Teacher blog: Trials and Revelations
The problem of fragmented thinking
The weeks before the Trials often remind me of an airport security line, with passengers clutching a couple of items they think are necessary, within the guidelines, and unlikely to spill. Their little baggie of English toiletries, so to speak, is a pre-packaged marvel of transparency, multi-use gadgetry, and separate bottling. ‘Got my techniques,’ they say hoarsely, plonking ‘em down for examination on the examiner’s steel table.
Bands 3 and 4 are solidly made up of well-meaning kids who think that memorizing ten quotes and telling you where polysyndeton can be found in them is the same as literary analysis. Under the pressure of the Trials, this thinking becomes hideously obvious.
What causes the quotes n’ techniques mentality?
The Quotes n’ Techniques mentality is (or should be) indicative of students who have been given the wrong idea of English from earlier years – or who have allowed themselves to be lulled into it. Obviously, if you’ve explained that ten techniques ≠ ten marks and they keep kidding themselves otherwise, then let experience show them. But teachers can foster that idea by doing these things, especially in the early years:
1. Marking that looks as if you’ve rewarded technique-naming rather than argument and literary analysis. Putting ticks beside quotes and techniques, not the conclusions drawn from them or the points made of which they’re just the evidence, subconsciously affirms the idea that English is marked normatively.
2. The dreaded TEE tables (Technique-Example-Effect) or similar. These are the seedbed of fragmented thinking. Actually, any kind of table or grid-making is usually unhelpful (regardless of what ‘learning style’ the student believes they have).
3. Not providing them with helpful examples – sadly, for every question you set, you’ve got to have a model answer. Maths does it, Science does it, PDHPE does it (yikes). The difference between English answers and these subjects is that we’re not claiming ours is the only right answer. But often English students gravitate to the quotes n’ techniques style of normative thinking because they haven’t been exposed continuously to written examples of analysis, particularly in earlier years. They feel that their work is marked against an imaginary exemplar which they never get to see. It’s like trying to guess what someone’s thinking: practically impossible and damn disheartening.
Address fragmented thinking
1. For senior students, you may only have time to change your marking. Don’t pay a technique in a paragraph unless it’s part of an analytic sequence (that is, an answer to the essay question, an interpretative claim about the text, and a piece of evidence which justifies that). In practice, this probably means you’d only tick in the middle of the paragraph if there are ticks at the beginning of the paragraph.
2. For junior students, start by weeding out any kind of tabulating or grid-making in your programs. Replace them with statement-making writing. Teach ‘meta-language’ only as part of an argumentative claim about the significance of the text.
3. If you’re immediately pre-Trials, use revision time to expose students to the flaws in their evaluation and analytical thinking, not to go over quotes n’ techniques which may not respond to the exam question. Use this example to discuss the difference between these two pieces of analysis, both of which answer the question:
Through the telling and receiving of stories, we become more aware of ourselves and our shared human experiences.
Explore this statement with close reference to your prescribed text.
Example of a strong answer
Winston’s journaling show a use of narrative both to construct a coherent self and an understanding of how that self came to be. He begins by ‘writing in sheer panic, only imperfectly aware of what he was setting down’ but as he persists with the telling of his story the ‘imperfection’ (which is inevitable, and probably ironic here) disappears and he becomes more lucid and fluent as his self-awareness grows. The success of his storytelling is evidenced by his willingness to share this newly coherent self with Julia.
Example of a weak answer
Winston tells stories in his journal, including the story of a movie he watched where a boat full of refugees were blown up. There is a description of a ‘wonderful shot of a child's arm going up up up right up’ which uses repetition and a graphic tone to show how Winston is influenced by the Party’s brutality.
Students are more likely to reach the strong answer by writing statements, propositions, and claims about ideas, not gridlined technique-tables.
Good luck with Trials!
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