Hmmm. 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).