“Elevating some disciplines over others only reinforces outmoded assumptions of industrialism and offends the principle of diversity.”[1]

In addition, dividing subjects rigidly in education is impractical and unrealistic.

In our day-to-day lives we do not function in easily divided content-based skill sets. Pick an activity you do regularly, maybe something at work and consider which school subjects’ knowledge and experience you use:

When I go to the shops to buy my food I am recalling what is in the cupboard – if I’m being particularly organised or with my partner, I will have read some recipes and written a list – English; some of the ideas about my ingredients and recipes will come from my previous experience of cooking – Food Technology/DT;  as I shop I have to work out regularly the price hiding shops seem to do a lot nowadays ( 3 for £2 is in fact more expensive than 60p each) – Maths; I also have to factor in the abilities of our oven/cooker in our rented flat that aren’t as even with the heat distribution as we may like – Science; as well as the fact we only have room for a drawer section freezer in the fridge, so have to prioritise frozen goods; ensuring we leave space available for Sunday nights’ food we cook ready for the week – Maths;  we have guests coming round that week with small children, so need to ensure we have food that they might be tempted to eat as well as being nutritious ­ – Health and Social Care; I would like some parmesan, but the one on offer is actually Italian, and I know that they often put calf-rennet, that I don’t eat,  in more traditional recipes so I need to translate the ingredients, as I have discovered that the English translation isn’t always that detailed – Modern Foreign Languages; in the veg aisle particularly I try to watch those air miles, and so read labels about the origin of my carrots: Kent or South Africa – Geography;  if we’re feeling brave (and again, if my partner is with me) we will use the self-checkout machines ­ ICT; and it goes on….

Yet in classrooms the subjects are not only divided, but have their own hierarchy:

Secondary schools are no longer ranked by the number of C-A* grades the pupils get. Since 2016 a new measurement has been in place: Progress 8 is a way of measuring progress of students rather than just their grades, and has a fairly positive message behind it – that a student who is able to move from a D grade (Level 4) to a B grade (Level 7), has in fact progressed more than a student who has moved from a B grade (Level 7) to an A grade (Level 8). However, in this system English, Maths and Science are worth double the weighting in the overall scores than subjects such as Religious Studies and Dance. [2] Looking at the state of the world and the constant fatal conflict we have often based on groups with differing religions, it would seem, in my opinion, that Religious Studies would be an important topic for all of us to understand better.

“Progress 8 is likely to lead to a further increase in the role that data plays in driving the curriculum. For example, data managers may insist that students are entered (even if not properly prepared) for English Literature, as the doubling of their best English score can only occur if they are entered for both.”[3] National Education Union

It is regular practice for students to be entered for exams that they have little aptitude for because that subject is worth more than a subject that they could do well in. Of particular note is English Literature. In most secondary schools English Language and English Literature are taught in the same class, yet the students take two examinations (2 papers each) and get two GCSEs from them. As English – either language or literature – is one of the subjects that is worth the highest weighting, then nearly all students are forced to take both- as the double weighting only happens if they do so. The literature syllabus is particularly high on content and off-by-heart quote learning for a closed-text exam (15 poems, one Shakespeare play, one modern play and a 19th Century novel). Students spend a lot of time revising for this. A student who showed particular aptitude for Food and Technology or PE would have less time to study for those subjects – even though they could do better in them, the English Literature studies will be given priority by the school.

In lower years too, it is common practice for Primary Schools to take out most other subjects for the year 6s, that don’t directly lead to study for the SATs exams (English, Science, Maths). The pressure this puts on pupils and staff alike is well reported.[4] A year 6 pupil once told me in June one year, that since Christmas they had only learned English and Maths.

Back in the classroom, we are missing innumerable opportunities to improve students’ learning, progress and understanding of the world. In year 10 English most students begin studying their Shakespeare play for their GCSEs. It wasn’t until 4 weeks into teaching it one year that a pupil told me they had studied Macbeth in Drama in year 8. Nothing in department meetings, staff briefings, emails or any other staff communication had made me aware of this. It was a revelation – firstly it meant that most of the students knew the ending, but also, there was much accumulated knowledge in the room that we could have been using and building on to deepen their learning – a skill particularly advocated by the most recent Key Stage 4 Programme of Study.[5] (Since then I begin all new text learning with the question – have you come across this before and where – see Free Writing for All for further ideas).

As a teacher I often describe myself as a teacher of students rather than a subject purist. It is probably why I end up teaching so many things – I actually don’t care too much about what I’m teaching, my particular expertise is in unlocking pupils who struggle to learn at all. If we must start with their favourite rap song in order to study poetry – so be it. If I have to read endless articles on South Korean history in order to study non-fiction texts, fine. For me the important aspect is that the students become motivated to learn. Once you know how to learn, you can learn anything. This often means I am teaching inside out, as it were, and to very positive results (It makes me quite an effective supply/cover teacher too, although I usually get stuck at ICT).

As a Secondary English Teacher I have brought in

  • Science to aid analysing literature –

I was working with a student with a very logical approach to the world, good at Maths and Science, who was struggling with what they felt to be ‘an artistic guesswork of literature analysis’ that they felt they couldn’t access.   By using the structured Method, Equipment, Hypothesis, Results framework used in science experiments I structured an analysis paragraph in the same way. I then created one which they then needed to fill in gaps with the appropriate information from the literature. Eventually they were able to write the paragraph themselves, and we just added some useful connectives and subject terminology. This structure could be used across all types of English analysis: poetry, non-fiction, plays, novels…and as this skill (Assessment Objective 2) has a particularly high weighting in terms of the overall marking, the pupil’s grade went up two levels with this approach.

  • Art to aid analysing literature –

In a similar issue, a talented artistic student was struggling to analyse literature, and they were barely even passing some of the assessments. They got stuck with the writing, they said ‘they had no ideas.’. I had sat with them several times explaining the way I had explained to most of the class, offering sentence starters and examples, but it clearly wasn’t getting through. I asked an experienced colleague (a Maths Teacher) for advice. He suggested asking them to do an illustration of the analysis. I asked them to do an illustration on ‘the characteristics of Lady Macbeth’ – which is a common exam question. Their work was astounding. In the pen and drawing style illustration (think David Shrigley) they had produced a piece of work that not only showed that they completely understood the character, and conflicting sides to Lady Macbeth,  but also the social and historical context of the play, the effects on an audience in Shakespeare’s time compared to a modern audience, her relationship to other characters and an analysis of some key quotes (all vital skills in the GCSE marking scheme). It was truly a lightbulb moment. It taught me that this student didn’t need help interpreting or understanding the text – they were merely getting stumped by the expression of that learning; when in a medium they felt confident in they could easily display their knowledge. In a similar way to the science paragraph, I built a new one based on how I knew the student would analyse a painting. A similar step-by-step process led to this student going from barely passing, to easily achieving C and sometimes B grades.

  • Spanish in Reading lessons

I am currently working part time in a SEMH school (for students with Social, Emotional and Mental Health Difficulties). I am the Reading Teacher – I am leading a Reading Intervention programme for students who have so often missed out on this vital skill and nearly all of whom have reading ages well below their actual age.  With one student we have been reading some Anthony Horowitz novels. One is partly set in South America, and occasionally uses the odd Spanish word. The student was excited by this, and insisted on writing down the words, keeping them in their bag they never take off, learning them and sharing them with other staff and pupils. It is rare that such students self-motivate in this way, so I offered to take this further. I have basic Spanish and can facilitate the pupils’ basic learning of numbers, colours and basic sentences. The pupil has become so enthusiastic about it that we are now studying towards their first Unit Award in Spanish – in a school that does not offer Modern Foreign Languages, supported by the English Reading Teacher.

Blurring the lines between subjects and tearing down the hierarchy can help some students learn. As a teacher, having my students learn is the priority – not the data that they can produce in unrealistic system that divides.

I end with another Robinson quote:

“The fact is that human organisations and communities are not like mechanisms: they are much more like organisms.”[6]

References

[1][6] The Element: How finding your passion changes everything,  Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica, Penguin Books, 2009

[2] Department for Education: Secondary Accountability Measures available here

[3]National Education Union (Previously NUT) Progress 8 Edufacts available here

[4] SATS do not benefit children’s learning and are bad for their well-being.  NEU Survey report available here

[5] Key Stage 4 Programme of Study: English available here

Services

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