To Kill a Curriculum

The biggest story in teaching, not just English teaching, this week is the change in the GCSE Literature texts. The media have honed in on Gove’s removal of Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird; twitter has been all over it as well, #govekillsmockingbird being the handle everyone is using. It seems everyone has an opinion on this, maybe because most people have read or been taught either of these texts, especially Of Mice and Men (interesting I wasn’t  taught it at school and only read it as I became an English teacher). One voice that irked me was a family member on twitter: to paraphrase ‘the reason the teachers are so annoyed that Of Mice and Men has been removed is because they will have to change their lesson plans’. I didn’t rise to it, obviously we do have ideas that work that are used to teach these texts, that’s what called being a clever professional but it shows more the fact that everyone feels that as they have been to school, they are qualified to talk about education issues, but I digress.

The initial reaction was anger, annoyance, from both teachers and other people with a vested interest in education. The big thing that comes out of the change is reading. A lot of these new texts (new to the curriculum obviously, we don’t need to teach new texts, that’s the whole issue) is that they are weighty and wordy and therefore inaccessible. Of Mice and Men is not just a good text because it has been taught for years  (and we don’t have to change our lesson plans) but because it is small, compact, full of easily drawn characters and thus accessible. A teenager boy (the stereotype of the reluctant reader) can understand characters like George and Lennie and their motivations, the text can also be taught at a higher level for A* students. It’s removal, along with Mockingbird takes away as well texts that give insight into many issues still relevant today (discrimination, being the outsider, growing up). Sure, other texts can do this as well but the a lot of the British texts that replace them don’t have the accessibility that these two have.

However, their removal is not my central issue.  Jonathan Bate in the Guardian (here) tried to take some of the blame for the decision (he was on the board convened by Gove to review the Literature curriculum). He makes an interesting point, if we are to no longer teach Of Mice and Men and Mockingbird to GCSE, let’s reclaim them for Key Stage 3. He says:

I imagined teachers being reinvigorated by the prospect of, say, engaging their year 9 class with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (told from the point of view of a young child, it’s a perfect book to get 12 and 13-year-olds into serious reading), then for the examined texts in years 10 and 11, teaching their own combination of works that they loved and that they thought would both stretch and engage their pupils.”

I agree. If Of Mice and Men is so tired at GCSE where students can trot out responses to themes and not engage with the love of reading it, we can take that back (and make use of those lesson plans) with younger students. Furthermore, if we do want students to understand the need for thematic understanding (because the exam questions drive that need) we can use Of Mice and Men to model that as well.

The things that I don’t agree with are twofold:

1. The nationalistic agenda to Gove’s approach. I have no issue with changing texts, even if they are great, but the drive behind it is a return to British values not a love of reading.

2. The narrowing of the syllabus by the exam boards. Bate is his piece comments that his aim, and the aim of the group, was to make changes to inspire students and teachers. What has happened, he says, is the exam boards took this idea and squeezed it down into a canonistic approach. To quote him (a little bit at length):

“I was delighted to see that the broad GCSE English guidelines emerging from the Department for Education followed the path I had suggested almost to the letter. I am completely baffled at how and why this attempt to liberate teachers and bring the best out of our schoolchildren by stretching and stimulating them to the utmost turned this week into a global Twitterstorm about the banning of Harper Lee. I fear that the real culprits are the craven examination boards, who cannot free themselves from a ludicrously old-fashioned notion of a canon of set texts.”

It’s the last sentence that sums this up. However, it is both sides that are to blame: Gove’s message from the DfE has been translated and diluted by the exam boards. I suppose the board would argue, maybe not publicly, that if they left a range of texts and not a set list, then it would be near impossible to examine on them.

What both have done in the process has made the role of the English teacher harder. Not because we will have to change our lesson plans, but because we have started the next battle in the war to engage our students.