This fortunately or unfortunately isn’t a blog about how Britain is broken. Instead, it is inspired by a lesson I did this week on the theme of love in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. The new GCSEs in literature have placed theme at the heart of the exam questions and it has made me think we need to explore in depth how we teach themes. Previous exams tended to focus on wider arcing questions. How satisfying is the ending? How does the writer create mystery? The new GCSEs place themes and characters at the centre of the questions. How does the writer present power in the play? I don’t recall actually talking about themes when training to be an English teacher and there is the rub: there wasn’t a specific lesson. A lecture. A hand out. In fact, nothing was offered in this area.
I always tell students that I teach them ideas and how to think. We read books to understand how others think. We get students to develop how they think. In fact, all I deal with are ideas, but have we, in the past, been too obsessed with analysis and exams? The new GCSEs, in my opinion, have placed more emphasis on ideas, perspectives and thought. Look at some of the questions. There are questions aimed at summarising, identifying what the writer is thinking. There are questions where the students are comparing texts, identifying how two writers think differently. We even have a question where somebody – an unknown secret student- has made a comment about a text and our students have to comment on whether they agree or disagree with the persons’ statement. It is all about thoughts and ideas.
I think for too long we have had literary analysis driving the exam papers. It was simply a spot a technique and then explore the ideas around the technique. Why did the writer use that technique? I feel there has been a clear shift in the analysis and it is a monumental one, which I am surprised that exam boards haven’t been shouting from the roof tops. Start with the ideas first, then find the techniques. It might sound obvious, and, someone somewhere will pipe up and say that’s how they have always done things, but I would disagree. For too long, we have tried to get students to get the ‘good stuff’ quickly. We have shortened the reading of texts to a reductive processes like spotting the purpose, audience and genre of the text, then spotting techniques. If you don’t believe me, look at the lessons you have taught this term. How long does it take for you to get to a literary technique in a lesson? First five minutes. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. One hour. We even do it with writing. I am going to teach you a fancy grammatical term and you are going to be able to write an example and you will be able to spot it when you look at a text. We are all guilty of it. I am surprised we don’t have schemes of work that just list a number of techniques. Lesson one: simile. Lesson two: metaphors. We are obsessed with techniques and literary analysis, yet moan when students don’t take things further.
What if we spent a lesson looking at writing a letter that is angry yet polite at the same time?
What if we spent a lesson looking at insecurity in stories?
What if we looked at writing lies in stories?
What if we spent a lesson just talking about ideas?
What if we left the analysis to another time?
I am suggesting that we need to get students to think more and think more of the ideas presented.
What is the text saying?
What is it not saying?
What do you think it really means?
Why do you think the writer wrote it?
What is it saying about the writer?
Do we agree or disagree with the text?
What does it remind us of?
Maybe, we have become too focused on literary analysis. Too focused on a reader’s response to a text. Too focused on the exam. Maybe, our focus for next year should be about ideas. What ideas are we going to focus on in this text? What themes are we going to explore in this topic?
Take Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Aside from the themes, we might want to look at these ideas first.
Society has a duty to protect the weak and needy.
We are inspired by the past.
We are more concerned with the present than the future.
The rich have more power than the weak.
Society is divided.
As a starting point, these are ideas, but they are important in each lesson.
Surely, we need to focus on discourse more than rhetoric. Recent events have taught us one thing. People, at the moment, feel more than they think in society. We need to make people think more than they feel. Certainly, the new GCSEs are tougher, but I think we need to get them thinking of ideas more and in more depth and more regularity.
Thanks for reading,