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Tuesday, 22 December 2015

I've Seen That Movie Too

"But, miss, what's the point? When are we ever going to use these skills?"

I'm sure words akin to these have been heard by every possible maths teacher (as opposed to teacher of maths) because, well, maths is probably the least obviously useful subject out there. That is not to say that maths isn't useful or, indeed, that usefulness should blindly dictate curricula. It is to say that the disengaged look at their ability to count and their recollections of knowing their time tables and wonder why they need to know anything more. I am strongly opposed to this way of thinking.

You see, the reason why one learns anything is, simply, to learn it. At least, that's a nice theory. A more pragmatic point of view is that your school/government says that you have to learn certain subjects for however long because otherwise people will close doors for themselves. Take, for instance, yourself. You probably wanted to a vet/doctor/policeman/fireman/whatever when you were six. Did you have the same idea at sixteen? What about at thirteen when you're getting ready for college? Very few people have such a consistent life goal as this to be able to say yes both times. Yet, if we were to bow to the people who demand that (generally American public) schools let them drop {disliked subjects} from quite young, there are doors closed. The you who studies maths to the age of sixteen is not the same as the one that ditched it at thirteen.

A Metadoor
Sometimes closing doors doesn't matter. Take, for instance, myself. After all, I am completely clear with people that I haven't studied any science subjects since year eleven. That's sixteen. It sounds frighteningly young for surely science is critically important. In all honesty, the importance of scientific knowledge to everyday life is generally exaggerated but it is very young. It meant, for instance, that I could not have applied to do a BEng anywhere at all... and that if I wanted to open doors like that for myself it would involve specialised courses paid for out of pocket (in my case, the "charitable" pockets of Studylink). When it appeared as though everyone I knew was going to do engineering the fact I couldn't meant a little, but generally no I haven't cared at all for the closed doors.

On the other hand, sometimes closing doors does matter. Do I regret not having taken science subjects since year eleven (when it was just science all lumped together)? To an extent, yes. Insofar as it meant not studying human evolution in year thirteen? Up until a few weeks ago my answer would have been a definite yes (I have plans afoot... if they work out you'll hear as they come to bear fruit). Otherwise (you may recall people are particularly interesting for me) not really.

The point that I am trying to make clear is that people don't know what paths in life they will pursue until they are on them. I am also trying to make it clear that people will act against their best interests so that they preclude certain paths from being options for them. I am also mixing several metaphors here but that's irrelevant. What I am leading up to/trying to use these points to do is establish that there are rationales for why certain subjects are compulsory. That I believe that one should study a variety of things for several reasons... and the sheer ability to leverage one's knowledge of a subject in everyday life is far from being chief among them.

Special Theory of Relative Awareness
The problem that I have is that I don't seem to live up to this principle when it comes to English. It is perhaps unsurprising to learn (or remember) that I grew to dislike English. It went from hero to zero during the course of year eleven.

I have previously explained my views of English and they emphasise working with English: creating works. This is probably not a surprising sentiment given that this blog is, well, a blog. I obviously spend quite a lot of my time creating works. But it is something that I genuinely think is important. Contrary to the Einstein quote above, simplicity isn't just a function of knowledge. One's ability to actually command the tools at one's disposal, to articulate one's thoughts, is quite a distinct idea to one's knowledge of a subject. There are very clever people who make terrible lecturers, so the reviews say, because they don't know how to teach. These are different skills. Yet, even if you do know how to make your points clearly, you will generally not be able to make simple explanations of things you don't know much about. One needs both.

The trouble is, how does one distinguish the sentiments underlying "creating works" and "But miss..."? Surely they are the same. Creating works, after all, is just an airy fairy way of saying, "How to use English in everyday life". Trust me, I should know. Could it be the case that I really don't live up to the principles I espouse for education when it comes to English?

When Living Means Dying
A closer examination of my post about English would suggest that in December last year, the answer to that is no. I articulate a clear reason why one learns English in the first place:

What do I think the purpose of teaching English is? Well, English is the primary language that we use and people need to be both competent and confident in the use of it in creative and formal writing, reading and speaking activities.

The contradiction between my stated views on English and why subjects are taught relies on what it is that I am supposed to have said about why English is taught. Above I was talking less about Why English is Taught and more about Why English is Compulsory. Those are, in fact, two different ideas. Yet, there is still a slight problem here. After all I really do believe that English needs to be more useful.

You see one of the problems with English is that the texts are basically taught in such a way that the pupil just regurgitates the meanings/interpretations/evidence that the teacher suggests in the classroom. At what point is the pupil doing the thinking? Quite possibly a few days before the exam where they decide to rote learn an essay or, perhaps, not. What a sad indictment that is: that the most independent thought the pupil has relates to their revision programme.

I put it to you that this dependence on the teacher is the outcome of fear. Certainly, if you were to take, say, Lord of the Flies and say that one of the key themes in it is that man is naturally good, you'd be wrong. Or, maybe, Ralph, Piggy and Simon are problems that Golding never really addresses. Ralph is very much a weak leader, classed in that classic "all that it takes for evil men to triumph is for good men to do nothing," but that isn't evil itself. Ralph doesn't, at all, seem to present any indication that his nature isn't aligned with society. Piggy is also weak, physically. Simon is, maybe, insane but mental infirmness just doesn't make sense. Maybe their weakness is consistent with Golding's message after all... what gives them, and so Man, the spine to not be evil is society. The point, of course, is that if you are willing to ignore the whole picture, you can take these three characters and show that Lord of the Flies has a theme contrary to the one Golding explicitly states for the reader. But a classroom is a terrible place for this sort of thinking.

Conventional Simon Wisdom; reality is he's more Bernard than Helmholtz
You see, the way a classroom works is fairly simple. The class is given a book, maybe a third reads it, and the teacher then begins, leads and ends the discussion. They'll run through the themes, images, symbols, characters etc. etc. The pupil is asked to learn these things (as opposed to learn how to make these findings: English is completely non-abstract except when it comes to Unfamiliar Texts). They demonstrate their learning through, generally, writing essays (or, rather, five paragraphs... some of which may be a page long, or more). And if they write something wrong, then they don't pass. And not passing is a very big deal indeed (for some pupils, at any rate). Yet, what is right and what is not right is clear only in shallow terms: the reasons for "rightness" are not clear (and, personally, I believe my year eleven teacher kept them deliberately concealed from me, #paranoid). In other words, free thinking is very risky.

Indeed, I put it to you that what English, as I experienced it, does is simply make people afraid to have their own opinions, to make their own interpretations. Sure, some ideas are more right than others (as we saw above) but, on the other hand, surely the important thing is that people are taught how to read literary works for literary meanings? I am unconvinced that the framework presented by "language techniques" does anything at all to that end... given they seem universally to be used to represent evidence.

The big problem here is that Unfamiliar Texts exists as a Thing. The whole idea there is that the pupil has never encountered the texts before and that they can, at least I assume for I found our education in this standard extremely confusing, use language techniques to try and piece together some kind of meanings. It could well be that I was simply someone who never got it and from this outside looking in position, am left completely confused... whereas if you did get it then, well, hurrah for you it all makes sense.

Synthesis...

The trouble is that I do feel as though I was scared to have opinions. Particularly in year eleven. How is it possible to fail a personal response? I don't know. The standard has some bollocks which suggests that if one isn't able to explain one's response one therefore fails. Yet, at the same time, it's still got that convincing and perceptive things. It seems all the world to me, and I imagine by year eleven self would agree, that the response standard exists purely for your teacher to tell you whether or not you are a shallow person (and until I started basically pretending they weren't personal, I was very shallow indeed). It's hard to not take a personal response personally. In fact, the suggestion that you shouldn't is deeply troubling.

In year twelve things were a little bit different. Actually, they were very different in that I seemed to, overnight, go from some misunderstood mediocre-version-of-genius to critical darling. Maybe it was simply because I now sat a little bit away from the front of the room and was one of the furthest pupils from the teacher (rather than the closest/second closest) and this allowed easy freedom to spend most lessons slamming Ralph's leadership. Who knows. The point is that the fear was more or less that my teacher liked me too much for my success to be real.

What does this all lead to, then? Well, very simply, class discussion. Comparisons of texts. Less teacher input, a more moderating than guiding hand (in the specific case of reading for meaning), would be eminently desirable. Some say, when the likes of Jeff Bliss make their cases, that it is far too much to expect every teacher/lesson to be inspiring. I, personally, remember (and this will spoil the film) Dead Poets Society less for "O, Captain" mumbo-jumbo and more for the ultimate suicide of one of the pupils (did I not just say I was shallow?). When I think of the inspired classroom I think, but of course, of the History Boys. Which, personally, is an extreme version of an entirely realistic scenario... senior pupils with a less strictly professional relationship with their teachers. There is a freedom there to have a discussion, an actual discussion. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that a verbal (or even forum based) discussion of multiple texts, trying to compare and contrast them, would be so much more useful and easy enough to achieve.

Engagement
You may have noticed that I look at Lord of The Flies (a year twelve text it may behove me to remind you) quite a bit on this blog. I also suggested here that Simon (LotF) and Bernard (Brave New World) are similar. I have compared, elsewhere on this blog, Tai and Matt of Digimon to Ralph and Jack. I consider, in the same breath, The History Boys and basically anything under the sun (mind you, I have read the forward to the script and the play/film itself makes it abundantly clear that it really is talking about exams as performance). This is, broadly, what I am thinking of. It is through trying to think of how one thing might relate to another that one broadens one's understanding of both. There is, I am sure, a quote from The History Boys that captures this sentiment, this one gets close:

“I don't always understand poetry!' (Timms)
'You don't always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you will understand it...whenever.” (Hector)
You can put this in the context of the play/film where it is more, I feel, about the emotional impact/meaning of what one encounters. The line I am thinking of more is Irwin's suggestion of gobbets. In either case what is really going on is relational thinking... drawing of connections. Just, for instance, think. Think about something which didn't make so much sense but then, later on, something completely irrelevant happened and, suddenly, clarity. Think of anything at all which has a specific association you (maybe, say, toothpaste). Is it really a stretch, of any kind, to imagine that trying to get this to happen improves one's understanding of texts? That by discouraging the insular treatment of one particular text that the study of literature (including visual texts) may actually enrich the lives of those that study it more effectively? That, in this way, English the subject better fulfils the rationale I give it?

People aren't shallow. Sometimes a pupil has a point, even without a degree. Maybe English isn't bunk. Maybe it's all just me. And maybe if I didn't take statistics, with its concerns about the ability to generalise, I wouldn't have exercised similar caution in generalising with history. And maybe, if English as taught in this country was effective, markers wouldn't feel the need to comment on a tendency to write more, not better. Trouble is, they do feel that need. Take what you will from that.

Oh, if you haven't realised by now, these pictures, even their very existence is meaningful.

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