Take one tiger: Teaching more able pupils with the help of Jorge Luis Borges

2015-07-16 10:11

I start with a single word: TIGER. Precisely because it's so ordinary, it surprises them. My Year 6 pupils are expecting something big and important sounding, a new word they've only recently learned. Not just an overgrown pussy cat. But familiarity breeds contempt, and they don't really give any serious thought to the word. They see straight through it to the thing itself. 

Where does the tiger lead us? With a little help from the great Argentine Jorge Luis Borges ('La escritura del dios' - 'The god's script'), we find that the tiger leads to the mother and father that engendered it, the deer and tortoises they devoured, the grass on which the deer and tortoises grazed, the earth in which the grass grew, the sun that nourished the earth with light and warmth. The tiger implies a whole eco-system, a universe; it doesn't spring up ex nihilo. 

In just the same way, the word 'tiger' implies a verbal eco-system: a phrase, sentence, narrative; the history of mankind, including the painter Henri Rousseau and the poet William Blake. The story of the tiger exists alongside the lived reality of the tiger, in a parallel metaphysical plane that is the product of human ingenuity (and that begins to subvert the linear notion of time). 

The sharp ones point out that there is no tiger in the room, that the image of the tiger is no less metaphysical than the word. Yet they ‘see’ the tiger in their 'mind's eye'. This gets them thinking about the nature and purpose of language (does it exist to compensate for absence, to duplicate or record things or conjure them up?) and reveals its reliance on analogy and metaphor: thinking is seeing, understanding is seeing the light, uncertainty is feeling your way in the darkness.

This approach exemplifies a useful rule for working with more able pupils: break the rules! DON'T tell them what you're going to do; let them discover for themselves as you go along. DON'T tell them what they are going to learn; let them reflect on this as the project evolves. DON'T tell them why you are doing what you are doing; let them wonder and let them think. Why place arbitrary limits on learning?

A well-chosen (even one-word) text can lead well beyond itself. The first pleasure is to read it for its own sake. The second is to extract as much from it as possible through the Minimum-Maximum Method of close analysis. Whether you talk about ‘interrogating’ the text or ‘digging’ for meaning, the key is not just to skim over the surface in a race to the end, but to live with the words long enough to internalise them, like a violinist grappling with Bach’s Chaconne.

A first reading is linear: like Alice in Wonderland, we start at the beginning and go on to the end, following the rigorous logic of syntax. But there is only one first time. Thenceforth, the ending is there from the beginning: the text becomes circular or, to borrow another Borges image, a garden of forking paths. You can represent it as a mind map, tracking story and discourse, history and biography, repetitions, patterns and oppositions – all those clues to the big ideas and systems of thought that give writing philosophical and poetic resonance. Perhaps the collaborative outcome will be a mural, an encyclopaedia or a 3D model of the original text.

The trend in teaching these days is to smooth the path, facilitating learning so that progress is made in simple steps, with positive outcomes and liberal rewards at every stage along the way: happy children set carefully controlled tasks that enable them to experience success in every lesson. Perhaps this has something to do with consumer culture, or the risk-averse imperatives of the health-and-safety zeitgeist. But the problem with this Utopian vision is the lack of scope for pushing the boundaries.

More able children are often perfectionists, and it's their ability to marshal information that enables them to succeed in standardised assessments. What they need is to escape the tyranny of perfection, to encounter difficulty and be free to fail. Or learn that success is not circumscribed by numbers and grades.

Borges writes an instructive parable about a society of mapmakers who produce a map so perfect that it reproduces the world in every detail and coincides with it point for point. Thereby entirely missing the point and being a complete and utter failure. The overblown map falls apart, its ruins sheltering crazed cartographers no longer able to navigate the chaos. Paradoxically, perfection is quite a bad thing.

With more able pupils we must take risks. Lead them off the straight and narrow of the prescribed (and proscriptive) curriculum and back into the labyrinth, without supplying a ball of string. Set them intellectual obstacle courses that communicate your faith in their ability to struggle and survive and free them to do things in ways you might not expect. One effective strategy is to escape the dominant English mind set by recruiting the alienation effect of other languages. 

Being academically gifted doesn't have to mean going faster. It should mean taking time to stop and stare, to contemplate the extraordinary and the infraordinary, to follow the forking paths wherever they may lead. Slow school for quick learners, with the Minimum-Maximum Method cutting across artificial subject boundaries.
A six-year-old I knew once finished a story with the words, 'The and' – one of those happy creative errors poets like to speak of. Instead of designing lessons to fit the three-course package of starter, main and plenary, why not finish with a question - or even a conjunction? Anything but the dead end of a neat full stop.

Dr Heather Martin has recently been appointed Assistant Head (Curriculum) at Kensington Prep School.