A perfect storm of competing pressures threatens to shortcut critical thinking about curriculum, writes Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
For some, Ofsted’s emphasis on a knowledge-rich curriculum for all students has represented a welcome change from filling in content to fit schemas of generic skills. For many, and especially for leaders tasked with previously unimaginable levels of monitoring, predicting and recording, it has been understandably bewildering.
Amid this upheaval in school expectations and practices, schools have now been tasked with a new social justice mission, and the effect is especially pronounced in subjects like English literature, whose purpose and content are too broad and, as a result, hotly debated.
English teachers are increasingly expected to use their reading lists to promote active anti-racism. That pressure finds its source in a political outlook that shifts the terms of the debate from its usual dichotomy – wavering between the poles of understanding/expression and rule-bound linguistics/literary techniques – to put its entire focus on representation.
But, while the rhetoric is persuasive, the concept of representation has a long and contested history. At its worst, the idea is used to portray readers as blank slates rather than imaginatively active participants. It is used to justify control over what they are given access to, and how.
This is dogma, not critical thinking
The added pressures of the pandemic have allowed this narrative to take hold over the past year. Now, some schools are promoting virtual libraries with organised sections on Black History Month & Black Lives Matter where all manner of texts are offered as suitable reading on the basis of their literal representational content rather than their power to evoke imagined experience.
In the words of Italo Calvino, a good book “has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers”. All pupils deserve the imagined experiences aesthetically rich books offer. The wish to ensure the curriculum is representative in a literal sense means its imaginative, aesthetic dimension is slipping from schools’ view.
The belief that non-white pupils need to see themselves (or a version of themselves) and their experiences reflected in all curricula is deeply worrying. It assumes that differences in social experience are synonymous with different capacities for imagined, aesthetic experience.
It is good that there are curriculum initiatives that seek to expand and enrich materials. Penguin, for example, is teaming up with an American education-activist group DisruptTexts in America and with the Runnymede Trust in Britain, to produce anti-racist reading lists for schools. New or re-found texts can be exciting. But reframing which texts are taught and how requires careful consideration.
To Kill A Mockingbird is exactly what Calvino might call a classic book. Multi-layered meanings, figurative language and complex characterisations create a world through which, in some way, we can come to define ourselves. Pupils need teachers who love the book despite its difficult themes and offensive vocabulary.
Lorena German, from DisruptTexts, thinks teachers have a different duty: “We are not called to teach texts we love, but to teach skills so our students can be critical thinkers.” She adds that to teach this text in terms of narrative elements alone is irresponsible because “without interrogating it, its flaws, or digging deeper, teachers uphold the racism it presents”.
The type of critical thinking she wants is one that leads pupils to the conclusion that Atticus fails to make “structural changes” and that “he lets Tom die”. These assertions may be true, but they are utterly banal literary points. This is dogma, not critical thinking. It is anti-literature and anti-educational because it imposes a single interpretation on the book’s imaginative potential and complexities of meanings.
There are some simple questions we can all ask to guard against this enforced literary myopia. Does a text invite multiple interpretations? Do its phrases and themes ring in the mind long after reading? Have I chosen it for literary and educational reasons, or to meet mine or others’ non-educational aims?
Ofsted is right. Curriculum is everything. But if teachers don’t have the time to ask these questions, then it becomes another locus for perverse incentives. The key to ensuring that doesn’t happen is lifting bureaucratic restrictions, as well as those of Covid.