Naming of Parts: How Christian teachers can respond to the draft English curriculum

Christine Crump is Head of Pedagogy at Swan Christian College, Western Australia.

“Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.”

(Naming of Parts, Henry Reed, 1942)

I yearn to tread softly. As a co-writer of five English syllabuses in the 1990s, I am cognisant of how rewarding and exhausting crafting curriculum documents can be. I remember the broad ranges of public responses to the 1999 one, and how hurtful some of these responses were. Yet there are concerns for Christian educators that I feel ought to be shared.

Firstly, one needs to acknowledge the thoughtful and explicit process the material has undertaken, the wide-ranging expertise of contributors and the substantial consultation period. There are decided strengths to English F-10 [Foundation to Year Ten] including the logical and explicit sequence of its overall structure and many of the content descriptors. In the main this is also reflected in the discourse itself. Much of F-10 English is the same or like the last iteration of it – the theoretical foundations have not substantially changed, although they seem to have shifted a little. For educators, minimal change in a time of increased uncertainty and vulnerability may be comforting.

At the heart of my concern is the document’s “infrastructure of imagination” (Wenge, 1998). This is evidenced in several ways.

Making meaning is largely (although not only) relational until the end of Year 4, after which the concept of meaning becomes provisional. In Years 5-10 students either make meaning by using language features or subskills such as punctuation in producing texts, or they explain how structures and language features shape meaning in texts. Students share ‘aspects of texts’, “they … create … texts using deliberate textual features and language choices for purposes and audiences” and “understand how different layers of meaning are developed through the use of metaphor, irony and parody” (all Year 10 references).

Meaning is text driven, rather than person driven. It does not promote relationship with texts. Meaning is primarily about dissecting text rather than about understanding the world, the world of texts, or communicating with others. It is about how texts ‘position’ readers rather than empathy with characters or scenarios (especially after Year 6). It is inwards rather than outwards.

Similarly, there seems to be a tension between the repeated Year level descriptions “students engage with a variety of texts for enjoyment” and the nature of learning in subject English. Whilst a critical literacy approach to English has been strengthened in the consultation curriculum, there remains some glimmer of cultural heritage and cultural studies models. This predominantly occurs through the Literature strand and is outlined mostly explicitly in the aims for the course. Students “appreciate, enjoy, evaluate and use the richness and power of the English language to evoke feelings, form ideas, facilitate interaction with others, inform, entertain and persuade” and they “develop interest and skills in examining the aesthetic aspects of texts and develop an informed appreciation of literature.” (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2021, pp. 1-2). Nevertheless, rather than being immersed in texts for enjoyment, students are consistently asked to “analyse, interpret, evaluate, discuss and perform a wide range of literary texts” (Year 10).

I believe what we need to question in the F-10 document is the concept of personhood, the vision of subject English, the nature of truth, and that texts are to be irreducibly broken into a series of components.

From about Year 5, ‘language features’, text structures’ and ‘aspects of texts’ – often listed in detail – are core to studying English. This ‘naming of parts’ can lead to objectifying texts, the characters within them, and their authors. Smith notes, “Distinctions have been drawn between the kinds of reading in which we treat texts as disposable objects from which can efficiently mine resources and move on, and the kinds of reading in which we submit ourselves patiently to the text in search of personal transformation.” (Smith, 2018, p. 157). Epistemic humility, an intellectual virtue, is absent. Our “infrastructure of imagination” in teaching reading using the reshaped curriculum needs careful consideration.

Likewise, although the aims of English F-10 seem wide ranging, they aren’t always represented in the following detail. ‘Feelings’ disappear after Year 6 except for ‘emotions’ once in Year 7 content descriptors. ‘Aesthetic’ seems strong in the prose sections yet only mentioned in three content descriptors, ‘curiosity’ in one, ‘appreciate’ and beauty’ in none. ‘Craft’ is used once in relation to writing multiclausal sentences. Otherwise, students ‘create’, ‘construct’ and ‘control’ textual features.

To what extent do the content descriptors foster “enjoyable encounters with texts”? To what extent is it likely that ‘putting the parts back’ together again only occurs in summative tasks: a literary essay, or transformation of text, a prose analysis? Or do our assessment tasks simply ask students to dissect in prose form? “And today we have naming of parts.”

Lastly, the notion of values and beliefs has been minimised in F-10 English. It is difficult to discern how the curriculum sits within, the National Frameworks for Values Education in Australian Schools (2005) and the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration, “Education plays a vital role in promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians, and in ensuring the nation’s ongoing economic prosperity and social cohesion.” (Department of Education, Skills and Employment, 2019, p. 3).

Values do not appear in the content descriptors until Year 8 and, in Year 9, students one elaboration mentions ‘contemporary values’ (emphasis mine). ‘Ethical’ only appears in the rationale; and emotions are missing in 7-10. ‘Moral’ appears five times. ‘Beliefs’ are explored in the literature of First Nations people or associated with critical literacy practices therefore contestable, provisional and perspectival. ‘Spiritual beings’ appear in Creation stories of First Nations people, with no further reference to the term.

Overall, the curriculum represents a diminished view of personhood.

Christian teachers have always needed wisdom of how to work well within the bounds of any curriculum material, to live in the world well. Smith (2018) argues that pedagogy rather than content is core to teaching Christianly well, promoting the What if Learning model as a way of reimagining our classrooms. He asks us to critically reflect on the “infrastructure of imagination” in our classrooms. Likewise, our formative and summative practices are not mandated, giving Christians continued space to think Biblically about our teaching.

How might our English teaching practice transformed minds (Romans 12:1-2), reflect exquisite connectedness in Christ (Colossians 1: 16-17), and honour the great commandments Jesus gave us: to love God and love neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12: 30-31)? If the social imaginary “is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy”, what is the social imaginary of education in Australia?

I believe what we need to question in the F-10 document is the concept of personhood, the vision of subject English, the nature of truth, and that texts are to be irreducibly broken into a series of components.

Henry Reed’s poem Naming of Parts conveys how ill-prepared the recruits will be for the realities of battle by simply naming the parts of a rifle and concurrently missing the beauty of the landscape around them. I wonder if the draft curriculum document does the same.

References

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (2021). English Consultation Curriculum: All elements F-10 (pp.1-2).

Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. (2005). National Frameworks for Values Education in Australian Schools.

Department of Education, Skills and Employment. (2019). The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration.

Reed, H. (1942, August). Naming of Parts (24th ed.). (no. 584). New Statesman and Nation, 92.

Smith, D. (2018). On Christian Teaching: Practicing Faith in the Classroom. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Taylor, C. (2003). Modern Social Imaginaries. Duke University Press.

Wenge, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press.

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