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Literature Study Post-16 II

Key Issues

Student teachers' subject knowledge and subject content

The most recent AS/A2 specifications have relaxed some of the constraints associated with the previous incarnations. There is now scope to study one text in translation and a requirement for a modern (post 1990) text. Additionally there is increased weighting for coursework and the possibility for creative responses to texts studied. However, it might still be worth exploring alternatives to AS/A2, including models of post-16 English from across the world, as an interesting way to encourage student teachers to reflect on the makeup of the standard specifications, and to see that there are other ways. It is as sure a bet as any that the future will see change again, and thus it is important to have knowledge of alternatives. It is also the case that the International Baccalaureate continues to gather support so an awareness of this course would serve student teachers well.

Depending on a student teacher's own educational background, she will feel more or less confident when considering the average AS/A2 specification prescribed booklist. English graduates will probably have been able to specialise at fairly early points in their undergraduate lives – even following a very traditional degree at a London university, I managed to negotiate three years without having to deal with any English 19th Century novelists. Some student teachers will come on to English ITE courses with degrees without literature as the major component – English Language, linguistics, drama and media degrees may all lead to an English ITE course. Thus, one clear issue – which may be more or less acute depending on the student teacher's degree – is subject knowledge in terms of breadth of reading; this is an area, one would assume, that a student teacher is keen to tackle.

Beyond content in terms of texts, there is the much more difficult question of the mode of literary criticism that is proposed by the specifications. Some have argued for a greater emphasis on literary theory in the post-16 English literature course, where others argue for less. What is true is that implicit within the assessment objectives are distinct critical approaches – though in fact contradictory approaches may be at work. There is still a clear emphasis on Practical Criticism at A level – notably in Assessment Objectives 1 and 2 – but there are, too, reader response notions embodied in Assessment Objective 3 and perhaps New Historical approaches (and more) enshrined in Assessment Objective 4. These assessment objectives are dealt with more explicitly in another section, but I mention them here to put against the knowledge student teachers come to us from university courses with. It is highly probably many will have addressed literary theory as an element of their degree, and how this can inform A level teaching is something to raise. A question for me as a English tutor is to consider how much time it is worth devoting to considering with my student teachers the place and value of literary theory in the A level classroom. Whatever developments occur at A level, this question of the role of theory – be it explicit or implicit – is one to address.

'Subject knowledge' I might also take to mean the memories student teachers have of their own A level studies (though not all will have studied literature, indeed I myself am evidence of the fact that not all English tutors will have studied literature at sixth form level). It is typical for student teachers to have powerful memories of their own A level work; certainly at interview when I ask for an influential teacher I get more than an average number of responses singling out A level English teachers. This can be an issue, though. I sense there is a certain 'Golden Age-ism' created around A levels on many fronts – that they used to be bigger and broader, and that being a student was an empowering experience. Though this may be true in some cases, there are doubtless many other reasons why adults may look back to the sixth form age with particularly fond memories. I recently heard a radio report on one of those fundamentally pointless lifestyle surveys, in which 17 was cited as the age most 'grown-ups' would like to return to. As I'll suggest in the sections on Teaching and Learning and the A Level Cohort, viewing the past through rosy spectacles might have potentially damaging effects. In this case it is essential that student teachers reconsider their own experiences as A level students before taking on the role of the teacher.

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