Why studying English can help change the world

Miss Lucinda Gilchrist contests current political orthodoxies that devalue the study of Arts and Humanities subjects, and asserts the profound importance of English at A Level and beyond


Image Credit: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/fairy-tale-fantasy-dream-night-1077863/

The national picture

The study of English Literature and Language at A Level and at university in the UK is in decline – there has been a 23% drop in pupils taking A Level English Literature since 2017[i]. While numbers of A Level English Literature students at Wimbledon High remains robust, nonetheless there are powerful currents shaping the national context, which need to be challenged.

The political trend of steering of students towards STEM subjects has had a significant impact on the perception and take-up of English Literature, while reductions in government funding to the Arts is scuppering the effective running of departments and courses, devaluing the Arts conceptually and monetarily. This is entirely at odds with our STEAM+ agenda at WHS, which celebrates the power of interdisciplinary learning and the equal value of all subjects in our curriculum.

However, the National Association of Teachers of English (NATE) argues that the decline can also partially be attributed to neglect of the ‘big picture’ of English teaching, due to a model of literary texts as ‘cultural capital’[ii], which reductively posits literary study as developing declarative knowledge of canonical texts.

But where are students going if they aren’t studying English? Geography entries at A Level in the UK have risen by 16%, something that the Geographical Association has attributed in part to increased concerns in young people about the environment[iii]. Subjects like the Sciences and Geography are perceived to equip students with the skills and qualities they need to make an active and positive change in the world, while English and other arts subjects have been unflatteringly described by the former Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, as ‘dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt’[iv].

What can we do to change this?

NATE recommends thinking about English as than ‘a means of pleasurable reflection on and participation in life’, through we can examine ourselves and the world around us. Diversifying the curriculum is one crucial example of how English can engage in and contribute to work of great cultural and social value. The English department are working hard to identify ways to decolonise the curriculum, with a new post-colonial literature unit at A Level, a new ‘Singing the Self’ Year 9 poetry unit, and the addition of texts by a diverse range of writers into the Year 8 Fiction Fest. This is not a fast process, and it’s important to avoid superficial measures, instead interrogating our own assumptions and contesting dominant narratives.

Furthermore, as Angus Fletcher argues in Wonderworks, literature is responsible for some of the greatest philosophical and psychological inventions in the history of mankind: ‘[it is] a narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and pain of just being us.’[v] Fletcher gives a compelling account of how writers have maximised neurological and psychological processes, using the language and structure of texts as ways into the human mind, enabling humanity to improve itself in the process.

The study of literature, therefore, is just as important a tool to make the world a better place as the Sciences and Geography. For example, as Ms Lindon has suggested, eco-poetry ‘can generate the imaginative power to help us dwell better, if we allow it to act upon us’[vi]. Fletcher comments on the power of poetic diction to help us look at the world anew: the inverted word order of ‘the flower blue’ rather than ‘the blue flower’ defamiliarizes us with something we might ignore as ‘boringly ordinary, and [inspires] us to see fresh details, fresh points of emphasis, fresh opportunities for discovery’.

What does this look like in English at WHS?

The texts explored in English at WHS offer many opportunities to examine or defamiliarize the world and summon up ‘imaginative power to help us dwell better’. For example, in studying Shakespeare, we deconstruct 16th century attitudes to issues such as gender, sexuality, wealth, race and colonialism, helping us contextualise the discourses and complexities of debates around the same topics today. At GCSE, you may read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go and explore the pressures of being ‘normal’ through the perspective of Kathy, a clone created for organ donations, desperately trying meet social expectations for human behaviour when that same society views her as less than human. As Fletcher argues, literary forms themselves are ‘inventions’ which unlock our empathy, defamiliarize and refamiliarize, and help us understand and interact with the world and each other better.

Thus, English lessons are likely to be in equal part inspiring and challenging, especially where we need to acknowledge our own blind spots and where we have been influenced by powerful social and cultural narratives. We need to have a flexible ‘growth’ mindset about tackling complex issues and encountering literature’s transformative power over our minds. The English Department’s new mission statement articulates our aims in tackling the ‘big picture’ of learning in English head on.

The study of language and literature is the study of the human condition: how we behave, think, feel, how we respond to political and social changes. As such, in English we can expect to come across issues and themes which are complex, challenging, troubling and exciting, and which speak to society and culture today as much as they did in a text’s original context. In exploring these texts we have an opportunity to interrogate the issues which affect us in society at large, and in English lessons we agree to sit in the discomfort, pull apart these topics, searching for ways of understanding and ways to engage with the world, and developing the language to speak about what affects us. We know that these debates resist easy answers and that everyone gets things wrong sometimes, so English lessons are a mutually respectful open space to explore, develop new ways of looking at our society and culture, and finally to create and enjoy those texts which inspire us.

English may often deal in hypotheticals, imaginary worlds, or historical contexts far removed from our own, making it seem detached from the immediate problems of our world. But in fact, this very quality is why the study of literature allows us to develop frameworks and language to engage more deeply in life, and to effect meaningful change in this world and in ourselves.


[i] https://inews.co.uk/news/education/gcses-a-levels-2021-english-literature-geography-1023545

[ii] https://www.nate.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/NATE-Post-16-position-paper.pdf

[iii] https://inews.co.uk/news/education/gcses-a-levels-2021-english-literature-geography-1023545

[iv] https://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2021/05/gavin-williamson-skills-jobs-and-freedom-my-priorities-for-this-weeks-queens-speech-and-the-year-ahead.html

[v] Fletcher, A. (2021) Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, New York: Simon and Schuster.

[vi] http://whs-blogs.co.uk/eco-blog/ecopoetry-can-literature-really-change-world/

Does sharing your passion for your subject enhance teaching and learning?

Clare Duncan, Deputy Head Academic, looks at the impact sharing passion for your subject can have on learning outcomes and STEAM.  

‘Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire’ W.B Yeats 

I’m guessing that most, if not every, teacher came into the profession, not because they had a love of assessment and report writing, but because they had a passion for something – whether that be the writing of W.B. Yeats or, in my case, the beauty of the Fibonacci sequence. I find it fascinating that such a simple recurrence sequence, where each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two numbers, is found so often in the natural world. The sunflower seed formation – from the centre outwards, of 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13… and so on – is one such stunning example.  

As educators, we have the envious position of having a captive audience on whom to unleash our enthusiasms. As teachers we are always reflecting, always thinking of ways not just to impart knowledge but also to spark pupils’ interest in our subject. By demonstrating passion and curiosity ourselves we allow pupils to do the same – surely a worthy aim in itself, particularly if we want them to become lifelong learners. 

Even more than this, students modelling your behaviour can assist them in their next steps. It’s clear that the university applications that achieve the greatest success are those in which students demonstrate their deep enthusiasm for the subject, whether through their personal statement or at interview. In a recent Telegraph article about the application process, Peter Claus, the new access fellow for Oxford, discussed this idea:

‘Naturally we’re crazy about our subjects as tutors – so we look for people of equal fervour. Demonstrating independent intellectual fervour around your subject is much more important than any Duke of Edinburgh awards. We need to see that students have gone above and beyond and are aware of the culture of their subject.’ 

Our own Sixth Form Review reinforces that what teachers say and how they say it is hugely important, particularly in terms of the expertise and interest they themselves demonstrate. One student commented:  ‘(it’s) impressive when teachers know their stuff‘ and described taking the time after such a lesson to ‘let things sink in’.

So my tips for teachers to think about would be to:  

  1. Impart your passion to your students. By showing your excitement you may ignite it in them. 
  2. Find resources that fuel your passion and allow you to show them what excites you about your subject. (For me one such example is the BBC’s More or Less1 where the presenter explains – and sometimes debunks – the numbers and statistics used in political debate, the news and everyday life.) 
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of interdisciplinary learning. It is at the heart of our STEAM+ agenda. The best way to help reinforce a student’s passion is to show them that it can be applied to, and enriched by, multiple subjects.  

And why is instilling passion in students important? Here are words of Sara Briggs.  

‘When students are passionately engaged in their learning – when they are mesmerized by their learning environment or activities – there are myriad responses in their brains making connections and building schema that simply would not occur without that passion or emotion.’ 2 

So what will I be adding to my lesson plans this Autumn? The Year 13 Further Maths students will be introduced to the beauty of the catenary curve and how it can be modelled in using hyperbolic functions.

Footnotes

1. BBC More or Less: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qshd

2. S. Briggs, ’25 ways to institute passion-based learning in the classroom’, 2013. Originally published on opencolleges.edu

How are organoids going to change biomedical research?

Microscope

Kate in Year 13 explores how organoids are going to contribute to biomedical research. 

At the moment, biomedical research is almost exclusively carried out in animal models. Although this has led to a better understanding of many fundamental biological processes, it has left gaps in our understanding of human specific development. In addition to this, the variability of human individuals is in sharp contrast to inbred animal models, leading to a deficiency in our knowledge about population diversity.

These limitations have forced scientists to invent a new way of looking at and understanding how the human body works; their conclusions were organoids.

An Organoid (Wikipedia)

Organoids are a miniaturised and simplified version of an organ produced in vitro in 3D which shows realistic micro-anatomy. They originate from renewable tissue sources that self-organise in culture to acquire in vivo-like organ complexity. There are potentially as many types of organoids as there are different tissues and organs in the body. This provides many opportunities such as allowing scientists to study mechanisms of disease acting within human tissues, generating knowledge applicable to preclinical studies as well as being able to offer the possibility of studying human tissues at the same if not higher level of scientific scrutiny, reproducibility and depth of analysis that has been possible only with nonhuman model organisms.

Organoids are going to revolutionise drug discovery and accelerate the process of bringing much needed drugs to reality. Nowadays, the process averages around 20 years from conception to reality. This is a lengthy process mainly due to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry has relied on animal models and human cell lines that have little resemblance to normal or diseased tissue – possibly one of the reasons behind the high failure rate of clinical trials adding to the high cost of drug discovery – an average of $2 billion for each new drug that reaches the pharmacy.

Organoids can help this development by using human cells instead of animal cells due to the improved compatibility, making it quicker and more efficient. Organoids are also able to provide a better understanding of human development.

Organoid graph
Above: Uses of organoids from https://blog.crownbio.com/key-organoid-applications

The human brain, especially the neocortex (which is the part of the mammalian brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as sensory perception, cognition, spatial reasoning and language), has evolved to be disproportionally larger compared with that of other species. A better understanding of this species-dependant difference through brain organoids will help us gain more knowledge about the mechanisms that make humans unique, and may aid the translation of findings made in animal models into therapeutic strategies answering the question what makes humans human.

Organoids are the future of biomedical research providing the potential to study human development and model disease processes with the same scrutiny and depth of analysis customary for research with non-human model organisms. Resembling the complexity of the actual tissue or organ, patient derived human organoid studies will accelerate medical research and generate knowledge about human development which is going to dramatically change the way we are going to study biology in the future.

Does Drama have a place in the A in Steam?

Emily, Year 10, asks if enough emphasis is placed on drama as part of the A (Arts) within STEAM.

What is STEM/STEAM?

STEM was originally a government initiative to “help empower future generations through science, technology, engineering and maths to grow a dynamic, innovative economy”. Recently the A was added to STEM to include the arts, but how much emphasis, if any, is put on drama as part of this addition? Traditionally within education drama has been seen as a soft option. It was often viewed as a GCSE choice for students who are less academically capable, and few links are made between the benefits of drama and other areas of the STEM curriculum.

Why do people consider Drama as a lesser part of the A in STEAM?

When considering the A in STEAM, many people think of subjects such as art, design or and/or the humanities, with the performing arts (which includes drama) very much a secondary consideration.

Commonly drama is mistaken for a break from academia. Drama, music and dance are often under threat amongst underfunded schools subject to ever-increasing budgetary constraints. Even important figures within the performing arts world cannot be relied upon to promote drama within education. The head of the National Youth Theatre said in 2014 that “drama classes should be taken off the GCSE curriculum because they are irrelevant, and the subject is seen as soft and easy”.

Jungle Book
Above: Jungle Book by Year 8 earlier this year

How does drama help with STEAM learning in schools and in STEAM careers?

Learning drama at school, or participating in the performing arts, is beneficial and important in many different areas. The skills you develop through drama can help in all areas of your subjects including the traditional STEM subjects. Positive outcomes include:

Problem-solving – drama improves problem-solving and decision making, for example improvisation can help with quick thinking solutions. Developing problem-solving skills is a key reason why the STEM initiative started in the first place – to solve many of the world’s problems.

Imagination – In drama you need imagination; you have to make creative choices and think of new ideas. Imagination increases creativity and innovation; this is essential in, for example, engineering to design new products and processes to drive efficiency. Einstein himself said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Team working skills – this is an essential skill in life which crosses all disciplines at school and in life. The ability to work well in a team, to be able to listen and incorporate other people’s ideas is as important in STEM careers as it is in any other. In drama lessons, or when putting on a school production, working well as a team is essential to the success of the project, whether you are front of stage or backstage, no project or performance succeeds unless every part of the team pulls together.

Empathy – drama teaches you the skill of empathy and develops your emotional intelligence. You have to understand a character’s motivation and actions by putting yourself in their shoes. EQ is becoming an increasingly important skill in the workplace.

Confidence in speaking – drama lessons often translate into better communication skills and self-confidence. Drama students are encouraged to ask questions and explain their thoughts, and of course to perform in front of a live audience. The ability to be able to speak effectively in public and present your ideas confidently is a key leadership skill that will help with an individual’s career progression.

WHS Play
Above: ‘Education, Education, Education’ – the WHS Senior Play this term

How else can drama help?

In 2012 the National Endowment for the Arts released a report showing that low-income student’s who had access to the arts tended to have better academic results, when music, dance and drama are part of people’s life they generally then go on to have better work opportunities. You also cannot underestimate the importance of a balanced education, and drama can act as an important emotional release from the demands of academia and the pressures of modern life.

Conclusion

Overall, I believe that drama does deserve a place in the A in STEAM. Many skills that drama help you develop are vital to those needed for success in STEAM careers and in everyday life.


References

https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/11/18/ctq-jolly-stem-vs-steam.html

http://www.childdrama.com/why.html

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/take-drama-off-gcse-curriculum-insists-national-youth-theatre-boss-9831791.html

https://leftbraincraftbrain.com/what-is-steam-and-why-is-steam-important

https://www.shoutoutuk.org/

https://www.teachercast.net/

Computer Science at Wimbledon High

Veerman Sajadah, Head of Computer Science, investigates how a change in governmental policy in 2012 impacted the teaching of ICT and Computer Science to current pupils.

2012 marked a major change in secondary education. The education secretary announced that the Information Communication Technology (ICT) curriculum must be scrapped in favour of computer science. While this change was seen as a step forward by many, the debate is still on as to whether our students are missing out on the previously skill based ICT curriculum. Consequently, GCSEs in ICT have now disappeared to make way for new Computer Science (CS) GCSE courses from all major exam boards and all schools have had to adapt. At WHS, students were introduced to CS in Year 7 in 2013. These students were the first cohort to study CS instead of ICT.

The differences between the two subjects have been more contrasting than I anticipated, given that some of the CS content was already being brought into the ICT curriculum. CS offers more challenging topics and the subject content is more specific compared to ICT. ICT topics were seen as more relevant by students not aspiring to pursue a career in technology. If a student wanted to be a historian or lawyer, they could still relate to ICT but when being taught CS topics and programming, they have found it less relevant to what they aim to do in the future.

With all exam boards offering courses in Computer Science rather than ICT, it was important to look closely at their respective specifications. As of date, different exam boards expect different topics to be covered in different depths at GCSE and at A Level. This has major implications on how to structure the KS3 curriculum so that students are ready to cope with the GCSE contents by the end of Year 9.

When we started teaching CS to Year 7 back in September 2013, our students were excited to learn a subject different from what the previous groups had studied. Indeed, CS was a much welcomed change for our girls. This group of students are now in Year 12. Four girls are currently studying the subject at A Level and are keen to study it at University. They are our most senior girls in the subject and the only group from WHS who have a GCSE in CS. Last year’s year 11 result in CS saw all 11 girls score a grade A or A*, (100% A*/A, 46% A*).

Unfortunately, like in many schools, after the first wave of keen Computer Scientist, the numbers of students opting for the subject has fallen. Several studies have been conducted both nationally and internationally to investigate why it has been hard to attract students to study CS. At WHS, we have taken on board these researches and have worked on a plan to address the challenges that we face. We have restructured our KS3 curriculum by introducing key challenging topics early with the aim of making students feel more comfortable and confident with the subject by the time they decide whether to continue studying CS at GCSE. I believe that one of the reasons ICT uptake at GCSE was higher than CS was because students were confident and comfortable with the ICT curriculum. The introduction of programming in early years is also very important to achieve this aim. However, it is not simple to teach complex concepts to children who are too young to learn them. Fortunately, the emergence of several pieces of “children friendly” software that allow students to learn programming through “blockly” has aided teachers incredibly. We are now able to introduce coding to students as early as Year 4. This will produce a generation of students keen and enthusiastic in CS.

On the other hand, there can be a risk of bringing challenging topics to the KS3 curriculum. Students can be put off the subject if they find it too hard. Hence, it is paramount to strike the right balance between “fun” lessons and relevant CS concepts. At WHS, we have brought various new fun activities into our KS3 curriculum. Girls are now able to use the micro:bit to program ringtones and LED strips in Year 7 (see image 1 below). They can create websites and web apps in Year 8 (see image 2 below) and they can use Minecraft and robots to enhance their programming skills in Year 9 (see image 3 below). The department also offers various extra-curricular clubs to engage the students. We are also working with our Scientists in Residence every week to reinforce knowledge learnt in the classroom.

Image 1: Year 7 have been using the micro:bit to program LED lights.

Image 2: Year 8 have been using appshed to create web apps.

Image 3: Year 9 learn how to program the picaxe 20X2 robot.

Our efforts towards promoting this new subject at WHS remain as strong as ever. We are continuously thinking of new ways to promote CS amongst the girls with a view to preparing them for their technological future. We also reach out to Universities such as Imperial College and work with them on projects that allow female students to come in and inspire our pupils. Being a Microsoft Showcase school, we are lucky to participate in events run by Microsoft and we are also looking at inviting experts to deliver talks on latest technologies and innovations in the world of CS. The future of the subject at WHS is bright and we are all ready to embrace it.

Research articles:

1.Computing or ICT: which would serve our pupils better?

https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2013/aug/12/computing-ict-curriculum-teaching-debate

2.Encouraging Girls to Participate in Computer Science

https://www.slideshare.net/kimarnold28/encouraging-girls-to-participate-in-computer-science-1-092014

3.School ICT to be replaced by computer science programme

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16493929

4.Women in Computer Science: Getting Involved in STEM

https://www.computerscience.org/resources/women-in-computer-science/

 

Twitter: @CS_IT_WHS

STEAM

By Alex Farrer, Scientist in Residence.

Since the launch of our STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) space in September, STEAM lessons, activities, clubs and assemblies have been delivered by the new Scientist in Residence team. This has created a buzz of curiosity around the school and enabled “STEAM” to be injected into the curriculum, but what is exactly going on, and why?

It is frequently reported in the press that thousands of additional science and engineering graduates are needed each year and many national initiatives aim to encourage more girls to aspire to such careers. However it is still the case that most pupils decide by the age of 10 that science is “not for them”. They enjoy science, they are good at science, but they think that other people become scientists and engineers. The STEAM initiative aims to encourage more girls to aspire to study science, technology, art and mathematics subjects post 16, but also to develop STEAM skills in all pupils. Not every pupil will aspire to a career in science and engineering, but every pupil will benefit from added exposure to STEAM. Employers and universities are increasingly looking for candidates who have problem solving skills, consider the impact of their decisions, use their imagination, communicate well, work well in teams and cope with frustrations, problems and difficulties. Cross curricular STEAM activities not only help to develop these skills for every pupil, but also show how relevant the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are to all subjects.

More information is available here about the ASPIRES and ASPIRES 2 studies which track the development of young people’s science and career aspirations and also here about the benefits of keeping options open for possible engineering careers.

This new initiative at Wimbledon High aims to promote STEAM cross curricular activity for all year groups from Reception to Year 13. The Scientist in Residence team consists of experts in computer science, medicine and STEAM teaching and learning, who are able to plan activities that are practical, challenging, engaging and linked to real life situations. Visiting engineers and scientists enrich the projects and links are made to STEAM careers. In the lessons things might go wrong, groups may have to start all over again, team members might disagree and tasks may be really difficult to succeed in. Coping with the epic fails that can occur when imaginatively attempting to solve a STEAM challenge is all part of the benefit though, and there is also a lot of laughter and fun. The lessons can certainly be classed as “serious play”!

These are just a few examples showing how STEAM is beginning to form…

Year 3 launching projectiles ‘Into the Woods” 
• KS3 being creative with Minecraft Education Edition
• Year 7 using their physics knowledge to capture amazing light and colour photographs at the beginning of their art topic
• Year 6 learning about sensors and coding with micro:bits
• Year 1 becoming rocketeers
• Year 7 creating pigments for Joseph’s technicolor dreamcoat in R.S.
• KS3 gaining medical insights into the Black Death in History
• KS3 pupils designing and building a City of Tomorrow
• Year 5 designing ocean grabbers inspired by the R.S.S. Sir David Attenborough
• Year 4 controlling machines built with LEGO WeDo

Year 12 are also beginning a joint project with local schools and scientists from UCL and Imperial College as part of the ORBYTS initiative – Original Research By Young Twinkle Students – an exciting project using mass spectrometry to look at exoplanet atmospheres which includes the opportunity for students to be co-authors on an academic paper. There may even be a robot orchestra in the making, so there is certainly a variety of STEAM forming!

What all of these activities have in common is that they aim to promote STEAM dialogue around the school. The year 6 academic committee have been putting intriguing photographs with an attached question around the school to promote just this sort of discussion, whether it might be year 8 on their way into lunch or parents chatting while waiting to pick up year 2.

 

 

 

What happened here?

 

 

 

We want to show students and adults in our community that STEAM is something done by us all. As an adult yourself you may have felt in the “not for me” category – you might have given up science early, or not felt that it was your best subject. As role models we all need to show that we are interested in talking and getting involved in STEAM, so that no one in our community is in the “not for me” category. Helping with a competition entry, discussing Blue Planet 2, using STEAM news articles or photos as hooks for lessons, all help to inject STEAM into the school community.

Follow us on Twitter @STEAM_WHS to see more of what is going on and look out for future blogs on the importance of building science capital and using STEAM photos to inspire and engage. The following web links are examples of the many cross curricular ideas available for all age groups that could be used in lessons and at home. Create some STEAM!

https://www.stem.org.uk/cross-curricular-topics-resources

https://www.stem.org.uk/welcome-polar-explorer-programme

https://practicalaction.org/challengesinschools

http://www.rigb.org/families/experimental

http://www.rsc.org/learn-chemistry/resources/art/topics