More than Mercutio – English teaching for the future

By Michael Horne

Discussion of what teachers and educational leaders really want students to get out of their schooling has recently shifted to the types of skills that they will need in the 21st century. In the face of a paradigm that still emphasises knowledge retention and memorisation, and when viewed in combination with the development of cognitive dispositions to use those skills, this is a useful shift.

Even though skills such as collaboration, creative and critical thinking, and the ability to synthesise have always been the best outcomes of education and the most useful tools to carry into the world, it is clear that the explicit demand for them is up. The Foundation for Young Australians in their 2016 report ‘The New Work Mindset’[1] analysed over 2.7 million Australian job advertisements over two years and identified seven job ‘clusters’ into which specific positions and their required skills were grouped. The report argues that there are certain “enterprise skills”[2] that are consistently asked for, and transferable between clusters. These enterprise skills are consistent with what educators variously call higher-order thinking skills, “capabilities”[3], or “kinds of minds”[4]. They include:

  • synthesising
  • creating
  • collaborating
  • problem solving
  • meta-cognition.

So what does this shift in demand mean for schools, and in particular for English teaching? Two basic principles are needed to underpin an increased focus on the development of these skills:

  • a revised view of content and knowledge that sees them as the carriers and media of skill development, as well as being important in themselves; and
  • valuing the ability to meta-cognitively recognise and talk about these skills as they are being developed.

The first of these suggestions can be particularly challenging for us as English teachers. We can argue that access to great and well-known literature is part of a student’s cultural inheritance, and important for them to become socially and culturally conversant. We can argue that we want our students to experience To Kill a Mockingbird in the same transformative way that we did. Yet, slinking behind these arguments is the tacit truth that it probably doesn’t really matter if students don’t remember who Mercutio was, or what the essential themes of The Catcher in the Rye are. The texts that we cling on to, any texts really, are important as works of art and mirrors of our best and worst selves, but they are more important educationally as the media through which students develop skills.

The second of these principles suggests to English teachers the importance of developing and sharing a discourse of learning which sits above the lexicon of English. Students can only learn to identify their own thinking when they have a consistent language for it, and when examples of certain cognitive moves are pointed out to them. There is an argument here for articulating what we mean by ‘critical thinking’ in the context of textual analysis, for example, and for pausing to hover over examples when they arise in class. The depth of criticism that we look for in the best student work can be more frequently achieved if we specify both the cognitive and syntactical structures that characterise such work, rather than giving vague instructions to students like “more depth needed” or “lacks sophistication”.

These are not radical ideas, but carving out room for them within schools means thoughtfully identifying and removing redundancies – anything that doesn’t directly lead to the development of the skills and dispositions that students will need and benefit from in their post-school lives.

If we value a student’s ability to synthesise information from traditionally separate disciplines[5] within English, we might sometimes break down traditional divisions between textual and language analysis. If we want students to be able to critically evaluate a range of references and sources of information, what purpose do closed-book exams serve? Let’s let them bring in the sources and actually analyse them in an exam or test. If we want students to reflect on their own thinking and see where they need to go next, how do letter grades help to do this? (Although, of course, English teachers have always been good at specific and personalised feedback for improvement.)

Challenging and reviewing long-practised norms in English programs and assessment, and identifying those which might now be redundant, is difficult in a system where everyone has personal historical experience. But it is also necessary. If we really want to develop those skills that we profess we want students to have (and which the data shows us society wants) – critical thinking, open reflection, and collaboration – then we need to apply them to our schools and to our own practice.

[1] Foundation for Young Australians, ‘The New Work Mindset’. Melbourne: 2016. p. 10

[2] Ibid. p. 19

[3] Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Victorian Curriculum Critical and Creative Thinking. Accessed on 02/05/2017.

[4] Howard Gardner, ‘Five Minds for the Future’, summary in Plurilingüismo e Innovación Educativa 201 (4). pp. 6-7

[5] Patrick Griffin and Esther Care, ‘Test Construction’ in Patrick Griffin (ed.), Assessment for Learning. Port Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 2014. Pp. 165-6.

Michael Horne was a co-author of Oxford MyEnglish, shortlisted in the Student Resource – Junior –  English/Humanities/Languages/Arts/Technologies/Health and Physical Education category of the Educational Publishers Award Australia.


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