Poetry, Aesthetics and Powerful Knowledge

Over the last decade, we have seen a glossing of the educational philosophies and landscape. We have polarised ourselves into camps – we are traditional or progressive; we are Team Knowledge or Team Skills; we are all for DI or all for enquiry-led learning; we are inclusive or pro-exclusion. We nail our colours to the mast.

We polarise, and in doing so, we lose the nuances of the debate. The complexities of our schools, our beliefs, and the young people we serve are smoothed over for the sake of commitment to a team.

We all know, though, that it’s possible to have high standards of behaviour coupled with immense care and personalised pastoral support. We know that we can protect our staff while keeping permanent exclusions as an exception. We can teach knowledge directly and enable an exploration of the beauty of the world; we can enable our students to be creative and curious while empowering them with deep knowledge. These things are not mutually exclusive. The rejection of these possibilities is rare, but it can and does arise under the guise of genuine concern. I am not going to quote Tweeters here; it seems mean-spirited and unnecessary – but such assertions of this false dichotomy exist. Something worth noting is that we are all aiming for the same ends, and without entering into a ‘purpose of education’ commentary, it is probably enough to say that we are all aiming for our students to leave school as healthy, happy, and well-qualified people. We are aiming for them to experience the joy of learning and reading. Our goals are aligned. The means is where we disagree; and this is where the debate is centred. ‘Knowledge’ continues to pervade the arguments.

A recent discussion online – in which one person was rejecting the formal teaching of terminology for analysis in favour of the beauty and aesthetics of poetry – has prompted me to turn back to Michael FD Young and consider why we need both. We can love and cherish the beauty of words while being empowered with a mechanical understanding of the linguistic devices. We can learn to understand what works, and what sounds wrong, and be able to explain why. From John Agard to William Blake, from Christina Rossetti to Rupi Kaur – there is a knowledge that we bring to our reading and a knowledge that we take away. When we place a poem in front of our students, we can help them to see the beauty, and experience that transformative moment when a poem marks you forever. We teach them the mechanics too: the metaphors, the similes, the caesurae. When the mechanical and the aesthetic meet, the pieces fall into place. Students realise that they can do poetry analysis. What we cannot have is people who are fully empowered with the knowledge of the mechanical, as well as years of appreciating the beauty in poetry, denying our young people the right to both. An example of my approach to poetry can be found here and for context, I wrote this for my students in 2018 – you’ll see a definite combination of the appreciation of beauty and the importance of linguistic analysis.

Michael Young and Johan Muller (2010) ‘Three Educational Scenarios for the Future’

In 2010, Michael Young and Johan Muller posed a hypothetical ‘future’ curriculum (link here). This research has been covered expertly by Ruth Walker here. I am keen to examine this from my own experience of school, and my experiences as a teacher of 17 years. Young and Muller examined the possible models of curriculum – ‘Future 1, Future 2 and Future 3’ – in relation to our understanding of knowledge. These ‘futures’ are not really ‘futures’ at all, but analytical descriptions of what we have seen before, and how we could model what comes next.

Future 1 describes an essentially elitist model that we associate with the era before the 1970s. The concept of knowledge in this future is fixed; there is a canon to be taught and adhered too. Knowledge is strictly bounded within domains and there is a clear distinction between knowledge from school and knowledge for life – only the former is taught in this future. In Future 1, the knowledge is selected by the elite and transmitted to the ‘offspring of the dominant classes.’ Young and Muller’s evaluation of Future 1 is clear, especially with the way in which it produces a stratification of access to knowledge along class-lines – ‘…a recipe for social divisiveness, inequality, unhappiness, and conflict.’ We still see elements of this Future in our current system; but this model is not as embedded as some may argue. Future 1 does not really allow for changes and developments from the external ‘world’ into the world of education. It’s a static model – and the push-back from this resulted in Future 2.

Future 2 saw the boundaries between subjects and ‘worlds’ dissolved – largely in years between the early 1970s and the turn of the millennium. In this model, we saw an attempt to integrate school subjects, and this is where some of the genericism of our curriculum was born. Non-academic alternatives to academic disciplines were offered to young people – subjects which crossed boundaries of traditional domains – sometimes with great success and sometimes with criminally limiting outcomes. Young and Muller identify the other boundaries that were weakened in this period: the boundaries between school knowledge and everyday knowledge; the boundaries between experts and novices – and the resultant trend for ‘facilitating’ rather than ‘teaching’. The focus moved to pedagogy over content. The role of the specialist communities was eroded as the concept of ‘best knowledge’ was removed, without replacement. Nobody could agree on what was the best knowledge because we didn’t know where to turn, and all sorts of attempts to create new and exciting ways of looking at the world were created.

Future 3 – a model that has been proposed by Young and Muller but never truly realised – is one which opens up Powerful Knowledge to all. Future 1 is rejected; knowledge is no longer the knowledge of the powerful in Future 3. In this model, boundaries are maintained but also crossed for the acquisition of new knowledge. We turn to our global specialist communities for the acquisition of human knowledge and progress. In this model, knowledge learnt at school is distinct from ‘local’ knowledge, and this is applicable on many levels. Knowledge that we learn in school is special because we need to come to school to learn it! We have our subject specialist teachers, who turn to the ever-evolving world and ever-updating research community, to teach our students the knowledge to which they are all entitled.

I was at a Bristol state-school as Future 2 was in full swing, and I trained during this era too. Hackles rise among the defenders of Future 2 when it’s challenged; it is oft remembered fondly as a time of liberation in the classroom. The issue, though, is that there were systemic problems of prejudice with the genericising of academic routes – Leisure and Tourism instead of Geography, for example. Young people found that they could not enter medical careers as they had studied Health and Social Care NVQ instead of Biology and Chemistry GCSE – this is not hyperbole; I have friends for whom this was a devastating reality. Discovery learning simply meant that the students with the best access to information learnt the most – the ones with the parent with the library card, or the quiet space to work, or the better vocabulary, or the best existing knowledge, or later, the internet access. The result was just as divisive as Future 1. This is an uncomfortable reality for me too; I taught entire lessons without speaking and allowed students to work out the learning objective and lesson. Crucially, I did this as a challenge from a PGCE mentor who advised me to cut teacher-talk-time down. I gave up many, many precious lessons to make models of the island for Golding’s Lord of the Flies. We selected students for Media Studies as an alternative to English Literature. As a student, I studied the language of a crisp-packet and was taught that it was just as valid as Milton (I still have my class notes, before I am awarded a ‘Didn’t Happen’ badge). New-build schools in deprived areas were built with mechanics workshops and hairdressing salons, while the affluent, middle-class schools benefited from theatres, dance studios, and moot-courts. We limited opportunities while waving the anti-elite flag.

One of the powerful things about the idea of Future 3 is that it opens up the social realism of turning to our global academic subject communities to be guided on the best knowledge. I must stress that we are referring to global communities here. We can retain the classical study of Shakespeare. Our young people should have access to this – as well as Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Grace Nicholls, and John Agard. We can turn to Massolit for our critical theory and understanding of the best literature, and source and promote the best contemporary writing from Wasafiri. We know that the best scientists are not just centred in white-male circles – and we know this because our subject communities teach us this. We can now turn to Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock for our understanding of the universe and couple this new knowledge with other fundamentals. We know that our current model of the universe is more accurate than the geocentric model because great people who have come before us have proved it to be true. Galileo developed the telescope allowing us to witness planets from afar, and Brahe went on to develop the heliocentric model of the earth, and Newton’s laws showed how and why the earth keeps moving as it does. I hope the scientists will forgive my glossing here – but the point is that we, as classroom subject specialists, can select the best knowledge from our subject communities. We need to remain outward facing and continue in our own personal pursuit for knowledge – and just as the world changes and evolves, so must our curriculum.

It is at this point that we turn back to poetry, and the multi-faceted, messy glory that it is. Future 2’s handling of poetry took many forms, but a typical model during my school days and early teaching years involved students being given a poem and invited to explore it independently. There is something wonderful and alluring about this – and I do not reject it as an approach – but to do this without the complementary tools for close analysis is problematic. When we think about poetry, we understand that there are layers to be handled and approaches or processes that we undergo as readers – I am certain that nobody would disagree with this. Poetry brings about a startling and moving enlightenment at each reading. Even the poems which we consider ugly, or irritating, evoke a reaction: this one is so jarring, or the meter is out. We cannot articulate why we love or shun a poem without an understanding of what a poem is, and how it’s built. We don’t need allegories to make this point.

I wish to finish with leaving Feynman’s Ode to a Flower here. It was first drawn to my attention in the context of curriculum development by Richard Kennett at a CCT CPD event at my school. The beauty, the science, the world, the appreciation of it all and the importance of knowledge are held in these lines:

Richard Feynman – Ode to a Flower

“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

The featured image is a model island, made by students of mine, during their study of Golding’s Lord of the Flies.