Context is King

Friday Prosecco was flavoured with Pokemon Go! last night. Now I have to admit we’ve not really experienced Pokemon Go! in our household since my little one ran into the sea with his i-Pod in his pocket a week before it was released – we’ve kind of missed the craze, but I’ve read all about it in Forbes and The Guardian and The Telegraph. And last night, I happened upon a tweet from Carl Hendrick showing a list of writing tasks linked to Pokemon Go! with the horrified message “this kind of stuff should be eradicated from our classrooms!” I like Carl – he reminds me of gin. We get along well and can spar without rancour, so I piled in. And it went on for several hours. The thing is, I couldn’t really see the problem.

Personally I wouldn’t choose that as a context for learning. We all bring our values into our teaching. My fundamental belief is that education is there to create a better world. And by better, I mean a more moral, more kind, more thoughtful world, full of wise people. It underpins all my choices and decisions when it comes to teaching. The texts I choose to teach, the writing and speaking tasks I choose to set are often underpinned by this belief. Kids are bombarded with a diet of dilemma in which they learn, in the words of the International Baccalaureate, “that other people, with their differences, can also be right,” and through which they genuinely have to grapple with multiple perspectives and views.

Other people firmly believe in the importance of teaching children a ‘canon’ and others fix their sights on skills, developed through engaging contexts. Good luck to them all. So I wouldn’t choose Pokemon as a ‘topic’ unless I could think of a good dilemma/problem to drive it. Something about global capitalism, or obesity or the disconnect between the real and imagined worlds… You get me?

But I defended this teacher’s choices nonetheless because we had so little information on which to make such a judgement. What if the writing tasks led to beautiful, well structured writing and that was the objective? I mean, if the subject matter is good enough for Forbes, The Guardian and The Telegraph, who are we to judge? What if it was put together specifically for reluctant writers, say in primary school, who would more than likely be asked to do similar tasks in their SATs tests? We don’t know. In so many cases, context is king, but the outcome is the kingdom.

Martin Robinson, who again, I have huge respect for, joined the discussion suggesting that instead, the context could have been the Oresteia plays by Aeschylus. Leaving aside the time it would take to read the three plays with children, you have to question the content. Spurned sexual advances leading to a curse; adultery, revenge, murder, bare breastedness…perfect for the end of Year 6 performance, no? No. Not really. Even the myth of Perseus is fraught with some difficulty when Zeus appears to the princess Danae as a golden shower and impregnates her. I’ve had to do a fair bit of glossing over in my time. But this set of plays, written with an adult audience in mind, is not suitable material for children in Key Stages 2 and 3. Nor is the underage sex romp Romeo and Juliet in my opinion. That’s not to say we can shy away from difficult material, but there are plenty of texts that explore these issues with a child/young adult audience in mind. Fiction has a wonderful capacity to distance and protect children so they can view these things from a safe position of dislocation. But let’s not pretend this is the reason we choose the ancients – we do that to prove we’re being academically rigorous. Nothing more.

We have to be careful that we don’t blindly elevate the old over the new. That we don’t leap in to judge other’s choices based on our own preferences. You can be writing about slugs and have high quality work – the challenge and level of expectation come through the process and the outcome – what you’re prepared to accept as good enough. The extended vocabulary, explanations and knowledge you draw out of the pupils as they craft and draft their writing. That’s the work. That’s the craft of teaching.

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5 thoughts on “Context is King

  1. Nice post.
    I can’t imagine any reason for teaching “Oresteia plays by Aeschylus”, other than to teach “Oresteia plays by Aeschylus”.

    I would have thought that an activity that kids find engaging which achieves the learning outcomes is something we all strive for.

    The issue I have with “Oresteia plays by Aeschylus” is whether they will be accessible and efficient.

    As long as the focus is on the learning outcomes and time isnt lost due to Pokemon, I can’t see an issue.

  2. I think anything that will engage a disengaged child is worth a try. If you can hook with Pokemon Go then compare it to the Quest for the Grail, bring it into science and make it about evolutionary developments; plan a launch and write a persuasive piece for a parent. Discuss the moral aspect of where they are posted and whether it is ok to catch’em anywhere. A little bit of creativity in teaching is important.
    Canon is all very well, but you always have to consider: whose canon and also remember that canonic texts were once radical and new and often feared by the establishment.

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