Tuesday, 6 May 2008

English for the day after tomorrow

There was once a time when the only constraints on what English teachers could teach were the exams at 16 – and some of those (CSE) left plenty of freedom; nor did departments impose schemes of work on individual teachers, even though teachers shared resources. But external and departmental prescription of the English curriculum has been around so long that teachers have mainly forgotten even how to want a freer regime, let alone to imagine what they might do with English if the cage doors were opened.

But shouldn't teachers be doing this imagining? (Who else would we rather have doing it?) It’s a matter of professional self-respect. The government doesn’t prescribe to doctors precisely what treatments should be applied to what conditions: that’s a matter for the medical profession. Nor does the government need to prescribe that medicine should aim at making people better: that’s built in to the ethic of the profession.

Do not English teachers have their professional ethic? Here it is, minimally stated: English teachers try to see to it that students emerge from their curricula at least better able to read, write and speak and with some literary experience. Within that shared assumption, leave it to us to get on with it.

We may not have, like medical doctors, a body of research-based factual knowledge to go on; but that’s because in our case it’s hard to imagine what the research would be like that would yield the equivalent sort of knowledge, or what that knowledge would be like. But instead we have expertise embedded in our professional culture; we develop it by experiment and reflection on pedagogy and continued engagement with literature, media, ideas and the liveliest parts of culture. The absence of scientific manuals of English teaching is no reason for not allowing us to operate as we judge best according to our professional canons of purposes and responsibility.

So how about our starting to imagine, with at least a bit of our attention, life after all the current government bollocks, in some detail? Then, to those who would say that we wouldn’t know what we would do without imposed regimes, we could say, Oh, yes, we would, and here’s a thousand different things we’ve already planned out – and wouldn’t they give a far better English experience that what the poor kids get now?

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