A conceptual curriculum and the human condition

A few years ago, I visited Craig Bonny-Meekings and had a really insightful discussion not only around the incredible work that Midlands Academy Trust had undertaken around curriculum, but of the purpose of English itself. I look back and view it as one of a series of starting points which led me to where we currently are with our English curriculum at Duston. I wanted to capture much of what I have already shared over the last few months around curriculum planning and outline the plans behind some of this thinking – discussed at the Seneca English conference, BrewEd Cleesthorpes and LitdriveCPD to share where we are up to on this work so far. I would also like to thank Colin McCormick who has given me plenty to think about in terms of how we might take the crystallisation  of conceptual mapping beyond the current point. 

I think it is important to establish a rationale for the subject itself to be able to articulate the curriculum map. English as a discipline enables us to capture, examine and consider a literary response to history, and it is imperative to me that students are able to recognise the fact that literature enables them to view history through the lens of others; that we are able to understand our place within the world to a greater degree as a consequence of the way in which particular individuals wrangled with language in an attempt to do so. English is not history, but it is impossible to ignore the pull that history demands of English, and it enables students to grasp the way in which literature or language has sought to pull back accordingly. It is why our opening year of our five year curriculum takes students through both a chronological exploration of English, before then leading with a ‘through the lens’ unit for subsequent years. We cannot begin to consider the role of the archetypal hero, or Romanticism as a direct response to bureaucracy if we do not have these starting blocks for later points, but equally, we would be wise to think on how the pivotal use of language from Pankhurst or Gandhi  This will ensure that we demonstrate the way in which history influenced language, but also how language sought to change history in return.

However, we want to move the student experience from this vaster landscape to consider the intricate workings of people: I want students to be able to view characters firstly as models held up for critical dissection according to the time- both our own and the writer’s of course. Then, I want to delve deeper to consider how literature seeks to provide  ideas within a text as a psychological evaluation which enables us to understand the anthropological sense, what it means to be human as well. What concepts of people do we touch upon, linger over or revisit throughout our study of literature and language? To begin this process, we first drew back to four overarching concepts: power, morality, conflict and tragedy. From here, we could then start to consider how these concepts represent micro-concepts of their own, and then where these feature across our curriculum: ideas such as how the construct of power is influenced by gender or segregation of the individual for instance, or how conflict occurs as a consequence of love, hatred, or a more internal existence around conscience. These are of course not exhaustive of the components of what it means to be human, but the foundations from which we can start to build understanding, analysis critique of what we study. We might consider where tragedy is the outcome of influence, and the flexibility of injustice in relation to tragedy- how tragic outcomes can be subjective, and how we agree a universal sense of restoration within a text.

This mapping from the overarching concepts then acts as a start point: a central collection of concepts that we can use throughout our planning not only of units in their entirety, but in consideration of how one unit then connects to the next- their own common language, if you will. This acts as important because not only do we have a firm, clear rationale for each component of the curriculum as a whole, but we can start to think about how those units have a relationship within the wider progression model as a whole- what can the teaching of Scrooge in Year 7 offer Of Mice and Men? Within Scrooge, we spectate his own self reflection at the man that he has become and his childhood is the insight that we require to actualise that for ourselves as the reader. His internalised conflict has ultimately been born out of hid neglected childhood and he spends a lifetime attempting to outrun his memories, and yet they are so raw, the Ghost of Christmas Past manages to prompt him to recall the feeling of isolation so quickly, our iced man sheds a tear, which he fails to keep from view. Equally, George’s internal conflict is the rationale behind the push and pull that we watch within the relationship he holds with Lenny: one brimming with guilt and responsibility, tempered with his own frustrations and limitations. These are not new ideas- just concepts revisited through new characters or scenarios placed in front of us by different writers, speakers, playwrights. How does this vast map funnel through to our planning, and then onto delivery?

This is where our work will focus on this year- using the concepts as a template to ensure that each respective unit exposes these key concepts in an organic way, achieving that sense of triangulation for both teacher and student: overview, workbook, delivery. We set out to quality check ourselves through the everyday delivery of the units themselves- these concepts do not exist on a spreadsheet, but are breathed into the materials we use to teach, and in the words we use within the classroom. The vocabulary featured within the units of work act as breadcrumbs to lead us back to these aspects of the human condition; similarly, our core knowledge sets out to establish the standpoint of each text or unit in relation to these concepts. They enable us to have a sense of stability through planning out our exploration of ideas with students, and given us an increased focus of where ideas may reach a level of complexity that misconception might occur. Do students fully grasp the difficulty Birling has at recognising Eric’s treatment of Eva because it is only morally wrong, and not legally so- as he responds with fury at the theft of £50, yet not to the rape of a woman because she assumes a role of prostitute? Will students grasp the tension between Macbeth’s agency and the witches’ influence sufficiently to understand that Shakespeare is not only dissecting a man, but the idea of the insignificance of man?

We encourage students to think back on key moments of past teaching, and encourage connections, using the concepts to signpost. This might be through concepts that offer clarity such as the presence of gender representation within Romeo and Juliet, and highlighting the way in which Miranda experiences a similar set of restrictions in the complex yet loving relationship with Prospero. It might be less explicit, as we ponder over restoration of order sought through Roylott’s death at the hands (or lack of!) of the snake intended for Helen, and to what extent we are satisfied with this outcome in comparison to what extent restoration is achieved with the arrival of the British Naval Officer, ready to clean that whole mess up for poor Ralph as the island continues to burn, physically and otherwise. 

Finally, where does the study of language feature in all of this? Language is taught explicitly, but to continue to achieve this organic approach and ensure our focus is on the study of language, and not exam assessment, it works alongside the study of literature. This will mean that we study extracts which explore the key concepts of the human condition, or we create written responses that seek to use the literature we study as a springboard to write our own fiction or non-fiction. It enables students to study language in the way it was intended, starting with a scholarly, critical approach, as opposed to an entire week on question 2, because it’s the tricky one. It allows for such scope that once the course is complete, students have been exposed to a range of prose and non-fiction that connects with their literature study, and means that we can then narrow down to exam practice because it is just practice of the application of our conceptual understanding of a text- as it should be.By enabling all that we do to have these underpinning principles at the core, we can study English in its true form: an ebb and flow from the minuscule nuts and blots of language to its placement within history, context and perspective, so students can make their own mind up as to what it means to be human. 

The statue featured is the Venus de Milo, believed to be Aphrodite and currently situated at the Louvre. The poor woman is without her arms after being discarded and then recovered in two pieces at Melos, before being transported to France to display. Her story is one of love, conflict and power (with a temporary tragedy on top, until she was put back together at least). 

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