English teaching: looking backwards to the past and forwards to the future

BarnesHmmm. The authors I’ve been reading this past week have been unsettling my instinct that secondary English teaching might be thought about as a discipline, as a distinct way of explore the world. It’s more a hybrid subject than a discipline, they say, an evolving collection of components shaped partly by political and economic drivers (Green and Cormack 2008; Dixon 2012; Misson 2012), partly by its genealogy (Cormack 2008) and partly through individual teachers adapting curriculum frameworks in eclectic and various ways (Howie 2008).

I’ve just read an article (Kostogriz and Doecke 2008) which shifts the focus from what English is to what English should be.

They begin by describing the progressive turn in English teaching, led by Barnes, Britton and Rosen in the 70s and reaching its ‘high point’ in Australia at the International English Teachers’ Conference in Sydney in 1980. The leaders of this movement – people like Barnes, Britton and Rosen –

argued the need to negotiate the curriculum, making classrooms into sites where students are able to bring their experiences and values and use them as a basis for creating new understandings, new knowledge. (260)

This was a time then, say Kostogriz and Doecke, when English classrooms were seen (at least by the proponents of the progressivist turn) to be places where difference was central. I was one of those proponents, and I remember the times as being exciting, full of possibility and potential.

The progressivist turn failed and we live in different times. Kostogriz and Doecke argue that today’s English classrooms are heavily influenced by a quite different driver. Instead of difference, assimilation. Instead of a plurality of experiences and values, a drive towards a ‘cultural core of Australian-ness.

The paradox is that at a moment when classrooms are becoming increasingly culturally diverse, schools are being required to teach in a way that discourages difference… language and literacy education plays a crucial role in managing differences. (264)

This leads them to call for a re-imagining of English teaching ‘to transcend the moralism of modernity and find ways of acting ethically towards the Other’ (267). They draw on the thinking of Bakhtin,

in which neither the self nor the Other remain the same in a dialogical encounter, nor can they attempt to negate each other through cultural assimilation or domination. (269)

And here is the link with the progressivist turn, where the English classroom that Kostogriz and Doecke imagine once again is centred around diversity, around the valuing of different experiences and values and where there are

more numerous and more fluid relationships between people using literacies in multiple ways and contributing to the production of new meanings (272).

The authors began their article by describing the gap between the intended and the enacted curriculum, suggesting that teachers of a progressivist bent in the 70s and 80s found ways of teaching English in ways not necessarily envisioned by the curriculum designers. I suspect that nothing has changed, and that there are many classrooms around the country where you’d find numerous and fluid relationships between people using literacies in multiple ways and contributing to the production of new meanings’. The animating enacted curriculum lives on.

Perhaps, though (and this is where my thinking is leading me), we need a stronger sense of English as a discipline. Those English teachers in the trenches, making their classrooms places where new meanings are generated through engagement with other bodies through provocative and engaging texts, might have their confidence boosted and their loins girded if there was a more clearly articulated alternative version of English teaching to the one implied by our National Curriculum, or when it’s described as a hybrid of contextually defined elements making up a subject rather than a discipline.


Cormack, P. (2008). “Tracking Local Curriculum Histories: The Plural Forms of Subject English ” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15(3): 275-291.

Dixon, R. (2012). “‘English’ in the Australian Curriculum: English.” English in Australia 47(1).

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

Howie, M. (2008). “Problematising Eclecticism and Rewriting English, .” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15:3, (3): 339-350.

Kostogriz, A. and B. Doecke (2008). “English and its Others: Towards an Ethics of Transculturation, .” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 15(3): 259-274.

Misson, R. (2012). “Understanding about water in liquid modernity: Critical imperatives for English teaching.” English in Australia 47(1).

5 thoughts on “English teaching: looking backwards to the past and forwards to the future

  1. Pingback: English teaching: looking backwards to the past and forwards to the future | Birds fly, fish swim

  2. How interesting that we are treading similar water these days! In some ways, I’ve never stopped asking this question–and have never answered it. In my dissert (in 1995! aeons ago!) I tried to track the “What is English?” question historically here in the US as a way of understanding how the US standards/testing movement figured in the history at that time. I used the work of Herbert Kliebard, an American educational historian to frame my inquiry. His book The Struggle for the American Curriculum is not English specific, but was very helpful–at least–at that time!–in helping me sort through what was there.

    Part of my interest in this question has always been the distance between the powers that seem to have the space to mandate and the imperatives of the discipline itself. In the case of the US standards/testing, the discipline, in the form of the NCTE and English educators, has been effectively silenced. It’s a sad story. But the questions remain. . .and I am trying to get my college English Dept. to try to answer that question–at least locally!–so we can revive a curriculum that has been shredded with 40 years of changes without coherent vision or purpose. Just as before, I’m tempted to set out what there HAS BEEN, but it’s daunting!

    • Wouldn’t it be a fine thing, Kim, if we could get our English pre-service teachers – yours in the US and mine here in Australia – to explore this question together.

  3. Steve, Hi.

    Is it the case that national curriculum, for 7-10 at any rate, deliberately only deals with what is core, and so leaves alot of room for ‘difference’, among students and among teachers ? So far this roominess is my experience, but then, I’m a beginner. Is the question then – does everyone experience the national curriculum as ‘roomy’ in this way ? And if not why not ? Is it a good thing?

    Also, Ive been looking at the IB middle years and diploma and Australian Montessori (7-12) syllabus docs in detail. One thing I assume is that as they have been deemed to also satisfy both the national curriculum and their particular system, and as both are noted for their liberal education approach, then does this then show that there are ways to do a relatively liberal education, possibly overlapping with progressivist education, within our national curriculum framework ? I mean, those teachers are doing it … or are they ?


    • This is such a good observation Jodie. The tendency in the past has been for stretched teachers to concentrate on the core, and if there’s time left over the temptation (resisted by many excellent English teachers) is to go over the core a second time, ‘just to make sure’.

      I think the designers of the national curriculum are wanting us to think of it more as framework than a core, which I think is a good thing. They want us to build our own – place and context specific and appropriate – curriculum within the framework. But there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip … a framework can very easily be used as if it’s a core.

      And I want to think more about what the national curriculum for English is implying about the nature of the English teaching. I guess that’s why I’m writing about it; less because I’ve got anything particular to say, and more because it helps me to think and connects me to other thinkers like you!

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