Acronyms and Beauty

I don’t use acronyms to teach. Following on from this thread, I thought it might be useful to provide a more full-bodied response that works to provides a rationale behind why I don’t use them and how I have seen impact as a result of drawing upon different methodology in a bid to improve both the outcome, but also the experience for students and myself.

PEE, PEEL, PEZAL, PETAL, AFOREST, DAFOREST, PAFOREST, SMILE, STILTS- I’ve tried them all, exhaling a sigh of relief every time I came across a new mnemonic because it would pacify the itch that I could not scratch: trying to take the art and craft of writing, which remained a mystery to some students, and shoehorning it into a formula; a paint-by-numbers approach in a bid to fix a wicked problem with a weak solution.

However, every single time, I encountered the same frustrations. Students failed to remember anything beyond the acronym. We would spend a disproportionate amount of time drilling the acronym itself, in isolation of knowledge, so that by the time they’d cracked it, it bore little resemblance to the content that we wished to apply said acronym in order to confidently articulate the curriculum. They knew nothing but a disjointed collection of words that hung in the air and to very little else.

As time was lost to teaching an alien entity to the curricular thinking that I wanted students to consider, contemplate, interpret for themselves, here we were, writing initials in margins and ticking them off as we went, bastardising the art form of writing itself. Martin Robinson outlines this exasperation rather succinctly here:

It seemed to me that pupils were getting the grades in theatre studies as they manipulated the ‘symbols’ (the quotes, examples, ‘criteria’ hitting sentences) without understanding the subject. They had low level knowledge that worked for exams but not for their subject knowledge. (Martin Robinson, Organising Knowledge: On Triangles and Ts and Russian Dolls, accessible here).

Instead of understanding why a rhetorical question was employed at the end of the speech, to empower and hand ownership to the audience to take the next steps, they hurried to plant one at the start of their own work to eradicate it from the margin list, or even better, fourth in a line of forced device use, because that’s where it fell in DAFOREST.

Instead of drawing  upon a rich range of evidence to analyse character or theme, they despaired because it meant that had to PEEPEE to get there, and was it worth it? Well, no, because the idea of making a point meant nothing to them: they were unable to contextualise such a phrase.

Many a class discussed characters, dissecting their motivations, fears, what they might symbolise or represent within the text, only to fall at the last hurdle when it came to putting pen to paper. A Year 10 class undertook a superb discussion around the psychological journey that Scrooge made as a result of his three visits from the various spirits, astutely identifying that he presented as a man of repressed emotion, failing to recognise that his loneliness was his own making through a defiance to associate people with love- his childhood rejection and over-reliance upon literary characters as friends demonstrated the coping mechanisms that he created from an early age, and this forced solitude led him to fail to understand the merits of companionship. Did any of that thread through to students’ analysis? A dilution of the discussion transferred to a few pieces of paper, but it was disjointed and jarred, because they didn’t know how to explore such ideas with the framework with which they had been provided.

Students missed the subtleties of the text in their bid to apply the correct formula to the right scenario, and it became what I refer to as ‘gap-fill GCSEs,’ as students looked to guess what fit where, instead of being given the opportunity to learn the process of what it means to write academically. In short, as Alan Watts states, ‘all wretch and no vomit.’

Worst of all? Students never remembered the acronym when we returned to it the following week, term, year. It defied memory theory, laughing in the face of Sweller, who depicts the contents of long term memory as, ‘sophisticated structures that permit us to perceive, think, and solve problems.’ And herein lies the problem: in the acronym, we create an entity that can never be defined as sophisticated, because it hangs outside the conceptual: it claims to provide a universal way to approach what are complex concepts, however quick wins and sticking-plaster strategies do not work, because it they did, we would all be masters of language. It would reduce the application of our subject discipline to nothing more than fingerpaint.

I wanted students to remember why they used language and draw these together as a collection of key concepts: injustice, segregation, gender, tragedy, difference, societal change, for example. I wanted them to understand literature as a response to these concepts throughout history. I wanted them to notice the nuance between one writer and the next, both scripting within the same genre and both looking to achieve the same impact but in incredibly different ways. I wanted them to recognise the way in which writers create a distinctive voice for themselves in a way that lays outside sequenced devices or block-by-block writing, but simply as excellence in action that we might be able to learn from.

So what do I use instead? For even less confident writers? For all writers, in fact?

I create common language of my subject, drawing together conceptual language so that we can recognise the same ideas in discussion of literature (if you want to see this done beautifully within a history example, see Colin McCormick’s mapping here). I use retrieval to ensure we understand the substance of writing. I drill on key themes.

Additionally, I use the same language over and over and over again to articulate how writers convey their ideas, making these connections and repetitions explicit for students. Where have we seen this idea before? Who does this speaker remind us of? Who else speaks about injustice in this way? Which other writer employs pathos in this way? How does this writer contrast to the writer we look at previously? How so?

I use questions that seek out the expertise of critical consumers. How does that line work? How does that word cause us to think in a particular way? Why that word? Why that word there? Why not later? How are we being taken on a journey as an audience? How could we track our emotional response to this text? How are we being manipulated, and to what end?  Who do you think is most effective at drawing this out of us as we read?

I drill vocabulary that enable students to articulate their ideas.  As Tom Sherrington outlines,

With vocabulary development, do we give students enough time using the words, saying them, processing them, organising them so they go into their memories? I often see a lot of words being tossed into the classroom ether in the hope they ‘sink in.’

Fewer words, universal application. It might be that students develop a small collection of analytical verbs to use for critique: conveys, reinforces, reflects. Where students often struggle to articulate themselves around emotional response, again, create a small collection, a handful of words that we can understand their application for such a task. Ditch ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ or ‘builds tension’ as the only possible responses to texts, and instead, compile a small collection, a handful of words that depict our emotional response in a detached, academic sense: the perspective is optimistic or pessimistic; distant or close; heartfelt or despairing, and go from there.

For units over the longer term, it might be that we spend a great deal of time exploring, articulating, writing, using a select collection of words and refuse to let any of them go to waste,  so that eight weeks later, students can ensure that such words are a part of their own vocabulary because they were lingered over, heard them, saw them in action.

Finally, we practise how this might all look, both through our own practice, but with the accompaniment of many examples that demonstrate a gold standard.  I model responses, we dissect what I write, we write together, then I revert back to edit our response. We discuss our select vocabulary and how it might be suitable, or not; we shift between guided instruction to a collaborative effort, and back and forth, until students use such language independently. And they do. They really, really do- because I haven’t made the assumptions that I might have done in the past that they are too ‘weak,’ or ‘they’ve always learned this way,’ or ‘this will help for the exam.’ Equally, and I tweeted about this a little while ago here , writing more of the same without a sense of progression and reworking exam questions over and over is not the same as guided practice. Exam success is not a good proxy for learning, but that’s an exploration for another day, perhaps.

It is harder to teach without formula, because there isn’t a clear template or blueprint to offer to guide students through what is a complex process because that is exactly what writing is. However, it is satisfying. It is satisfying to teach in this way, because naturally, there is such a sense of fulfillment to teach your subject without a reliance to dilute or withhold challenge that students are entitled to, but it is fulfilling for the students as well. What might appear to be just an acronym, or just a scaffold interprets our subject as less than, or just this. No one ever gave a shout of triumph from nailing PEE, because the finished article is disappointing, even to its creator. To create deeply beautiful work requires so much more than nuts and bolts, but it has credibility and longevity to its beholder- and that reason alone makes the challenge worth it.

2 comments

  1. This is a fantastic, thoughtful and potentially very far-reaching reflection. I have shared with my department, as we re-design our curriculum with frequent nods to Lemov and Reading Reconsidered. This bursts open that thorny conundrum about how we move from detailed and erudite classroom discussion towards replicating that in students’ written responses.
    Thank you, as ever, for your concrete examples and strong ideas for further investigation.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this as you fleshed out the ideas you had outlined on Twitter. Lots of think about. Thanks for sharing.

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