The English Curriculum
The English curriculum is designed to induct students into an ongoing conversation about the place of language and literature in the world. The principles of cooperative conversation to which the curriculum should conform are those of quality, quantity, relation, and manner.
Quality – Not only must curriculum materials be clear and accurate, the texts studied must be complex and challenging enough to provoke conversation. The curriculum will be of sufficient quality if we ensure it consists of both powerful and shared knowledge.
The English curriculum should be designed around the explicit teaching of the powerful conceptual knowledge students need to understand in order to master the discipline. For knowledge to be powerful it should provide reliable explanations, a sound basis for making judgements and generalisations about the world beyond students’ direct experiences, be developed systematically by specialists within subject disciplines, have the capacity to change students’ perceptions, values or understanding, and provide a language for engaging in political, moral and other kinds of debates. The powerful concepts on which master of English depends can be divided into six broad areas of study: metaphor, story, argument, pattern, grammar and context.
· Metaphor: Our direct experience is of the concrete, tangible world. In order to think about abstract ideas, we draw comparisons between what we have directly experienced and what we cannot. This figurative way of seeing permeates the way we think as much as it does language and literature.
· Pattern: Everything around us is composed of rhythms of similarity and difference, discord and harmony, variation and repetition. In perceiving these patterns, we turn chaos into order. This body of knowledge deals with the various ways we use structure to impose meaning on texts.
· Story: In order to make sense of our experiences we tell stories. Stories and storytelling have evolved with us as a primary means of describing the world. By examining how storytelling developed from its origins in myth and legend to its modern bewildering array of forms and expressions, students learn to appreciate their place in a conversation that has been unfolding throughout history.
· Argument: In order to communicate, discuss and persuade with clarity and force we require formal structures of thought and expression. By analysing the ways arguments are structured and made persuasive, we can start to take part in shaping the world in a more deliberate way.
· Grammar: Our instinct for rapidly acquiring grammatical knowledge in order to impose meaning and order on the words we use appears to be innate, but an ability to notice, understand and play with grammatical structures requires learning a new language about language.
· Context: The more students know of the broad sweep of literature, the better they can interpret any individual text. If they have some idea of what a writer has read, what concerns they are responding to, how the assumptions they would have taken for granted would have been very different from our own, then their judgement is better informed, more refined.
Text choice: In choosing texts as vehicles for studying powerful conceptual knowledge, we should consider the following points:
· lexical challenge – how demanding are the vocabulary and syntax?
· the appropriateness of its content for the age group we’re teaching
· the extent to which it has had ‘conversations’ backwards and forwards with other texts, that is to say, how influential it has been
· its quality – whether it introduces a broad range of literary conventions and offers sufficient stylistic merit to repay careful study
· to what extent it fulfils a role or niche within a broad and coherent curriculum
· and lastly, personal preference – there’s little point teaching texts we feel are inferior to other, possible choices that could fulfil the same purpose.
Quantity – Clearly a curriculum has to be sufficiently broad to introduce those aspects of the domain deemed essential, but it should not be so extensive as to overwhelm the opportunity to challenge assumptions; in this way, the breadth of a curriculum is held in tension with the depth in which topics are explored. In order to understand topics in depth, students need a breadth of literary knowledge; the curriculum should endeavour to expose students to sufficient breadth to enable them to develop a broad schema of what is meant by language and literature.
Manner – For students to make meaning they must be given opportunities to argue, debate, challenge, question and critique the knowledge. By possessing shared, culturally rich knowledge students gain the ability to share ideas with a community of minds, living and dead. And by knowing what others know, students have a language to ask questions and make objections; they are orientated towards a tradition beyond the thin slice of the present and encouraged to use it to locate themselves, here and now.
Relatedness – For a curriculum to be meaningful it must be carefully sequenced with each aspect chosen for its connection to every other topic as much as for its individual value. The sequence in which topics are studied should be inherently meaningful. Whatever is studied first should lead to subsequent study and subsequent topics should depend on and refer back to previously studied topics. As such, the curriculum relates a coherent narrative. This narrative could be structured conceptually, chronologically, thematically, or include elements of each.