The 'living conversation': what is knowledge in English?
Published on 18/09/19
Opening keynote delivered by Summer Turner, Director of Curriculum and English Senior Subject Lead at the Inspiration Trust.
On the 29th of June 2019, the Inspiration Trust ran the event ‘English and Knowledge: A Curriculum Symposium’ (#inspiredenglish) where colleagues gathered to discuss and share work on developing a knowledge-rich English curriculum. This is the opening keynote delivered by Summer Turner, Director of Curriculum and English Senior Subject Lead at the Inspiration Trust.
The ‘living conversation’: what is knowledge in English?
Knowledge is the foundation of an excellent education. We want our pupils to know more and to be able to do more. Being able to be creative, critical and to have a deep understanding of English as a subject requires rich schemata of knowledge, which must be remembered, practised and applied.
As I am among friends, I am going to take these as accepted premises. For once we stop asking the question ‘does knowledge matter?’ we can ask the question which take us to the heart of powerful curriculum thinking. We look to our subject, we stare into the complex glorious labyrinth of English literature and language and ask what knowledge will guide us through?
Robert Eaglestone came up with the metaphor of ‘the living conversation’ as a way to capture the difficult definition of literature and its study. He argues that literature and the the study of literature is hard to define, and that instead we should see it having the openness and discursive nature of a conversation. A conversation implies more than one voice, it implies a mutual shaping and creation, and it brings meaning; it is also within these conversations that we begin to develop the stories which come to define us. For me, this metaphor also encompasses the ‘living conversation’ which happens within a subject community, amongst readers, writers, thinkers and academics.
Over the last two years at Inspiration Trust, we have been in conversation with each other as subject specialists, teachers and leaders of English. We have been considering the question of what knowledge means when applied to the study of English within our schools and across the network of schools in which we teach. Today we ask others to be a part of that conversation, to share with us in the journey towards seeking an answer to this seemingly impossible question. For my contention is that in our conversations we are coming closer to finding answers but that in many ways the nature of our subject means that this is a question which will never have a definitive answer. We instead will shape and question and create a myriad of possible answers between us and perhaps that is the point of seeking truth and knowledge; we follow it “like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought”.
And what better place for this journey towards truth, to an answer to this question, than in the company we are in today, where we have brought together English experts in a subject community which reaches beyond the walls of our classrooms, and even our schools. Today you will hear from brave individuals who offer up their thoughts on what we should, could and must teach. We have speakers who will share how they have made choices, knowing that with every choice comes a sacrifice and we have speakers who will share how these choices have unfolded in their own schools and with their own pupils, knowing that this unfolding will have produced moments of brilliance but also moments of frustration and failure. Yet this is how we learn, to graciously open up our classroom doors and let others see our trials and tribulations; to offer a contribution to our collective conversation. And by way of introduction to this quest for knowledge and truth on which we embark today, I want to set out some thoughts and provocations to frame this discussion. I hope to share some of the thinking we have done in our attempts to get closer to the truth of English, and to confront this tricky question of what we mean when we say a knowledge-rich English curriculum.
Firstly, we must acknowledge that knowledge is not simply a list of facts to be learned and practised nor is it something which is easy to pin down. As many schools now develop approaches to teaching a “knowledge-rich” or “knowledge-based” curriculum, we must consider how we tackle the inevitable genericism which comes from phrases such as these which hope to capture a range of subjects and their appropriate pedagogies. What knowledge looks like in Maths or Science or Music or Art will be different to what knowledge looks like in English, it cannot simply be captured on a one-size fits all knowledge organiser. This is because subjects come from different disciplines and they contain within them different types of knowledge which require different methods of handling, sequencing and teaching. So my first provocation is that we have to be wary of blanket approaches to knowledge, even when we look to learn from fields such as cognitive science, because we must always start and end with considering knowledge in the context of our subject: English.
This is of course further complicated by the fact that the school subject of English is actually multi-disciplinary. We don’t teach just one academic discipline, we weave together multiple disciplines and these find their way onto the school timetable as literacy, English language, English literature.
As part of our conversation, we have spent time thinking about these different disciplines, how they emerge within a school context and the implications this has for the type of knowledge we must consider. In our community, we searched for these roots and landed on the idea that English is formed from Literature or Literary Studies, Linguistics, Rhetoric and Composition. We read and criticise literature, we examine and unpick language, and we shape this language in the form of speech, or creative writing or simply put: ‘communication’. The labels for these disciplines come from the types of university courses we might see on offer, with rhetoric and composition sometimes replaced with creative writing or communication. And although university both seems a distant world, especially for our primary colleagues, and also not necessarily a choice for all our pupils; it is the place where we can be closest to the developments and discussions which influence our subject, for it is in the academy that we find a community of specialists who can offer us expert guidance and who are living this conversation themselves on a daily basis.
But what does knowing these disciplines mean for determining what is knowledge in English? What do they all have in common and how do they plot out that distinctive search for truth which is at the heart of disciplinary thinking?
They all deal with language and with how we communicate and create meaning, which is why Robert Eaglestone’s metaphor of the ‘living conversation’ is such a powerful one.And I think this metaphor also encapsulates the aspects of disciplinary knowledge which reach us from linguistics, rhetoric and composition. So what is this common thread of conversation? It is a conversation which seeks truth through an exploration of beauty and of power. Let’s start there. When we are asked what knowledge, let’s start with beauty and with power.
Because every text, every piece of language, every way in which we take that language and shape it, reveals something about power structures; it is in the stories that are made and remade that we find power either entrenched or challenged. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argues in her TED Talk ‘ The Danger of a Single Story’:
‘Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.’
Knowledge in English is therefore about how we use and manipulate language, and about how we shape this in narrative. It is also about exploring the types of stories that we tell and hear, and it is about weighing those stories to consider their power. When we think about the type of knowledge which allows us to explore and challenge power, we are therefore asked to make choices about diversity of voices: we have a responsibility to think about the stories we choose to tell and how we ensure that knowledge does not become one voice, for a conversation of only one is a lonely place to be. We are also asked to make choices about what knowledge is powerful and who has access to this knowledge, therefore determining what knowledge you need for every child to be able to take part.
I have recently become an aunt, and my family have already bought my gorgeous niece a mountain of books, more books than you can imagine. She’s two months old, she’s apparently holding her head up and making sounds which resemble speech so you know she’s kind of a big deal on the two-month baby scene, but she isn’t reading, yet. In her world though, there already exists Peter Rabbit, Mog the cat, Each Peach, Pear, Plum and all its fairytale and nursery rhyme figures from Little Bo Peep to Tom Thumb, there exists rhythms and rhymes, myths and legends and words, so many beautiful words. Because as a family who had the privilege to be educated well, we’ve chosen the books and stories that made us, we have passed on our inheritance and one day she may pass these onto her descendants.
Not everybody has that in their lives, for multiple reasons often with no fault but circumstance. Some of the children we teach come to our schools age 4 or 5, barely able to speak and there are children entering secondary school who have never read a book. and yet we can provide that for those children in our schools. An English curriculum is an entitlement; we have a moral responsibility to think about what knowledge it is that pupils are entitled to know and what voices might be missing from that entitlement that we need to bring into the conversation. Knowledge in English is therefore a knowledge of language and story which is emancipatory.
This is why intertextuality is a crucial concept in English curriculum: it is a natural part of the disciplinary conversation and it holds great power to reach across times and cultures. In 2011, I was working as a fairly new English teacher in an all-boys comprehensive in the middle of London and thinking about what to study with my Y10 class. They were a mixed class in all ways from attainment to social background to interest in English, some of which lets just say was tepid. At the time, the controlled assessment demanded that pupils write a comparative piece taking the play and pairing it with another text - I decided that we would ditch Macbeth in favour of The Taming of the Shrew and look at questions of marriage, emotion and gender in the play in comparison with poetry from Sylvia Plath’s collection Ariel. Both sets of texts had a passionate and raw quality to them which made the comparison all the more powerful. It was the hardest unit of work I had ever taught, having previously focused on choosing texts which I thought might be relevant or easy to access. It was therefore with some trepidation that I began to teach this unit but as I did, I began to notice something quite miraculous which was that these pupils became completely absorbed with the work we were doing. It was an eye-opening moment for me, that the challenge of these texts and the richness of them, including the meaningful comparisons of gender across time, did not only produce far superior pieces of work but also brought the class alive to the spirit of literature.
However, I’m not telling you this story to tell you to teach The Taming of the Shrew and Ariel. What is revealed for me in this memory is that the power came from exploring the disciplinary conversation across time and culture, both in respect to considering the different reflections on power structures such as marriage and gender, but also because in Plath’s title of course being a nod to Shakespeare, you couldn’t help but think of the conversation they were somehow having across all those years. Knowledge in English must be chosen with the understanding that as students of English, we are expected to be able to make links between literature because part of the exploration with power comes with exploring and discussing moments both universal and individual which are captured in written language.
For as Hector says in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys: ’The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.’
Knowledge in English is giving pupils the ability to have those moments. But these moments do not come from taking on texts as if they have been created only to react to or enforce power. For we are in danger of forgetting the second aspect of our truth-seeking: the exploration of beauty. And my second provocation is that knowledge in English must be chosen not simply because it is powerful but because it is beautiful, and that this has implications for how we share that knowledge within our classrooms. We have often shied away from this idea of the aesthetic, of finding truth through determining the beauty of a text, of building judgements about its contribution to feeling as well as thought. Perhaps, this is because we consider this subjective and therefore unable to be taught. Yet whenever we return to the discipline of literature we are confronted with this idea of literature as an art form which moves us, as something which can not be reduced to a ‘paint by numbers’ hierarchy of facts and skills.
In his book, ‘Power of Reading’, Frank Furedi writes about the importance of pupils reading texts which have challenging and powerful content because this is the ‘catalyst for intellectually inspiring or emotionally arousing the reader.’ I think most English teachers would be comfortable with the idea that one of the roles of literature is to cultivate what John Stuart Mill refers to as ‘the internal culture of the individual’ and that this culture is ‘nurtured not just by facts but also by feelings’. However, we wouldn’t expect to plonk down Pride and Prejudice or a Claude McKay sonnet or To Kill a Mockingbird in front of a pupil and imagine that they would be just able to feel a response to these texts. Instead we would need to teach them enough knowledge of the text to first ensure they understood it in respect to basic vocabulary, context and literary features and then develop from this their ability to respond to it through the way in which we draw out meaning in the conversations within the classroom. In some parts of his excellent book Why does Literature Matter, Robert Eaglestone suggests that learning facts can come at the expense of great conversation, and there is some truth to this if we believe that facts have been chosen for their quality of ‘factness’ or that they are the heavy imposition of context without meaning. Yet substantive knowledge can also be chosen because of the way in which it opens up our ability to respond and feel: it gives us language.
Think of a pupil coming across Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart for the first time. What knowledge would they need to understand this but also what knowledge would they need which would help them to interpret this text, to respond in a way that allows a meaningful conversation. Do they know for instance that this narrator in our imagined text is unreliable and that an unreliable narrator is a type of narrator which crops up in literature throughout time, and has distinguishing characteristics? When they know this narrative type, when they can recognise those clues, then they will start to feel something genuine when confronted with this text; then they will develop that feeling of confusion and frustration and madness on hearing ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ narrator repeat in increasing volume the beat of the dead man’s heart that he hears behind the wall and perhaps years later if they come to read a different text in their own time they will apply this knowledge to find meaning and beauty.
Appreciating texts through an aesthetic lens also requires that we are able to make judgements and this learning how to make judgements, which might also be considered as the pathway to becoming a literary critic, is another body of knowledge. The ability to make judgements is an end point of a journey, and as Frank Furedi notes ‘one of the most exhilarating and transformative dimensions of reading is that through the struggle to interpret and gain meaning, readers learn how to think critically and ultimately how to judge.’ The word ‘ultimately’ is key here because it highlights the natural progression which exists within the subject of English and also exemplifies why a body of knowledge in English might include learning different interpretations and practising weighing these up in discussion with your teacher, before we expect pupils to make worthy judgements of their own. Knowledge in English is therefore knowing how others have discussed and encountered texts and words over time, and knowing enough about the existing interpretations to weigh up which are most valuable.
This aesthetic quality matters just as much when we construct texts ourselves and when we deconstruct them. Let’s look at this line from Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’: ‘‘I, like the arch-fiend, bore a Hell within me; and, finding myself unsympathised with, wished to tear up the trees, spread havoc and destruction around me, and then to have sat down and enjoyed the ruin’.’ Shelley was twenty-one when she wrote ‘Frankenstein’, not many years older than our pupils. How did she write like that? We can break it down to components of language, syntax and grammar which can and must be taught and remembered. Yet this genius is also an ability to reflect feeling and railing against powers both human and divine in language which is utterly beautiful. Siri Hustvedt, a brilliant American writer and thinker, confronts the question about how writers gain their ideas in her essay ‘Why One Story and Not Another’ and uses Shelley as an example of how imagination is not a product of ‘genius’ but ‘the accumulation of years of reading and thinking and living and feeling’ stating that ‘the lonely, vengeful monster is a product of [Shelley’s] own emotional complexity but it is also, and this is essential, the product of her reading and love from John Milton.’ For Hustvedt, ‘a writer’s imagination is not impersonal, and it is necessarily connected to his or her memory.’
Knowledge in English is therefore reliant on pupils being exposed to beautiful and powerful language and texts, so that they can both emulate them and be inspired to develop original pieces of their own. Again, we come back to that conversation which exists across cultures and times, always looking to shape and re-shape our language and our stories. ‘We read to know we are not alone’. And today I hope we will talk and we will listen, treating each other with the challenge and kindness that comes from being conversation together about this messy, beautiful subject that we call our own.
Adichie, C. (2009) ‘The danger of a single story’: TEDGlobal
Bennett, A. (2004) The History Boys
Eaglestone, R. (2019) Literature: Why It Matters
Furedi, F. (2015) Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter
Hustvedt, S. (2016) ‘Why One Story and Not Another’, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women
Shelley, M. (1818) Frankenstein
Tennyson, A. (1842) ‘Ulysses’