Monday, November 28, 2011

A Marriage Made in Hell

It was telling that in his speech at Cambridge University last week the Education Secretary, Michael Gove referred first to Classical scholars then to Victorian politicians before finally turning to Wagner, because it's by using these waypoints that he expects us to find our way to the sunny uplands of educational success. Why? Because he likes them. That's why.

So we're likely to get a soundtrack of the Ride of the Valkyries as Gove guns his ARK academy-sponsored helicopter upstream, Air Marshal Sir Simon Heffer his trusty reargunner, blowing holes in the post-modernist arguments of the cultural relativists with his rockets of truth.

While Gove's obvious passion for education is evident - which, let's face it, really should be the minimum entry requirement for the job - his approach is worrying. I could go on at length about why he's wrong about so many things in his speech, but I'll confine myself to his points about English teaching here.

Conventional grammar - as we understand it here and as Simon Heffer lays it out masterfully in his wonderful book Strictly English - doesn’t feature in the English curriculum.

But the English Language GCSE can include listening to tape recordings of Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers.

What is he talking about? Grammar is taught in schools, going right back to Key Stage 1. My own children have been coming home from school with worksheets on causal connectives, adverbs and adjectives for a good few years now. Isn't Gove aware of what is taught in primary schools?

He might have had a point had he limited himself to arguing about a lack of grammar teaching in secondary English, but instead he makes a cheap point about the texts used in spoken language study at GCSE by namechecking Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers. The point of analysing spoken language at GCSE is that it's often being looked at exactly for its structure and its grammar. Just because the choice of texts is contemporary or controversial (as the Telegraph tried to suggest in this feeble attempt to engineer a scandal) doesn't mean that the analysis of them is any less rigorous. Have a look at the excellent resources on spoken language from the English and Media Centre or All Talk, or the demanding work on spoken language and mode covered in AQA A's Language and Mode paper to see what this sort of study really involves.

Secondly, Simon Heffer's book is hardly "wonderful". We've described it as "cobblers" on here before, the linguist, Geoff Pullum was moved (in his THE review) to say "Heffer should be ashamed of himself, and Random House should be ashamed of this book", while David Crystal reviewed it for The New Statesman and commented "...there is no logic behind his recommendations, other than the usual kind favoured by pedants: if I like it, it's logical; if I don't, it isn't".

If Gove is taking grammar lessons from Heffer, we're likely to be disappearing into our Victorian fundaments very soon, while churning out a generation of chaps who know how to address a Baronet.

Surely, the real questions to ask here are "What do we want young people to learn when they study English language?" and "How do we help make that happen?", not "What did I like about English and how do I get everyone else to do the same thing?".

As far as grammar teaching goes, as we've looked at on here several times, the jury is still out over whether teaching "conventional grammar" is actually any good for students of English. Virtually every research paper into grammar teaching has shown that there is either no impact or indeed a negative impact on students' writing skills after being taught conventional grammar. That kind of grammar teaching has failed before and will fail again.

It's not because of some limp-wristed liberalism that English students aren't parsing sentences or writing dictations every waking moment; it's more a result of pragmatism and frustration. If we're going to teach grammar in schools - and obviously our project is all about that, so we think it is worthwhile - we have to look at what works and what will actually create the kinds of engaged understanding of language that will allow students to progress.

Work like that at Exeter Univeristy, pioneered by Debbie Myhill, work like that of the English and Media Centre, work by A level English Language teachers all over the country every day is what we should be using as an inspiration, not the antiquated ramblings of a man who says that "grammar is not a subject for debate" or the words of an Education Secretary who attacks the Arctic Monkeys before using Jade Goody as a model for educational self-improvement.


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