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English - Let's not do the time warp

Our subject must adapt to meet the needs of a new generation

Our subject must adapt to meet the needs of a new generation

A few weeks ago my second child was born - a son, to complement my daughter. Over half-term, as I had the chance to spend time with them, I began to imagine what schools will be like when my children get there; and particularly, what my subject will be like. I hope both will be different.

As an English teacher, I hope that my subject is still important but I hope, too, that the education secretary is not stuck in a 1950s time warp demanding that my children learn to recite poetry by heart. I hope they get to experience lots of different types of literature and that thinking about it, talking about it and analysing it is considered more important than memorising it.

I hope that they read this literature on iPads or something similar and that they store their notes on the cloud so they are never lost, giving them a record of every book they have ever read. This would free up a large chunk in an English department's budget, as the classics (hugely valuable if read alongside up-to-date books) are free and e-books are generally a little cheaper than the paper version.

Something that worries and confuses me, though, is that at primary school they will learn "literacy" but when they come into my world of secondary education they will learn "English". They will go from jumping through the hoops of comprehension and story-writing to pass exams, to the hurdles of anthology annotating and writing to argue, persuade and advise. All I want is for them to love literature and be able to write in an interesting way.

I hope that primary and secondary begin to talk to each other more - that primary understands we do not want to read a story that contains 10 set phrases and key bits of vocabulary, which are highlighted and underlined just to make sure we recognise them. And secondary needs to understand that the best weapon for a child is his or her imagination: we must take care not to crush it.

I hope that my children will also spend time working with new media - probably not yet invented. I want them to be able to analyse and create content in these emerging fields and to be given skills for jobs that do not yet exist.

The future of our subject does not depend on buildings and flashy resources. In the words of Jan Biros, curriculum planner for the Microsoft-backed School of the Future in America, "We naively thought, I guess, that by providing a beautiful building and great resources, these things would automatically yield change. They didn't." What will matter is that teachers and pupils adapt to the changes that are inevitably drawing closer.

My wife and I will read to our children all the time. But I hope the schools of the future give them time to do the same; I would like to think of them spending less time in the classroom and more time developing their own ideas about language, literature and what it means to them - even if that happens in a world that we cannot quite imagine.

Adam Webster is assistant director of learning and teaching at Caterham School in Surrey. His primary responsibility is to oversee the way technology is being used to assist learning. His blog,, explores the use of innovation and creativity in education.


Help pupils keep track of the books they read with rene talliard's reading journal checklist at bit.lyReadingProfile

If you are starting a book club, take a look at imwells' guidelines.


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