Missing answers;Learning to teach;Books

3rd April 1998 at 01:00
LEARNING TO TEACH ENGLISH IN THE SECONDARY SCHOOL. By Jon Davison and Jane Dowson. Routledge pound;14.99.

This is a handbook for budding English teachers. But be warned: "If you are coming to this book hoping for answers you may be disappointed". My heart sank when I read this, three pages into the introduction. I do want answers - and certainly did when I began to teach English.

It's 12 years since then and though my early zeal may, like my hair, be thinning somewhat, I'm not sure that my main concerns were ever "postmodern textuality" or the "multi-dimensionality of reading". I worried where the chalk was kept.

So reading this book makes me feel like a dull old fart. I gather that I'm supposed to oppose the compulsory teaching and testing of Shakespeare. Why? Because of the underlying political agenda:

"Force the same text on all children and we will once again become a unified society; give them Shakespeare and children, like Caliban through learning Prospero's language, will become tame and subservient."

I naively thought that teaching the most influential writer in our language might prove an act of liberation rather than suppression. I thought students otherwise unlikely to encounter Shakespeare in their lives would be enabled to do so, and thereby just possibly brought into the prestigious preserves of the Literacy Club.

This is a particularly old-fashioned kind of book because it's still fighting old battles. It's full of the language and ideology of the National Association of Teachers of English wing of English teaching. The history of English is covered in detail, with a certain relish for the political battles over the national curriculum and tests. Then there are chapters on speaking and listening, reading, writing, drama, poetry, and so on. These are the best bits - slimmer slabs of theory with a sprinkling of classroom ideas.

But away from academia, English teaching has moved on to more urgent concerns: how to equip students with a systematic grammatical knowledge? What to do for the child who, scandalously, after 10 years of compulsory education, cannot yet write in sentences? How to make texts from other centuries come alive with new relevance? And how to lead students to the kind of deep-seated discrimination which will help them, in a multimedia age, to disentangle information from knowledge?

These, I'd suggest, are the real questions in English teaching today.

Geoff Barton is deputy head of Thurston Upper School, SuffolkNext week: Learning to Teach History in Secondary Schools

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