Sunday 12 November 2023

Cold calling in English

Cold calling has, for me, had a funny place in my lessons. I agree it has its benefits, but all too often things are thrust towards the English department's direction. We are left with trying to fit the new approach around how we do things. I discussed this with knowledge retrieval and knowledge before. My problem isn’t with common approaches, but a draconian aspect that it must be done this way or no way at all. For the uninitiated, cold calling is simply picking students to answer a question or to respond to a task. It stops the same four vocal students speaking all the time and it stops a large population daydreaming and twiddling their thumbs. The problem I have is the very nature of English. Sometimes, in a lesson we aren’t recalling quick facts or processing a formula to produce a fact. In fact, English is a very different kettle of fish. It is about opinions and experiences. I often say to students that English is the subject of opinions. We discuss the student’s opinions and we explore a writer’s opinions on a topic or idea. In fact, in any given lesson, we are looking at an opinion in English. And, this is the rub. The fuzziness of opinions is at the centre of English. What is interesting about the poem, Henry? What is your opinion of Macbeth at this moment? What is your favourite word in the line? What stands out in this section? Do you think the writer is effective at getting her message out? Why is Dickens not so critical about the poor here? All these questions might have a smidgen of factual basis but they largely employ an opinion of some form. There is a personal aspect that the student has to connect to. They aren’t just repeating or recalling facts. They are doing something extra which doesn’t quite sit well with throwing a question out to a sea of faces. Let’s take a question like this: What is your opinion of competitive fly-fishing? For a start, I don’t even know if it is such a competition. But, with that one question, you have to check your memory bank of fly-fishing, competitive sports and knowledge of sports to form your opinion. Like most of us, we haven’t got an opinion already stored in our brains. You’ll have some people who will have a clear dislike, like or indifference to the sport. Or, some will be clueless. To achieve an opinion, there are lots of little processes involved, which I find cold calling doesn’t help with. I would say that cold calling in English can be akin to solving quadratic equations without a sheet of paper. There are too many microprocessors for it to be an internal process for most students. For this reason, I worry that cold calling being the dominant process in lessons is dangerous, because it doesn’t work for opinions. Our opinions are funny. They are the combination of knowledge, experience and ‘the force’ or midi-chlorians. There’s something else deep inside. Yeah, Chris. You can cold call opinions, don’t you know? You could, but like most things it forces students to simplify. Like or dislike. The nuance is missed. The exploration is missed. Like all things, I think as a tool it has its benefits, but I also think it should be used with moderation. And, it should be used with caution with English lessons. Its use forces us down a fact driven way of perceiving our subject. Exploration is at the heart of our subject. Forming opinions and developing opinions needs to be a thrust of what we do. I do think English as a subject needs to kick back at some of the systems or processes that are being imposed. I think that there is an English version of these systems, but we need to find and explore it. We need to be exploring how they can work in our context rather than simply accepting them. Thanks for reading Xris

Sunday 15 October 2023

It’s all ‘bout that quote, ‘bout that quote, no ideas!

Quotation learning is a poor proxy for literature revision. There, I’ve said it. The problem I have with it is that a quotation can only get you so far with exploration of a text. In fact, it stops the flow of thought and ideas. Students mould the thinking to the quotation rather than the quotation to the thinking. 

Over the years, I have seen quotations, plot (I take no prisoners on this one) and context become the juggernauts of revision. Students feel confident if they know some quotations, they know the plot and they can throw in some contextual facts into an essay. In fact, they have become the markers for revision. But, this is where the rub comes, they generate a level of false confidence. They give the appearance of knowing the text well, when that isn’t the case. 

Revision in English has become very knowledge led. But, the knowledge is limited to quite a narrow field. The knowledge of quotations. The knowledge of plot. The knowledge of context. If we are honest, these are the easiest bits of knowledge related to our subject. They are the things we can easily teach, text, and repeat in lessons. This ‘easy’ knowledge spills into how students revise. They revise these ‘easy’ knowledge elements and because they are more concrete than other types of knowledge there’s a sense of accomplishment. Students feel a sense of achievement in a largely abstract subject because they have learnt something concrete. Teachers feel a sense of accomplishment because they have taught something tangible and concrete - and easily measurable. 

There is some value in learning quotations, plot and context, but in the English classroom these should not be the drivers. Sadly, they are, which in turn converts to the idea that in English, all you need to revise is quotations, plot details and contextual facts. They are foundational things rather than exploratory and cumulative things. If you don’t believe me, then check out the examiner’s reports. I have yet to see one that says that students need to learn quotations. 

The knowledge of ideas. The knowledge of concepts. The knowledge of the writers’ feelings and thoughts. These are generally left behind with this concrete knowledge revision focus. We don’t see revision built around these. The complexity of the subject is the main reason. The plurality of ideas means that you cannot easily mark these sorts of things. You cannot easily tick or cross them. You cannot boil them down to a quick true or false task. You cannot summarise them easily. We don’t factor this complexity into revision and so revision doesn’t focus on the complex. Yet, what we expect students to do is get these complex ideas naturally armed with quotations, plot details and contextual knowledge. 

For this reason, I’ve been playing around with revision with our Year 11s. They are preparing for their first mock in November and I thought I’d explore different ways to build and develop a level of complexity in the revision. So, each Friday, we set the first ten minutes on answering these questions about a character studied. Not a quotation really in sight. 

I wanted them to think big and exploratory but also think like they would under exam conditions. They aren’t writing in full sentences, but bullet points. Then, I reveal what I would reward on an online version of the document.  The idea is to score as many points as you can.

Interestingly, students throw out ideas. I’ve used fatherly, is that ‘parent-like’? If they have an idea that I haven’t included, then I add it and add a score to it. This week I gave one idea 5 marks, because it was so good. The idea that the Friar links to the theme of rebellion. Cue more students trying to outdo that 5 marks. 

What I noticed was a real engagement with ideas and characters. Exploration and ideas were at the heart of the revision. It wasn’t just knowledge recalling, but idea forming… and exploring. It is quite easy to do but the key thing is showing a hierarchy of ideas. That’s where we can help make something abstract seem concrete. The categorising of some words or ideas being better is often something we say but don’t actively work on in lessons. Yes, some words are better to describe a character than others. Some words are precise and some words are general when describing things. 

The texts are massive banks of quotations. Seeing texts as disjointed entities is the problem here. Our obsession on quotations is warping how students interpret texts. They are thinking around the quotations and not thinking around the text. We need to reassert that distinction in lessons. A student that can think around a text writes the best essays.   

Ideas are the interesting things in English and we have a duty to make sure that our subject isn’t all quotations and extracts. If we are not careful, students are interpreting the subject as being all about the quotes and not the ideas. 

Thanks for reading,