Reading with Michael Gove

In Debates and Polemics, Teaching English by Alex Quigley0 Comments

“I thought I’d begin by reading a poem by Shakespeare, but then I thought, why should I? He never reads any of mine.” Spike Milligan

My usual attitude closely resembles a ‘less is more’ approach with regards to the curriculum: less bureaucracy, less outcomes and data, less focus on testing – the list goes on. So I agree when Gove and others recommend the abolition of our endless succession of tests, from controlled assessments to a catalogue of resits, in favour of deeper learning. The more I teach English and lead an English department the more powerfully I believe that the ‘less is more’ approach must be completely reversed when it comes to one aspect of the curriculum: reading.

When Michael Gove, early in 2011, announced that students in Britain should read fifty books in a year (he had visited the Kipp Infinity School, in Harlem, that had undertaken that very challenge) I can remember being surprised at the suggestion of such a seemingly Herculean task, given my knowledge of the actual reading habits of children in my school and beyond. Despite my surprise, I could not but applaud the ambition. I still think his view is laudable, but that it is flawed regarding how Gove believes it should be approached. I had forgotten this challenge until hearing Gove speak recently about it once more in his ‘Social Market Foundation’ speech – see here. One part of the speech came back to his Kipp school inspired challenge:

“Jonathan Rose’s wonderful book “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” is revelatory about the appetite for intellectual improvement that existed among working people. It provides both powerful statistical evidence and moving personal testimony which underlines just how hungry working people were for culture. In 1940, on average, boys from every background were reading six books a month and girls over seven.

When I suggested recently that school students here emulate school students in some American charter schools and read 50 books a year it was regarded as either hopelessly utopian or dangerously Gradgrindian. Amongst working class boys in 1940 it would have been regarded as slacking. A 1944 survey of unskilled workers showed that almost half had grown up in homes with substantial libraries. And these working class readers were not only reading widely – they were reading deeply. As Rose points out in his work, housemaids read Dickens and Conrad and kitchen maids saved up money to attend classical music concerts.”

Now, I will credit Gove with his ambition (how could more reading be a bad thing), but I would identify that his views fail to recognise the seismic shift in society since the 1940s, which means our approach must be more nuanced than he argues. What Gove fails to do on a consistent basis, when he discusses the benefits of ‘cultural capital‘, is to recognise that society has changed. What we cannot do is simply wish our society to hark back to a bygone Industrial Age. Literacy and reading in the traditional sense have waned, but other literacies have emerged in our digital age and we must realign our curriculum accordingly.

In his speech, Gove presents knowledge of the literary canon as the primary driver of ‘cultural currency‘. Then he propounds his baseless theory that a traditional pedagogy is the only fitting way to impart such a cherished collection of the best of what has been thought and written. He proposes that ‘progressives‘ have given naive working class boys false hope with the fake democracy of ‘co-construction’ and other such dangerously ‘progressive‘ methods, and that we must simply accumulate a broad knowledge of the canon to pass through the higher echelons of society. I would ask Gove to proffer definitive evidence to prove there is any serious causation, or even correlation, between progressive teaching methods and social mobility.

To suggest that there are not a legion of social factors at work to militate against such ‘working class boys’ entering the higher rungs of society is absurd and disingenuous. To argue that ‘progressive‘ teaching methods have been a major factor in harming social mobility is also nonsense and a false cause. The success of KIPP schools in getting students into American universities is much-lauded, but the drop out rate is huge – only a fifth of the original KIPP university cohort completed their degree. The causation goes far beyond tests scores and reading ability: there is a whole host of challenging social factors which inhibit the success of the working class students Gove talks about (see this Economist article for an interesting exploration of the issue).

What is glaringly obvious is that books were not only high cultural currency for boys and girls in the 1940s, they were also one of the few outlets, as a pastime, for those many hours spent inside the home. Children now have a world of imaginative outlets, such as: television, computer games, the Internet and film…the list that begets our modern cultural capital is seemingly endless and militates against the reading of the classics.

Of course, Dickens was the low brow family soap opera of his day; Conrad your niche ‘Homeland’ or ‘The Killing’ television series. What we must do is end the canonisation of dead authors at the expense of a rich contemporary landscape of fiction and non-fiction reading, as well as the complex wealth of media and digital literacy. Gove builds a false dichotomy when he speaks of reading – it is a ‘classic is best, to hell with the rest’ approach. Or so it appears through the refracted lens of the media (I hope I am wrong).

What we should do is enlarge the reading at the heart of our curriculum, but do so in a way that in a way that celebrates the rich diversity of contemporary literature and media, as well as the best of the canon. We will not be able to communicate this to students of the 2010s without so-called progressive methods, or the digital media that pervades every aspect of their young lives.

Gove cites E. D. Hirsch repeatedly – again, turning to America for his model for his inspiration. Granted, I have a lot of time for Gove citing Hirsch. Hirsch has related some excellent analysis of the power of vocabulary as a knowledge base which is simply fundamental for success in life.

He has repeated the striking metaphor of ‘the Matthew effect‘ (an allusion to Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”), whereat the word poor become poorer, the word rich become richer. Here is a driven article by Hirsch on the power of literacy in helping transform life chances: http://www.city-journal.org/2013/23_1_vocabulary.html. There is sound neuroscience to suggest that the brain requires such a deep knowledge base and vocabulary recognition to free up the working memory to tackle the daily complexities of life and to succeed in the classroom, exam hall and ultimately the workplace.

Yet, Hirsch also relays the same vague argument about ‘progressive methods‘ being to blame for a supposed dearth of knowledge: “under the influence of progressive educational theories, had begun to use simplified language and smaller vocabularies”. I would say I was one such Machiavellian ‘progressive‘, but I pride myself on reading challenging literature; I pride myself on an approach that is rooted with rigour and a liberal dousing of classic literature, alongside contemporary texts that span the multi-media landscape.

As Hirsch would surely agree, knowledge begets more knowledge – the ‘word rich become richer’. This is because so much conceptual understanding is based upon the foundations of prior knowledge. It is these solid cognitive foundations which provide the structure required to become an expert reader, one who can then derive pleasure from reading.

The issue is that I see on a daily basis students without anywhere near the foundations of language they need to grasp fifty books from the canon or elsewhere. The prior knowledge we need to activate is typically then the supposedly ‘low culture’ stories from the multi-media that pervades students lives. If this is connection making is progressive dumbing down then we are stuck in a cul-de-sac. From Piaget to Vygotsky, to Hirsch and Willingham (both celebrated by Gove), there is widespread agreement about the requirement for activating prior knowledge – the truth is we need to look for that knowledge beyond the narrow, conservative parameters suggested by Michael Gove.

Of course, if Gove was serious about a foundational reading knowledge he would fight tooth and nail against the widespread closing and funding decimation of our national library system. Not just that, he would bring children into libraries with a balance of multi-media reading and research, alongside more traditional reading. I await the fight with eagerness!

If Gove’s diatribe against progressive methods is an attack upon constructivism then he will give little attention to the crucial peer culture that works crucially alongside the teacher led discourse, whether we want it to do so or not. As expert teachers we cannot afford to ignore the crucial social interactions and we must harness the power of student discussions and debate; we must get students to problem solve and undertake interdependent inquiry – all crucial skills required of a twenty-first century citizen who needs apply their knowledge in real contexts.

I don’t want to play top trumps with Hirsch or Vygotsky, unlike Gove, I want to see diversity in reading and diversity in pedagogy. In evidence, provided by Hattie, progressive methods peer tutoring and peer influence can be harnessed positively alongside reciprocal teaching and direct instruction.

Unlike Gove and Hirsch, I am very much a child of the digital age. My reading primarily takes place on my iPad rather than traditional books; my reading is a post-modern mash-up of the modern and the classic; I span blogs, educational research, fiction, tweets, FB links, Youtube videos, websites…often in the space of fifteen minutes!

My interleaved reading, spanning digital texts – both fiction and non-fiction – is much nearer the experience of our students. My vocabulary recognition is based upon reading a host of traditional classic texts, but my passion for reading as a teenager was sparked by books I chose outside of the school curriculum, modern authors like Bret Eastern Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk.

Most of my early independent reading was inspired by school reading AND television. I therefore feel I am appropriately educated to foster greater reading for pleasure that many who purport to be experts; better placed to leverage classic reading with modern cultural references.

Is not a comparative study of great literature with contemporary media not enriching in its exploration of meaning? Hirsch himself talks about existing knowledge being “mental Velcro”. Is not drawing upon existing media narratives from popular culture a way of channeling understanding – hooking into the interests and passions of our students?

I am not suggesting we hand out iPads and let them loose on Wikipedia as a proxy for reading; or advocating playing Assassin’s Creed over the artistic and cultural study of Renaissance Florence – but I am arguing that we should not exclude popular culture (Dickens was the popular culture of his day, frowned upon by the literary establishment) when creating this ‘common core‘ of knowledge as propounded by Hirsch.

We should leverage popular culture as a way to understand better the classics of the literary canon. Gove himself reviewed the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘ by Christopher Booker. He labelled the book a “Masterpiece”. The premise of the book is that there are seven archetypal stories that span the history of storytelling. The book relates literacy as classic as ‘Beowulf‘, linked to modern ‘low culture’ films such as ‘Jaws’. This comparative meaning finding, between high and supposedly low culture, much better reflects our modern cultural experience (the post-modern) and it activates that crucial knowledge base so crucial for learning. Does the media ‘reading’ of film not have value in a media saturated society?

Hirsch goes onto argue about the methods used to teach reading in English classes: “In English class, young children are now practicing soul-deadening how-to exercises like “finding the main idea” in a passage and “questioning the author”. These exercises usurp students’ mental capacity for understanding what is written by forcing them to think self-consciously about the reading process itself. The exercises also waste time that ought to be spent gaining knowledge and vocabulary.” Once more, I agree in part.

We can deaden the love of reading by slowing down the reading process (part 2 of my reading blog focus, to accompany this post, is about ‘Reading Fast and Slow‘ and how we must simply find more time for students to read in that natural state, sans analysis). I would argue; however, that a metacognitive understanding of reading skills is no bad thing – it foregrounds the ‘how’ of the reading process, allowing for the working memory to tackle challenges like understanding new vocabulary or analysing the narrative method.

Hirsch also criticises a ‘thematic‘ approach to reading. Once more, I can see the potential for a reductive slicing of great texts into bitesize chunks, which is something examiners are inclined to do; however, a thematic understanding to reading can also deepen the crucial knowledge base. Is not Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’, lauded by Gove, an exercise in pattern recognition? Do we not order the world by ‘chunking’ such information successfully?

In our English department we study Dystopian fiction. As part of that learning we do read extracts from classic literature, such as ‘1984’, ‘Lord of the Flies’ ‘When the Machine Stops’ and ‘Brave New World’. We also study great contemporary literature, such as ‘The Road’ and ‘The Hunger Games’. Not only that, we engage in flagrantly ‘progressive methods’, such as watching Dystopian films trailers, creating their own dystopian desert island, and, shock horror, we do close analysis of language and style – killing their soul by locating the main idea! We also have a class reader, where we read a novel, typically dystopian but not always, in Year 9. The library uptake for books such as ‘1984’ is brilliantly healthy. I find our progressive methods can actually inspire a love of reading, where before a love of film or television existed alone; whilst connecting to their prior knowledge, thereby heightening their ability to make positive connections in their learning.

Gove has issued his social mobility busting canon. I shall engage with it and shape it appropriately. I will teach it the best way I know how. I will teach it with a wide array of progressive methods, alongside more traditional methods. I will endeavour to inspire students to read with a passion, reading a whole host of varied literature….maybe even inspiring something approaching fifty books a year if we are lucky with some students.

Am I criticising Gove’s ambition – no. Do I applaud his celebration of the classics – absolutely. Am I a child of the digital generation that sees the rich compatibility between the classic and the modern – most definitely.

 

 

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