To start, I’m going to indulge myself with a trip down memory lane. I’m in HG3, a particularly cold classroom, we’ve got Mr Gordon for AS English Language, and we’re doing the crisp packet lesson. Over 10 years on and I can still vividly remember the day I dissected the packaging of these pleasingly shaped snacks. Marshaled by Mr Gordon, I proceeded to pick apart the presentational features, and analyse the various snippets of text. From the alliterative title, to the much less glamorous small-print descriptions, (‘flavoured baked corn snack’, if you’re interested) nothing would escape my amateur linguist’s eye for detail.
Fast-forward several years, and as an NQT I found myself teaching a year 7 group a scheme of work on analysing non-fiction texts. Immediately, the glorious crisp packet lesson flooded back into my mind as an excellent way to build analytical skills. And so, the cereal box lesson was born.
At the time, this felt like an excellent way to focus my students on analysis. The boxes were fairly light in terms of the text, but what was there could be written about in sufficient detail. Patterns could be identified between the boxes, and linguistic techniques could be scrutinised. It also provided a hook – a new way of looking at analysis which I hoped would interest my students and encourage an eye for detail.
One of the consequences of reading lots of blogs on twitter, is that I find myself constantly scrutinising my own practice, and often feeling a little bit guilty about my efforts in the classroom. And, the posts which seem to inspire the most guilty retrospection, are those concerning curriculum design. The reason I suppose is down to this question: Even if I’m a good teacher, what if the curriculum I deliver is not itself inherently valuable?
A few of these particular posts have stuck with me, like a song you can’t shift, a ‘blog-worm’ if you will. Firstly, Alex Quigley’s “A new English Curriculum” where he details how his KS3 students will be fed a rich diet of literary classics. And then, Joe Kirby’s post on ‘Reclaiming Rhetoric”, which includes the following call to arms:
It is time to put rhetoric, the study of powerful speaking and writing, at the heart of English curriculum.
I cannot unread these blog-worms. The central messages are part of conscience, and every time I step over the threshold of my classroom, I have to consider the worth of my lesson against the high standards being set in other schools. I have to question whether I might be doing my own students a disservice. Sure, the cereal boxes only come out for one lesson, but even so, couldn’t I be doing something better?
My process of (largely painful) introspection has heightened recently, since I started reading Why Don’t Students Like School by Daniel T. Willingham. I’m about two thirds of the way through, and finding the content intriguing. So far, I think there are three main lines of thought which provide compelling reasons to eschew my cereal boxes.
1. Content over substance
I obviously really liked my lesson with Mr Gordon. If not, I probably wouldn’t have remembered this so many years on. And, I really wanted the same experience for my students. But, as Willingham states, “it’s easy to get bored even if you usually like the topic.” So, by deliberately trying to choose something I thought would be familiar and interesting for my students, I do nothing to guarantee their zeal the learning.
Willingham also makes it clear that students are naturally curious and that “solving problems brings pleasure.” Desperately trying to make the material ‘relevant’ to the students doesn’t guarantee their interest, or their learning, unless I’ve thought carefully about the problems to be solved. And, when analysing some food packaging, finding worthwhile and challenging problems to solve is pretty difficult, probably because the resource I’ve provided simply isn’t substantial enough.
2. Analysis relies on knowledge
Perhaps the most damning criticism of this lesson comes from my supposition that I could just teach my students analysis, without first thinking about their background knowledge. As Willingham writes:
Research from cognitive has shown that the sort of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyse and to think critically –require extensive factual knowledge.
So, if the ability to analyse texts relies heavily on knowledge, I have to think carefully about the content I introduce. Some questions I need to consider: Is there a wealth of knowledge I could introduce alongside the text to help boost analysis? Does the knowledge I introduce closely link to the analytical thinking which is most beneficial to my students? Does it help expand their horizons, and allow them to interact more with the world outside the classroom? Or, is it a cereal box?
3. Surface vs. Deep Structures
If someone had pressed me to justify my lesson, I would have probably responded with the idea that I was teaching analysis, a skill which hopefully, would be transferable. However, Willingham makes it clear that this sort of abstraction is incredibly difficult, and often students are more likely to think about new problems in terms of their ‘surface structure’, which makes it really difficult to transfer one sort of problem to a new situation. So in this instance, students may well think they’re learning about cereal boxes, not language analysis.
In Willingham’s words, “deep knowledge is hard-won and the product of much practice.” It’s clear that getting students to focus on the ‘deep structure’ of analysis will take a large amount of time and a huge amount of practice. But, the texts we use for practice need to be chosen carefully, for the reasons discussed in point 2 and perhaps another reason: reason: If my students focus on the surface structure of this lesson, then they might, when quizzed the next day, believe that they were learning about cereal boxes and not analysis. Sure, if we had been studying Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, they might still focus on the surface structure. But at least they’ll be thinking about one of the most famous political figures in history, not a piece of cardboard.