Unfinished business

16th December 2011 at 00:00
Critics condemn the frequent repetition of well-worn subjects like the Nazis and teachers face a constant battle to keep them fresh. But, as Adi Bloom reports, returning to the same topics year after year may have surprising benefits for everyone

Ten minutes into the start of the English lesson, the teacher still had not turned up.

The class was studying Lord of the Flies. The teacher, like all English teachers, had taught the book before. Many times before. Possibly every year of his teaching career. And, this time round, he decided to do something different.

In previous lessons, pupils had discussed how they might react if they, like the novel's protagonists, were to crash-land on a desert island with no adult supervision. Most insisted that, unlike the characters in the book, they would manage to cope without descending into uncivilised chaos.

And then the teacher did not turn up for the start of the lesson. Or immediately afterwards. Or, indeed, for some time after that. No one, however, was watching the clock. Some boys had started eating their lunch; others were holding conversations across the breadth of the classroom. A group of pupils began chasing one another around a cluster of desks.

And then the teacher arrived. "There," he said. "Now you know what would happen on the island if you were left alone. There would be mayhem."

This is not, Di Beddow says, something teachers would do now. Health and safety regulations have put paid to the idea of cultivating an end-of-days dystopia in one's classroom, even in miniature.

But at the time, Mrs Beddow, now deputy head of Hinchingbrooke School in Cambridgeshire, served in the English department with that teacher. And, she says, she has enormous sympathy for his need to experiment with different ways of teaching the text. She, too, has taught William Golding's 1954 novel more times than she can count on her fingers.

She first came across the book when she studied it for her own English O- level course. During her first year as a teacher, she read it with her fifth-form class. In the three decades since - including non-teaching hours in senior management - she estimates that she has taught it at least 15 times. "If I had pound;5 for every time I've taught Lord of the Flies," she says, "I would be a rich woman."

She is not the only teacher to have found that her career contains more than a hint of classroom deja vu. "Teachers taught the same books - Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men - even before the national curriculum came in," says Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English education at King's College London. "It's partly to do with exams. These books are always on the exam syllabus. Also, books are expensive to get. If you have a set of those books, you're going to use them again and again."

It is easy, therefore, to assume that the lessons become as frayed and faded as the aged textbooks used to teach them. With almost as much regularity as the texts and topics are taught, critics appear to condemn the level of repetition within the school curriculum. In particular, they have attacked the tendency of history teachers to focus excessively and repeatedly on a handful of particular events at the expense of all others.

It was in 2005 that this issue really hit the headlines. A Qualifications and Curriculum Authority report was published warning that there was "widespread disquiet" over the "Hitlerisation" of the history curriculum. It claimed that many pupils learn about Hitler in the first stage of secondary school, then again if they choose to study the subject for GCSE, and for a third time if they take the subject for A-level. Schools, the report alleged, were playing safe by opting for appealing topics to ensure a large take-up of the subject at GCSE and A-level, building on what pupils had learnt earlier in school.

More recently - in November this year - Princeton professor David Cannadine also criticised the excessive focus on pre-1945 Germany. The problem, he said, was not with the curriculum, but with the fact that it is impossible to provide a detailed sweep of British history in the nine years of schooling before pupils are allowed to drop the subject.

"It was always like this, even before the national curriculum," he told journalists while publicising a new book on history teaching in England since the turn of the 20th century. "Back in the 1930s, the Tudors were the equivalent of the modern-day Nazis, with everyone complaining that pupils spent far too much time on the Tudors at the expense of other time periods."

This sentiment is echoed by Paula Kitching of the Historical Association. "The thing about the history curriculum is that there's an awful lot in it," she says. "You could teach something different every year, because there's enough breadth in the curriculum for that to occur. Teachers are squeezed for time, not for choice. If you want to teach kids all of history, you're going to have to remove every other subject from the curriculum."

Mel Jones phrases it slightly differently. "Yes, it's possible that they could learn about Hitler in Year 9 and at GCSE and at A-level," she says. "But you'll find very few history departments doing that."

Mrs Jones spent 11 years teaching history in Kent comprehensives. "A certain level of revisiting is perfectly natural," she says. "You cannot imagine that a child might know everything there is to know about a particular topic through a few weeks studying it in a given year. There are layers of complexity."

Indeed, many teachers argue that, rather than diminishing with continued use, topics actually improve with extended revisiting. Returning to a topic becomes a helpful way of reinforcing both the teacher's classroom skills and the pupils' knowledge. "To have a group of A-level students who are able to remember some of the basics of the Nazi regime from what they did in Year 9 - that will serve as a good catapult into the complexities they meet at A-level," Mrs Jones says.

Indeed, there are many who believe that, despite its critics, repetition ensures retention: rote learning, for the modern age. "It's like learning French," Mrs Jones continues. "I might be reusing the same vocabulary again and again, but the levels of complexity change. I'll be saying things in different tenses, becoming more fluent. In history, children understand much more about the context; why these events are happening at a particular time."

For example, at key stage 2, pupils would learn about the Second World War home front and the evacuee experience. At KS3, they would examine the causes of the Holocaust. At GCSE, they would study the rise of Nazism alongside Britain's policy of appeasement during the 1930s.

"Actually, those are three very different ways of studying the Second World War," says Ms Kitching. "I'd be surprised if children came away saying, `We did that last year.' If anything, they might be quite pleased that they have something they can hang their knowledge on. Most people forget what it's like to be 12, 13, 14. Feeling like you've got some knowledge is incredibly important for your confidence in a subject."

But the concern, surely, is not only that the children will be bored. It is that the teacher, delivering lesson after lesson, year after year, on the same topic, might approach it with something less than fresh-faced enthusiasm.

"For a teacher, every topic comes up again and again and again," says Mrs Jones. "It's not just Hitler and the Henries. A teacher will teach every topic in the curriculum year in and year out. The next bunch of Year 7s are going to have to learn about medieval realms, as did those before."

Besides, says Mrs Beddow, the same is surely true of subjects other than history and English. But newspapers rarely report on the travesty of teaching endless times tables to pupils when they could instead be spending time studying advanced geometry. "I suppose there's nothing controversial about algebra," she says. "Whereas there's something controversial about teaching the same book. It doesn't have any scientific logic to it."

Indeed, when the scholastic literary canon was laid down with the introduction of the national curriculum, there was considerable - and heated - debate over the travesties of selection that had led to some books being included while others were left off.

But such emotion-fuelled responses, Peter Kent believes, are vital if staff are to continue to teach a topic well. "Every time I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, it's like coming back to an old friend," the head of Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby, Warwickshire, says. "Of Mice and Men? I'm less of an enthusiast. So that's not like going back to an old friend.

"But, in English, there's an element of choice. You go back to something where there's a strength to your own response. That's what keeps it fresh."

But the freshness, he argues, is not merely about teacher enthusiasm. As times change, so too does the reading of the novel: what pupils saw in To Kill a Mockingbird 30 years ago is not necessarily what pupils see in it today. The hallmark of classic literature is its ability to prove equally relevant to each new generation.

Dr Kent relates a striking example of this that came not long after the events of 11 September 2001. Pupils were reading To Kill a Mockingbird and had reached the line spoken by campaigning civil-rights lawyer Atticus Finch: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

"That line has had so many different resonances," says Dr Kent. "Post- 911, it was about empathising with different people's points of views, making sure that wasn't lost. It acquired a new significance as they talked about it. They were trying to say, `People, look, this has happened. But that doesn't mean it affects how you treat Muslim people in your community.' I remember thinking: this has taken on different meaning or is being interpreted in a different context."

The recent banking crisis, too, has had an effect on the way in which pupils interpret a text. "Mockingbird has themes around the Depression," Dr Kent says. "Unfortunately, that has a resonance in 2011 that it didn't have in 2006. If you look back two or three years, the way people interpret it is so different. Children are soaking up and absorbing this world that they're trying to make sense of."

Mrs Beddow agrees. She recently had a sixth-form pupil who repeatedly claimed parallels between Paradise Lost and the Harry Potter series. She would, for example, compare John Milton's Satan with JK Rowling's Voldemort. In fact, it became a running joke in the classroom: "Miss, Miss, this is just like where Harry says ."

"It wasn't because she didn't understand Paradise Lost," Mrs Beddow says. The girl subsequently achieved an A in her A-level English exam and went on to study the subject at university. "But she loved Harry Potter and she related Paradise Lost to what she loved and what she knew. And that brought real understanding to the text."

The fear, of course, is that veteran teachers, jaded by decades' worth of Mockingbird or Nazi coursework, will cling on to any new interpretation they hear. If pupils want to see terrorist attacks in the text or references to the banking crisis or, indeed, decide to offer a detailed analysis of the similarities between 17th-century visions of hell and Harry Potter's first term at Hogwarts, then it may be leapt at eagerly, purely for its novelty value.

But Mrs Beddow insists that it is the enthusiasm behind the offbeat ideas that enlivens the text rather than the ideas themselves. For example, she found herself similarly inspired by one pupil's straightforward observation that the dying or broken animals and trees at the end of Of Mice and Men mirror the death of one of the main characters. "That really made me think," she says. "Because I hadn't thought of that. I'm going to go back to Of Mice and Men and see how that's played out."

And, Dr Kent adds, analysis of a text varies from class to class and year to year, depending on which pupils choose to study his subject. For example, a group of boys will often focus on the fire-and-brimstone, blood-and-guts elements of Christopher Marlowe's play Dr Faustus. By contrast, a mixed group of girls and boys will spend much more time debating the moral choices made by the eponymous protagonist.

"You can't get away from a degree of repetition," he says. "You've got to give your students a fair deal, so you've to go through the meaning of conscience in Lord of the Flies or whatever. If you don't, you're sending them into a GCSE examination unprepared. But you mix it up with some of the contemporary themes.

"I reread the books every year. Just as children's responses reflect the changes in social attitudes, you as the teacher reflect the world around you. That's a powerful way to keep things fresh and distinctive."

Indeed, teachers' interpretations will change and develop to reflect their own experiences. History teacher Mrs Jones speaks of a recent visit to the Tower of London, where she saw graffiti scratched on the walls by Jesuit prisoners. "You use things like that as a stimulus," she says. "You get ideas from everywhere really. It's just a case of bouncing things around, doing further research, listening and reflecting."

Besides, says Ms Kitching, the breadth of knowledge offered to pupils is, ultimately, immaterial. In history, what is important is not memorising dates and names from Roman times through to the present day; instead, it is acquiring a particular set of skills.

"What you're trying to build is someone who can understand history properly," she says. "If all you have is crammed knowledge, then that's all you have. We'd like applied history with some knowledge of depth. If you teach history well, children can then go away and investigate any historical period themselves."

Studying Shakespeare's Twelfth Night with her English language and literature A-level group, Mrs Beddow asked pupils to put together a multimodal version of the original text. Most approached this task by creating a conventional newspaper front page, with occasional forays on to YouTube. But one pupil considered it from a different angle.

"She started thinking, `If something like that happened today, how would we know about it?'" Mrs Beddow says. "And she realised it would be on Facebook." And so she created a hypothetical Facebook conversation between two of the play's characters, with other members of the cast appearing only to "like" someone else's status or to offer comments such as "She was so full of herself, innit?"

"She's picked up the colloquialisms of modern youth," says Mrs Beddow. "But she's also analysed the text really sensibly and creatively. I felt really, really . I didn't feel humbled, but I felt somehow validated. It made me think, I can give the kids my knowledge of literature and my experience of teaching it. And they can go and do these wonderful things with it."

"You find that, actually, children really like reading these books," says Dr Marshall of King's College London. "There are rich themes that you can plumb again and again: there's racism, there's feminism, there's the relationships between the characters. For a teenage audience, these books are incredibly well-written."

Ultimately, Mrs Beddow says, teachers are not entirely dissimilar to professional actors putting on a play. The actors will repeat the same lines night after night, week after week. The audience will only see the play once: they will always come to it new. The actors, therefore, must never allow their own familiarity with the text to dull the performance's novelty for the audience.

"An old teacher used to say to me that he wrapped a cloak of professionalism around himself when he got out of the car each morning," she says. "You stop thinking about the cat being sick or your son calling up and saying his university course isn't right for him. You let that go, so you can give yourself to the kids while you're at school.

"Think about the chorus at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet. It comes on to stage and tells you what's going to happen. If you find that out at the beginning of the play, why are you still sitting there two hours later? It's the exploration. We know what's going to happen, but it's the excitement of exploring it with your audience. With your learners."


Launching a review of the national curriculum in January this year, Michael Gove attacked the tendency he had observed for teachers and exam boards to focus on the same texts again and again, despite the breadth offered by the national curriculum.

"The secondary English curriculum lists a huge range of writers, from Bunyan and Chaucer to Larkin and Amis," the education secretary said. "Yet . exam boards tend to focus on the same texts year after year."

Mr Gove said an unpublished Department for Education survey had found that more than 90 per cent of schools teach Of Mice and Men to their GCSE students. "As many students only read one novel for GCSE, the curriculum's impression of wide-ranging study is misleading," he said.


"Have taught Mockingbird far too many times to care, I'm afraid. This Year 11 will be my last time. I'm thinking of teaching it backwards, just to keep myself on my toes."

"I love teaching it and think the theme of discrimination is just as relevant today as it was then. My current Year 11 are enjoying it, and I can't see myself stopping teaching it any time soon."

"It's very American and it's very preachy. However, it's also well- written, and well-written literature doesn't go out of date."

"Well, Mockingbird gets a bit twee, and is rather moralistic."

"I did Mockingbird for GCSE at school and thought it was boring. I hated English lessons with a passion: that, war poetry, Of Mice and Men and Macbeth almost put me off books for life."

Join the debate at www.tes.co.ukforums.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today