Literature Study Post-16 II
Teaching and learning approaches
It is a well recorded phenomenon that there are temptations for the student teacher to approach teaching at A level with a different sense of what constitutes effective approaches to teaching and learning. The change in approach may be prompted by a whole manner of considerations, including and these are not mutually exclusive
the student teacher's own experience as an A level learner, preconceptions in relation to the classes before her, a 'trickle down' effect from experiences within higher education, or a response to external assessment pressures.
Whatever the source of the problem, the manifestation can be seen in the practice of many beginning A level teaching and, indeed, all too often in the practice of vastly experienced teachers, which may, too, be a serious contributory factor. An increasingly didactic approach, heavily directed annotation of texts, large quantities of background notes, a standard whole class 'seminar' style lesson structure, a reliance on students' note-taking skills, heightened expectation of independent reading and research might all be parts of the caricature of post-16 teaching I am imagining. I do not exclude myself from the range of people I know to have become different teachers in front of sixth form students. The same teachers who are devising and planning imaginative and engaging interactive group work approaches to texts in Year 8 are only a lectern short of lecturing in Year 12.
This is clearly an over-exaggeration, but highlights for me a key issue to raise with student teachers when beginning work on A level teaching. Put simply it is to reaffirm and revisit what are effective approaches to text. Drama, role play, structured group oral work, DARTs activities, etc.... are as important at A level as elsewhere, and are critical in the process of scaffolding the development of independent, informed learners in the classroom. For there is clearly a need to further develop the A level literature student's independence as a learner and critical thinker. But this is not achieved by suddenly expecting the average 17 year old to be capable of researching and presenting, or through some process of metamorphosis that happens after GCSE when students go into a chrysalis state following their final Year 11 examination.
It is perhaps the case that changes to post-16 assessment have intensified pressure on teachers, and thus on learners. Certainly, I've plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the pressure to 'spoon feed' has pushed up from GCSE, thereby creating a clear conflict between the drive to empower autonomous learners and the sense of wanting to give students what they need to negotiate AS and A2 modules. We've all heard the A level teachers bewailing the inability of new literature students to read and analyse independently, having been heavily directed towards GCSE examinations. As someone who teaches first year undergraduates on English degree programmes, I'm not surprised when I read letters like that published in the TES from a university tutor pleading for students to come to him better equipped to independently offer a critical response to an unseen text.
Student teachers will no doubt witness the pressures on teachers and students to 'deliver' results at work in the classrooms they see. In such a climate it becomes even more important for me to spend the limited time I have with my student teachers focusing on effective teaching and learning, and re-emphasising the sense that post-16 students who read widely and interrogate texts thoughtfully, and who are helped to write well, will negotiate the assessment hurdles put in their path at the end of modules.