Means and ends in English teaching

I often felt distracted, as a secondary English teacher, by a lack of clarity about what my job was. What was this subject that I taught? What was its purpose? Was I there to introduce students to the world of literature? Was my job to develop my students’ literacy? Was my primary aim to give my students the opportunity to express themselves? Was I the gatekeeper of grammatical correctness? Each of these aims, it seemed to me at the time, put pressure on me to perform in quite different and often contradictory ways.

In an article I read yesterday, Bill Green and Phil Cormack (see below) suggest that it’s a fantasy to imagine that English teaching has a single purpose. English, they say, ‘is best understood as quintessentially a hybrid subject, mixing up elements and moments [257]’. ‘English was, and is, inescapably plural, which is in fact a measure of its educational and social complexity.[259]’. It’s necessary, they say, ‘to avoid assigning a single identity to subject English, or a single purpose and effectivity [259]’.

I have a current hypothesis – and am writing and reading at the moment to subject the hypothesis to the thoughts of others – that

  1. English has a single purpose,
  2. its purpose is exactly the same as every other school subject’s main purpose, which is to understand the world better,
  3. what distinguishes school subjects is not their purpose but their content, methods and forms.

Purpose, content, methods, forms. This classification – which they call ‘the dimensions of knowledge’ –comes from Harvard’s Teaching for Understanding (TfU) framework. I discovered it when I was teaching English and trying to manage the confusing complexity of this seemingly hybrid subject.

As I understand it, methods in the TfU lexicon refers to the ways in which a discipline comes to know what it seeks. Scientists use the scientific method, and to do science involves learning the elements of this method; but the science student’s purpose remains separate, which is to understand and represent the world in a particular way. The artist use many different methods, but again the purpose remains to understand and represent the world. The content varies between subjects, the methods vary, the forms which are then used to represent their understanding look very different (a painting looks very different to an equation). But the purpose remains the same.

This matters.

In English, when we conflate method with purpose, we lose many of our students. A few posts ago, I told the story of Enrico and his English teacher, Sylvia. Sylvia, in my view, was clinging (desperately and unsuccessfully because of her lack of experience and lack of power) to her understanding of purpose. Her Head of Department was confusing purpose with method and form. Or, perhaps more accurately, her Head of Department was forgetting that the purpose of English was to understand and represent the world.

In my last post, I found myself wondering if this conflation of purpose and method might exist, too, in our new National Curriculum. We’re ending up assuming that the purpose of English is to learn its methods and forms. But methods and forms are means to an end, not the end itself. To forget that is to rob our subject of its essential raison d’etre.

Or, at least, that’s my current hypothesis.

Green, B. a. C., Phil (2008). “Curriculum history, ‘English’ and the New Education; or, installing the empire of English?” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 16(3): 253 — 267.


Straight after writing this post, I opened a copy of Metaphor (Issue 2, 2009), the journal of the English Teachers’ Association of NSW. The editorial (by President Mark Howie) discussed, with some enthusiasm, the 1998 book by Robert Scholes called The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. The book describes a year-long Year 12 syllabus proposed by Scholes, and it struck me that here was a wonderful example of a syllabus which is clear about purpose and method. Scholes writes:

Like all English courses, this one should lead to better reading and writing skills, but in this case it should also lead to a better understanding of how each student is situated in our textualized, mediated world … The purpose of this course is to help students recognize and use the many voices out of which one nation and its culture are always being made and remade.

3 thoughts on “Means and ends in English teaching

  1. Pingback: Means and ends in English teaching | Birds fly, fish swim

  2. Pingback: Preliminary planning for Indo unit: Big Ideas « ilovenewbies

  3. Pingback: End points, start points, and the bits in-between | ilovenewbies

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