Leave it at the Door: why soft skills have no place in my English lesson
I have two points to make in this blog: firstly, traditional academic subjects should be taught purely, acknowledging their own specific set of knowledge and skills; secondly, this can only be done by subject experts. But first, here’s a bit of anecdote.
Like all teachers in this country, in my second year of teaching (2006-7) I began jumping through the hoops and red tape of the teacher appraisal system. Twice a year I’d be observed, and twice a year I’d fill in the school’s lesson plan template and faithfully hand it to the observer prior to the lesson. With only one exception, these lessons were relentlessly deemed as “good with outstanding features”. I was pleased about this as I’d slogged my way through my NQT year – left more or less to my own devices with three particularly challenging groups on my timetable – being observed every half term and receiving the same “satisfactory” outcome. In truth, I think my NQT mentor was being generous or sympathetic and some of these lessons should have been condemned to the dustbin of utter failure. Unfortunately, I just didn’t get how to create a “good” lesson. Interestingly though, my third appraisal objective during that first cycle of my career was simply “to keep a reflective journal” (my line manager was very research focused and I was privileged to be line managed by somebody who saw this as a worthy target). One of the first entries was a piece called “The Disnification of Education”, which opened with the following lines:
“Whatever happened to good old fashioned teaching? It seems that to be an outstanding teacher one needs to be well-versed in skills that in earlier times we would have seen at the theatre or on the TV. We have to keep children entertained rather than encourage them to develop their skills of focus and concentration. One cannot help but wonder how much of this is a result of bad television and bad diet, culminating in the production of an idiot culture propagated by people who have no respect for knowledge and investigation.
Only this morning I and a colleague were bemoaning the fact that students no longer even touch upon subjects that form the very basis of our civilisation in anything other than superficial ways. When we study Shakespeare we watch Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet and then discuss how we would direct one scene. When we “study” a novel, we watch the film and read one or two chapters. Science has absolutely no depth – children do very few equations and many experiments are no longer possible due to health and safety. As the idiots who grew up on TV dinners take on roles of authority and influence, so they implement initiatives to make sure that it becomes the one dominant cultural form and ensure the rapid demise of the quality of knowledge and its production.
This is clearly visible in the example of business models being used in education.”
As I said, this was written ten years ago. At this time the onus was very much on the “engaging” aspect of lesson design. If students were engaged and most behaved reasonably well, then the lesson was deemed a success. I’ll never forget (as a young teacher) being preached to by a senior leader that if behaviour was poor then the lesson planned was plainly wrong for the students as it didn’t address their “needs”. The same person also told a group of young and inexperienced teachers that he wasn’t “a teacher of a subject” but rather a “teacher of children”, and in that respect we should all expect to be called upon to teach whatever the timetable required of us. I smelt something fishy in this (not actually realising it was simply an excuse for poor quality school systems and leadership), but didn’t dare air my views in public due to a general lack of confidence and experience and a fear of being faulted by respected colleagues.
Anyway, I digress. The point is that I managed to find a sure-fire way to always get good or outstanding lesson observations every time. It turned out to be dead easy – all I had to do was make sure I’d filled in three very special boxes on the lesson plan proforma: the “PLTS” (Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills), “Learning Styles” and “Cross-curricular links” boxes. If I could explicitly demonstrate that students were team workers or self-managers or creative thinkers, I could escape the punitive measure of yet another observation or a capability procedure, and this would be even more certain if I could get them to do a bit of numeracy through visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities. What this really amounted to was making sure that the lesson had lots of fun and noisy activities which encouraged students to work together to some ultimately pointless and superficial end that may or may not be vaguely related to the topic I was supposed to be teaching. This might be getting them to write a rap about Lady Macbeth’s decline into insanity, or producing a storyboard to show what George and Slim did after the end of the book, or making a “mood board” to show how groups felt after reading a Wilfred Owen poem. The disgraceful thing in all this was that it didn’t really matter if the students were challenged or made genuine academic progress in the subject, just so long as they were “engaged” in what they were doing.
I should probably point out here that I am not particularly opposed to PLTS or cross-curricular teaching at all (although I am vehemently against the snake oil of learning styles). There is a time and place for these things, but it is not in my English lesson. You might want to talk about work place skills in a Business Studies or BTEC lesson, but they have absolutely no place in English, Maths, History or Science, for example. This is because these subjects are built upon millennia of serious research and thought and far transcend the basic “soft skills” agenda that most students are subconsciously taught anyway by the adults in their lives who model decent behaviour (ideally parents, then teachers).
There is no sense at all in expecting to see workplace skills demonstrated in the classroom – what we should be looking for is a room full of students whose cultural horizons are being broadened and deepened so that they understand, become and feel a part of our shared culture, history and civilisation. This is why it is so important that subject teachers are subject experts who can impart the specific thinking and skills peculiar to their subject and develop students’ abilities to apply these to the problems that arise in these subjects. Furthermore, this is why the soft skills that some see as universal – such as problem-solving or creative thinking – simply don’t apply across subjects. When a student tries to solve the problem of how a writer has used metonymy to create a political commentary critiquing a social system in a novel, this is a very different skill set to solving the problem of how a chemical reaction works, or the problem of dealing with and accounting for historical bias or provenance in the study of primary source material in History. Equally, a very different set of creative skills are needed to write a descriptive piece in English and a descriptive piece in Geography; using the knowledge and skills required to write an effective descriptive piece in one subject would land you a square fail in the other. Although the very basics may be the same (i.e. accurate spelling and punctuation, the ability to construct sentences), the knowledge and skills required to do each of these well are very subject specific and can only be taught well by experts in their respective subject. In this way, we can’t be just “teachers of children” happily meandering from one subject to another; if we do this the only thing we achieve is to breed underachievement. How can a teacher that doesn’t specialise in a subject hope to impart a deep understanding of and love for a subject that they don’t know in depth? And how can they ever hope to help others become subject experts in turn?
One reason I feel so strongly about this is because my undergraduate degree wasn’t in the subject I now teach. My PGCE mentor told me that it would take me five years to catch up with my PGCE peers who had degrees in English Literature; in reality I’m still catching up now. But I work hard to constantly update and deepen my subject knowledge and to impart this love of learning and passion to be excellent in the study of language and literature to my students. And I often find that this can give me an edge over colleagues who have Lit degrees, as my autodidactic English education has been more holistic and wide-ranging, taking in swathes of both Language and Literature. My students love it when they acquire little nuggets of wisdom that are subject specific and feel really clever when these are clearly explained to them so they can use them in their own work (sometimes they are things that I’ve only just learnt myself). It is this shared love of a subject and its specific knowledge and skills that make the learning experience so special and something that is uniquely carried out in each subject and classroom differently. But if I hadn’t committed to becoming an expert in my subject then it’s fair to say that I would be a pretty poor English teacher.
And so, to my mind, it is a fundamental requirement that the peculiarity and unique nature of subject-specific skills and knowledge is respected, and that the requirement for teachers to be experts in their field has to be acknowledged if we are to succeed in providing the best learning experience possible for our students and not feed them some “disnified” garbled version of the subjects that we teach. Anything less puts two fingers up to those who have developed our subjects over thousands of years whilst at the same time does a disservice to the young minds in front of us. We should be focusing on teaching our students to become experts in our subjects, not using the subjects as vehicles for teaching some perceived universal skill set that may or may not make them easier to assimilate into some potential future workplace in order that the demands of organisations like the CBI and their sympathisers are placated.