacobean period (to name but a few useful touchstones for English teachers), there are some great resources here.

English Heritage – Story of England

In a similar style to the BBC History site, English Heritage’s simple timelines and overviews of the key periods in English history are a valuable resource. Not only is this organised by period, you can also explore it by themes such as Power & Politics, Religion, Daily Life, and Arts & Invention. Have a look and see what you think.

“I hate poems”: introducing poetry

I hate poetry.

Of course that isn’t true.

But it would be equally untrue if I were to say I love poetry.

The reason both these statements are untrue is because they are huge, sweeping statements. Poetry, like music, movies, books, art, theatre, television and chocolates runs the gamut from the great (strawberry creams) to the woeful (coffee creams). I love some poetry. In fact, I love lots of poetry. But there’s some poetry I plain dislike. This is the first thing I discuss when teaching poetry: that it is a matter of taste. People don’t say “I hate music”; they say “I hate Kula Shaker”. They might hate The Voice and Top Gear and Hollyoaks, but that doesn’t mean they hate television. So if a pupil says “I don’t like poetry”, I suggest that what they mean is “I don’t like any of the poetry I’ve read to this point in my life”. And I tell them that I think that will change.

Such preamble out of the way, I always ask my pupils this simple question before studying poetry with them for the first time:

What is poetry?

Don’t read ahead yet. Just stop here and answer the question. Commit to a definition. Take as long as you need. Write it down if you want, but I want you to have a definition. If you don’t want to write it down, say it aloud. Poetry is…

Was that surprisingly hard to do? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe you’ve thought about having a clear definition before. But if you haven’t, that might have taken a little bit of thought or refinement. Certainly, it seems a difficult question for pupils to answer. In fact, for many of us, it’s one of those things that we assume we know the answer to, but perhaps we don’t. Psychologist Rebecca Lawson explored this illusion of knowledge when she asked people to draw something very simple, something we should all be familiar with: bicycles. She found that, despite such familiarity, most people can’t draw a bike or even pick one out in a line-up of drawings.

Rebbeca Lawson - The Science of Cycology
Questions from Rebecca Lawson’s ‘The Science of Cycology’


When I ask pupils to answer the question “What is poetry?”, I get all sorts of answers, some vague, some pertinent: it rhymes, it doesn’t have to rhyme, it’s a way of showing emotions, it tells a story, it has a rhythm, it uses lines and verses, poems are short, etc.

Most of those answers might be true of some poems, but they never get anywhere near defining poetry. I spend a little time trying to falsify their answers: if poetry rhymes, does that mean this shop name is a poem?


If poems tell stories, is this a poem?


Eventually, we can all agree that we haven’t really defined what poetry is, so I suggest we need to understand what it is if we are going to study it.

And this is how I get pupils to define it.

I show them a range of differing texts – about 8 or 9 – and ask them to look at them and answer two questions:

  1. Is this a poem?
  2. Why/why not?

The thing I don’t tell them is that every one of the texts is a poem. I just ensure that each of them is so different from the next. I throw in seemingly impenetrable modernism from Gertrude Stein, a short three-word poem, a prose poem, some nonsense from Spike Milligan, some E.E. Cummings, and a few others. I make sure that each of the poems do different things – some have clear meanings, some are abstruse; some rhyme, some don’t; some are long, some are short; some have end-stopped lines, some use enjambment; some are narrative, some present ideas or feelings.

For as long as I’ve been doing this task with classes, the pupils have always responded that they are certain that some of the texts are poems and they are adamant that others aren’t. They are also often some that they are undecided on. Sometimes I let them remain undecided but ask them to explain why.

Once pupils have made their decisions, we go through each of the poems, one by one, together. We explore meanings and messages, highlight differences and look at the features, and I slowly reveal my trick: that they are all poems.

We then go back to the first question, with a further clause at the beginning:

If all of these are poems, what is poetry?

(In other words, what do they all have in common?)

Then, with some questioning, we arrive at a very simple definition. The wording tends to differ with each class, but it goes something like this:

Poetry uses words (or language) in different ways (without having to follow the rules of grammar), often using patterns, to create meanings.

It is, as I say, a really simple definition, but I think it unlocks poetry a little for pupils. From here, we might actually apply this definition by giving pupils an opportunity to create poems such as humuments, blackout poetry or cutout poetry. I find this is quite efficient as it doesn’t rely on pupils trying to write something from scratch and gives them an opportunity to produce a poem by using words that are already in front of them and to apply the definition by using those words in different ways (breaking rules) to create new meanings.

I’ve always found this a simple but effective way to introduce poetry.

Evaluation: it’s a piece of cake

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Never marry a tennis player. Love means nothing to them. Or so the old joke goes. I’m convinced that there should be a teaching equivalent of this line that goes something like: Never offer an examiner some cake. ‘Some’ can mean absolutely anything to them.

This is no joke, though. It is the very nature of these assessment descriptors that the interpretation of words like ‘some’ or ‘evaluative’ or ‘understanding’ is entirely subjective. Daisy Christodoulou has written about this problem with criterion-referencing, citing both Tim Oates and Dylan Wiliam on the issue of the subjective interpretation of descriptors. It seems that the English language is pretty unhelpful when it comes to precision of meaning.

So it came as no surprise when I tuned into this week’s #engchatuk to find English teachers discussing the topic of teaching ‘evaluation’, with a broad range of interpretations of what the word meant. The natural conclusion of this is that there were also a wide range of ideas presented on how we should then teach pupils how to evaluate. There were a number of interpretations (and, thus, approaches to teaching) that I don’t think I agree with and some that were close to my own interpretation.

I’m not suggesting that I am right, but this is my take on evaluation. A good way to look at it is through the medium of cakes. (Heck, a good way to look at anything is through the medium of cakes.) More specifically, though, I think a useful example of evaluation is that which Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood do when they take on the wearisome task of making their way through slabs of crème pât-doused confectionery each week. (You never hear them complain about workload, do you?)

Here’s an example:

Here are some of the comments that Paul and Mary make whilst evaluating:

  • “they look like Little Gems”
  • “they’ve lost their shape in the oven”
  • “if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them before you baked them, and you had plenty of time”
  • “they’re great – the only thing is they’re slightly over-baked”
  • “a beautiful flavour – I love the marzipan… I’d like to have seen a bit more colour to lift it up on the top”
  • “the appearance of the top is lovely – that nice crackle on the top”
  • “you’ve caught a few of them though”
  • “for my taste, I think it’s slightly over-gingered… I like the flavour ginger but the burn that comes, for me, is too much”
  • “I would have liked a lot more nuts in it”
  • “the whole thing about a biscotti is that it’s dense with flavour, and you’ve got large areas of empty crust”
  • “the texture’s excellent, but, for me, a biscotti should be absolutely rammed full of whatever you’re putting in there”
  • “what’s making it bitter?”
  • “it’s lavender but it’s not a lavender that you recognise”
  • “it’s a very difficult thing to use lavender in biscuits… it’s just not working, that lavender, is it?”
  • “I’ve only finished one and I’m not getting [the lavender] coming through at all”
  • “for me it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”
  • “the white chocolate doesn’t really need anything with it if it was a very thin coating”
  • “the flavour of that cinnamon… the mixed spice – it’s very strong”
  • “this doesn’t work really”
  • “the look of them, I think they look great”
  • “I’d never have thought of putting colouring in, just a swirl – so pretty, and the filling is good”
  • “I think the flavour… the biscuit is baked extremely well, it does melt; the flavour is really nice as well”
  • “I think it looks very professional”

The range of comments are varied, but they seem to focus on: outcomes (“they’ve lost their shape in the oven”); impact (“the burn that comes, for me, is too much”); alternatives to elective choices (“if you wanted more definition, you could have fridged them”); and context (“it doesn’t look like a biscuit; it looks more like a pudding”). It may be that you could identify other categories for these comments and group them in different ways – I’d be interested if somebody has spotted different patterns (I wondered about the question “what’s making it bitter?” – perhaps this is the question we ask when we want pupils to evaluate: why is this writing like this? or what’s making it have this effect?)

What one might do, having identified what these comments are doing, is to teach pupils to make similar comments – we could give them sentence stems, or model the process with a text. But I think that misses out something crucial here and that is: the importance of who is doing the evaluating here.

Paul Hollywood was born into a family of bakers – his parents own a bakery, and his grandfather was head baker at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool. He started working with his parents at 17 years old and, in his own words, “lost my youth because I had to get up and go to bed early… I never had girlfriends or went clubbing until I was in my mid-20s.” By the time The Great British Bake Off hit our screens for the first time in 2010, he’d had nearly 30 years of professional experience in baking, including holding the position of head baker in such lauded institutions as The Dorchester hotel on Park Lane.

But Hollywood is just a beginner compared to Mary Berry, who began her working life demonstrating ovens for the electricity board – she’d do this by turning up to people’s homes and baking them a Victoria sponge. After studying at Le Cordon Bleu school in France at 22, Berry worked for a range of food related bodies (such as the Egg Council and the Flour Advisory Board), before becoming food editor on a number of magazines. Over her 60 year career, she has published more than 75 cookery books.

What is crucial to Hollywood and Berry’s ability to evaluate so effectively is the knowledge and experience they bring to the task.  They can evaluate precisely and judiciously because they know their way around good baking. The recipes that they are tasting may be new to them, but they have a clear understanding of the processes a baker needs to go through to achieve success across the gamut of baking techniques: they understand immediately whether something has been successful or not, as well as the reasons why it has or hasn’t worked. What is more, they can instantly identify what the baker should have done to improve or rectify. They understand the wider context of any bake – the required effect of the recipe, and the tradition that runs through a particular style of baking. And, in an instant, they apply all of this knowledge and experience to what they are seeing and tasting and… they evaluate the bake.

So how do we teach pupils to evaluate in their reading responses? Obviously, we don’t have the time to furnish them with the wealth of knowledge and experience that Hollywood and Berry have accumulated, but building knowledge and experience should be our goal nonetheless.

The way to teach evaluation is, first and foremost, to ensure pupils read lots. Build up pupils’ experience of writing and of the traditions of writing – of literary fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama, etc. By experiencing the effects of writing, when confronted with a new text, we want them to be able to identify when a writer has followed a tradition or subverted it, whether they have been successful in achieving an impact, or how utilising techniques may have highlighted their biases. Secondly, when reading a text, we should spend a lot of time teaching context: what are the historical, social, cultural and biographical contexts that inform a text? When evaluating, pupils should be connecting their analysis to these contexts – can they read the text through the veil of what they know about the writer’s interests or perhaps the contemporary reader’s preoccupations?

I’m totally convinced that this is what evaluation is in English: connecting a text to one’s own knowledge and experience of reading. It isn’t a quick approach, like giving sentence stems or modelling the process (we should do this anyway, all the time), but it is quite simple: get kids reading more and think carefully about what they are reading. Read through the traditions of writing – from Greek myths to modern reportage. And read around the texts too – build up a picture of the context: the nourishment that fed the writing.

So where analysis might be seen as a student’s understanding of language, evaluation is an expression of their wider knowledge. You want me to end this by saying “it’s the icing on the cake”, don’t you? Well, I won’t. I’m better than that. Only an idiot would end a blog with a half-baked pun.

What is the point of Speaking and Listening? #BlogSyncEnglish

There has been much hand-wringing over the past couple of years about the place of speaking and listening in the English curriculum. The refrain from English teachers and teaching unions has generally been along the lines of this cri de coeur from Joe Walsh of NATE:

“What is proposed is essentially a downgrading of the importance of speaking and listening skills in the English GCSE.”

And where have teachers placed the blame of this devaluation of speaking and listening? Step forward Michael Gove and the DfE.

The thing is, I’m not so sure that speaking and listening has been devalued. Or at least if it has, Gove and the government aren’t entirely culpable.

When I trained, speaking and listening was a teacher-assessed element of the English GCSE, making up 20% of the overall grade in the AQA specification that my school followed (three tasks in, broadly: presenting, role-playing and discussion).

It might also be worth adding that one of the three pieces of coursework in the concurrent AQA English Literature GCSE was also allowed to be delivered orally too – that piece constituted 10% of the overall grade.

This, one would assume, is the evidence that speaking and listening once had a place of value in English. By removing it from the GCSE and letting it stand alone, we are told, Gove has devalued speaking and listening.

This suggests that the very value of speaking and listening is subjective rather than intrinsic: that its value is only based on the utility teachers and pupils see in it. When the speaking and listening assessment affects a pupil’s GCSE grade, it has value. When it doesn’t, its value is diminished. This seems to also suggest that the value of speaking and listening is ultimately decided by schools, teachers and pupils – even if that decision is provoked by curriculum changes.

But the narrative of a devalued speaking and listening is one that troubles me. It is my contention that speaking and listening may now actually be finding its rightful place in the English curriculum, and that the changes made in the past few years are actually bestowing speaking and listening a more intrinsic value.

When announcing the changes, Ofqual admitted that that there were huge inconsistencies in teacher assessment of speaking and listening. This meant that “in schools where the rules are interpreted differently, or where marking is more vulnerable to pressures from accountability measures, [pupils] may have received extra credit – when grade boundaries were set – for work of the same quality.” This seems a euphemistic way of saying that some schools inflate grades in speaking and listening assessment. Indeed, I did placements in three schools during my training year and was struck by the vast difference in interpreting the grade descriptors. It was clear in one school that they were inflating the grades to give low achieving pupils a better chance of passing the GCSE (they did this with the kindest of intentions – they cared about their pupils and truly wanted the best for them). However, this is anecdotal so we should adhere to a principle of charity and suggest that the majority of teachers weren’t cowing under the pressure of accountability measures and that they continued to approach the assessments with integrity. But even if this is the case, inconsistency is still rife. This is because, as Daisy Christodoulou has suggested:

So even if we think we are rigorous in applying the rules and we take pride in fair and accurate marking, the outcomes probably still aren’t actually fair and accurate.

Of course, speaking and listening in the new GCSE English curriculum is also teacher assessed. However, it seems that exam boards will be taking moderation a little more seriously than they did in the old GCSE. Whilst details are still yet to be finalised on this, it seems that they will be requesting audio-visual recordings of a sample of students from each centre. Moderation in previous qualifications meant that an examiner from your board came in once every five or so years and schools handpicked a few pupils to do a speaking and listening assessment in front of them. As a process of moderation, it was a fleeting nod to the idea of rigour.

I would hope that, with the new assessment, schools will produce audio-visual recordings of all pupils’ tasks for internal moderation. I think this will have the further benefit of bestowing a sense of formality about the speaking and listening ‘examination’, suggesting that we as schools value this strand of our subject highly. In this sense, it will still down to schools to decide on the value of speaking and listening. If we take it seriously then we are saying: this has value.

We really need to stop the hand-wringing and the ‘think of the children’ arguments like this one: “For some, these S&L activities have been proud moments, huge hurdles to overcome, only for their grades to become worthless.” Their grades are only worthless if schools and teachers don’t value them.

However, it isn’t solely down to us. I actually think that in separating the assessment from the GCSE grade, Gove, the Dfe, Ofqual – whoever you want to hold responsible – have brought out a more intrinsic value in speaking and listening. It no longer has subjective value as a component part of the GCSE. In previous qualifications, it was hidden away: once the exam certificate was printed all we could see was the overall English grade. But now speaking and listening has achieved independence. Future GCSE certificates will give a grade for English (reading and writing, still enmeshed) and a separate grade for speaking and listening. Potential suitors (colleges, employers, etc.) can now see exactly how well their petitioner has demonstrated verbal communication within the context of formal education. As a former of employer in an industry of mainly customer-facing roles, I would have found this incredibly useful.

So to suggest that separating the speaking and listening from the GCSE is downgrading it seems absurd to me. I think that, finally, speaking and listening may have been elevated to its rightful place.


A free resource – but not for everyone: literary terms display

I recently wrote about how a colleague and I plan on approaching the teaching of 19th century fiction extracts as part of the new English Language GCSE.

To support the introduction of some more sophisticated figures of rhetoric, we’ve also produced some A4 posters to display in classrooms, the idea being that they don’t give definitions of the devices but are merely there to be memory cues for pupils. We want pupils to learn the devices – if they contained more information, we feel that pupils would rely too heavily on them, which isn’t helpful when they get to the exam hall.

I’ve had loads of requests for the display so, as promised, I’m sharing it here.


I’ve written before about why I think people selling resources to teachers is wrong.

When people sell resources to other teachers, they are restricting those resources from people who can’t afford to pay for them, as well as from those who just don’t want to have to pay for resources.

With this in mind, I’m going to set a restriction on downloading this resource: if you sell resources to other teachers, either on your own website, on a resource website or on TES, then this resource – that is available to download free of charge – isn’t for you. I don’t care if you give some resources away – if you sell some resources too, you aren’t allowed this one.

Obviously, if you DO sell resources to teachers, I have no way of stopping you from downloading this, so I am just going to rely on you being honest. Of course, you can be totally dishonest and download this display and use it anyway. That’s your prerogative and is out of my hands.

But for anyone else who is happy to share resources for free, here is the GCSE 19th Century Fiction – Literary Terms Display, as promised. I hope it is useful.

NB: the idea for this display came from a t-shirt I saw someone wearing – it was of a design very similar to the ‘Hyperbole’ poster. So I can’t claim complete originality on this, I’m afraid.

How to choose study texts in English: Part Two

In the Part One, I introduced the idea of satisficing: a decision making process 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:

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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…


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

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.

‘Elitism’? Be careful how you use that word

This was originally published on 14th June 2013 on a now defunct blog.

Okay, confession time: I can’t stand those ‘why I teach’-type posts. I find them a bit self-indulgent, if I’m honest, and I am far more interested in what we teach and how we teach.

With that in mind, this post isn’t an attempt to talk about myself. It is merely an anecdote of my schooling which serves as the reason I think that the new GCSE proposals in English have a lot that is good and right about them.

I attended a normal comprehensive school in the late 1980s and early 1990s (I know, I look way too young, right? Right? Ah, forget it…) I spent most of my time back then listening to The Stone Roses and writing bad song lyrics in the back of my French book. School, largely, passed me by. I was quiet and quite introverted, but got on well enough with pretty much everyone in the year group. I was allowed to drift through without being pushed to succeed.  And I was rubbish at a lot of subjects. In fact, I was in the bottom set for English when I started my GCSEs.

I can remember walking into my GCSE English class on the first day of the 4th year (that’s Year 10 to you – as we all know, changing what we call the levels of an ordering system makes it more rigorous). It was a class that was entirely full of boisterous lads. Lads who I got on alright with, but it wasn’t much fun to be in a classroom with. Lads who took the piss out of The Stone Roses. Lads who I now see on Facebook getting all excited about Roses reunions. Such is life. Anyway, all I can really remember about that room is the noise and that there was barely any room to sit down. I don’t remember much about the first lesson or how long it lasted but, at some point, something really fortuitous happened…

The head of English knocked on the door and said that a few people from the class were going to have to move from this class to the top set. The top set wasn’t very full and this bottom set class was bursting at the seams. They asked for volunteers. I turned to a mate who was sat in my row: he nodded at me and we put our hands up. I think about 4 or 5 of us went. I don’t know if anyone else volunteered, but we were pointed at, asked to grab our stuff and we left the lads to whatever it is those lads did for the next two years. We were going to the top set.

The top set was lovely. They were calm and they were good listeners. We settled in quite well, and I seem to remember that, as this was a group of high fliers, they had taken an extra GCSE option which meant that they had 1 less English lesson than we did. That meant that the 4 or 5 of us got an entire English lesson every week with just us and the teacher.

I don’t really remember much about the content of lessons. I remember the teacher talking to the pupils like peers, discussing things intelligently. But what I really remember is the reading. We read texts from cover to cover. And we read lots. We read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’; we read ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’; we read ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’. And we talked about what we were reading. And something happened to me: I found out I loved reading. I didn’t always understand everything that I was reading (I was lower ability) and I didn’t always enjoy the texts that I was reading. But I enjoyed learning from them. I enjoyed learning about them. I enjoyed talking about them. And I learned lots. I can remember really disliking Hardy at the time, but I also can recall learning all about fate and determinism and how interesting it was. And, although I may not have valued it at the time, the value I place on reading that book now is immense. It was an introduction to critical theory, although I didn’t know it at the time. Years later, at university, it was this formative experience that allowed me to flourish in reading texts within a critical context.

I can also remember at the end of term – midway through Year 11 – seeing the English teachers throwing some old books in the big bins and wheeling them out to the caretaker’s bay. I went to those bins at breaktime and pulled out tattered old copies of the books I’d read, and others too. I still have them now.

Reading Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare made me. It made me go out and read more Shakespeare. And from there I discovered other books to read. And I read and read from that point onwards.

I’m not from a family that placed any emphasis on higher education. I was encouraged to go out to work after finishing A levels (which was further in education than my older brother and sister ever got – they left school after GCSEs/O Levels). And go out to work is what I did. But all the while I was working, I was also reading a huge wealth of literature for pleasure. And then, in my late 20s, I decided to go to university. And I worked 4 days a week whilst also studying full time for my degree. It was a bit unfashionable to do so, but I read everything they put on my reading lists. The bottom set pupil. Who hated reading.

The one single thing that got me where I am today, is the cultural capital I was endowed with in being made to read Hardy and Shakespeare from cover to cover.  So, please don’t tell me it is elitist to teach pupils great works of 19th century literature. It’s elitist NOT to teach these texts to everyone. It’s elitist to leave these to the top set pupils or those pupils whose parents buy them an expensive education.

Now, I will concede that perhaps the curriculum may be too narrow in only focusing on 19th century novels, and I can understand an argument that it assumes that all great literature was written before 1900. But how is that different to the current curriculum? The current AQA GCSE Literature exam revolves around a similarly narrow field of ‘modern’ set texts. There’s nothing from before 1937 on there. I don’t hear many complaints about that.

For me, the proposals offer pupils a challenge. A challenge similar to the ones that I got at school. As David Didau says, learning should be difficult, not easy. I, for one, am looking forward to the challenge. I may not enjoy it, at times. The pupils may not enjoy it, at times. But I am certain that the cultural capital they will gain from studying such texts is worth it.