The Cunning Instrument #1: an interview with David Didau

A hole: something to fill; something down which to fall. A place to suffer in the emptying or filling of; or at the depths of which to suffer in silent, wasted waiting for some god in the machine.

The Cunning Instrument was conceived in a hole.

The Cunning Instrument was born to fulfil my selfish needs.

To cut a long story short, I recently moved back into teaching secondary English after having taught as an English specialist for the last three years in a bilingual primary school. Returning to the world of GCSEs and A-levels, I felt a strong need to reconnect with dormant subject knowledge and to catch up on any subject-related developments I’d missed out on in those three years.

More than that, though, I wanted (and want) to be a better English teacher than I was before. I wanted not simply to do the job of teaching: I wanted to think like an English teacher.

I had taught texts. I had created schemes of work and followed the schemes of work of others, but there was something incoherent about my grasp of the domain. It felt like my teaching was a wall of bricks with no cement: I had all the components of good practice, but there was no motivation binding it together.

So, in The Cunning Instrument, I thought I’d seek out English teachers for whom I have great respect, and try to draw from them what makes an excellent teacher of English, in the hopes that, over time, I might become one of those teachers.

My first interview is with David Didau – ex English teacher, former Head of Department and, most notably, the author of a rapidly-growing series of books that are both successfully challenging the myths that continue to plague teaching practice and raising the research literacy of teachers.

How has this interview changed me as an English teacher? Well… as a direct result of this interview, I now know that Hamlet’s Laertes was not only the son of Polonius, but that Odysseus’s father bore the same name; I know that ‘thole’ is an old English word for ‘suffer’ – a word that is still used colloquially in parts of Northern Ireland today. I welled up (on a plane) watching (on a laptop) Eddie Carbone (on a stage) spiral into paranoid decline. I welled up watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet describe the same sky as I now type beneath (albeit in a much lighter mood than his).

Seamus Heaney grappled with Beowulf for nigh on thirty years before finding the thread that connected his heart to that of an anonymous tenth-century poet. That thread was the word ‘thole’. Such a word, shared between these two poets across a thousand years, wires us into a body of knowledge that, whilst contestable, has a weight to it granted by the simple act of retelling stories worth telling.

I reconnect not with practice, but with knowledge – the essence that drew me deeply into my subject in the first place.

I learned that the core of my teaching practice is my knowledge of that subject and that in cultivating my subject knowledge, I am investing in a schema that I have a fighting chance of sharing with my students in a structured and memorable fashion.

In short, my confidence in English as an academic domain worthy of pursuit has been massively reaffirmed.

Whats: Hi David. Many thanks for agreeing to being interviewed. Basically, I’m setting up The Cunning Instrument as a blog series of interviews to focus more explicitly upon English teaching, generating relatively informal discussion that’ll hopefully help English teachers (especially those new to the role) to grow more confident in their practice. If you’re up for it, I’ll fire a few questions at you and see how the conversation develops from there (as asynchronously as you like). How does that sound to you?

David: OK. Go for your life.

W: Thank you! Here goes… Teaching English is particular in that, as well as not having existed as a subject for all that long, it has contested aims (cultural heritage, functional literacy, etc)…

As a Head of English, how do you balance those aspects at the level of long-term planning? Do you leave it to the professional discretion of the teachers and let tests speak for themselves or do you centralise book choices and programme literacy routines across the department?

DD: Do you want a quick, pithy answer or a looong, detailed one?

W: As I reread the question, I feel like I’ve started with something just too big to do justice (especially at the beginning of an interview). I think I was being a bit grandiose because I’m more than a bit scared of interviewing you. In a nutshell, in English teaching, what do you think should be fruitfully centralised/standardised, and what should remain in the secret garden (under the individual teacher’s control)?

DD: This is still a tough question and the short answer is, it depends. With teachers whose subject knowledge I respect I would offer far more freedom than inexperienced teachers or non-specialists. So, I would, with due consultation, happily prescribe that everyone must teach, say, a Greek tragedy, and then leave the choice of which to individuals.

Basically though, I think teacher autonomy is a much overrated and often unhelpful canard. We fetishise choice at the expense of quality. In practice, I’ve found few teachers are expert enough to design a high quality scheme of instruction and also have the time to do so well. Consequently most teachers welcome someone to do the thinking for them. Inevitably, we mediate all centralised instructions so it pays to work hard on taking staff with you to understand the thinking behind choices.

This is something I would prioritise from interviews onwards. I would explain my ideological biases and make it clear that anyone unable to get on board would not find it rewarding to work with me. I would then pour in support to get them to the position where I could trust their judgement.

W: English, the subject, seems to be plagued with old-fashioned routine – many of which slip in and out of vogue. What would you suggest to be the most important routines for a series of English lessons? What would you not have students go without?

DD: Well, I’m largely against English as an instrumentalist subject and strive to (re)claim it as an academic discipline. So, routines? I dunno. Lots of reading (by that I mean teachers reading aloud) high quality texts followed by guided discussion on analysis, etc. I’d want retrieval practice routines embedded in lessons and I’d expect students to memorise details of texts studied and basic literary analysis. I’d do a lot less writing.

W: When I taught in primary, I had a VCOP display on my classroom wall. How bad should I feel about that?

DD: Mildly bad. You didn’t know any better, but then, you never stopped to question.

W: Too many of us didn’t, but I hope that many more of us now do. Would you recommend planning long-term by topic, by genre or by text? How do you approach long-term planning across the years?

DD: By text. Long term planning is, I think, best thought as a sequence and the sequence I prefer is chronological. I have blogs on this if you want to read up? This is an oldie from 2013: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/english-gcse/principled-curriculum-design-teach-english/

W: Ah yes! Threshold concepts! I remember trying to work through what these might be in English in primary. What really struck me looking at your sample KS3 curriculum is the complexity of the texts in Y7-8 relative to later years. I’m sure you’ve had this debate ad infinitum with English teachers who want younger secondary students to experience accessible whole texts (within their ZPD, as it were). But I think you’re arguing that this is indicative of the skill-based approach to reading (kind of decontextualised and therefore forgettable). Has this chronological approach been successfully trialled (for example in Michaela)? And if so, are we talking about working through simplified summaries interspersed with original extracts?

DD: Original texts all the way! So for instance, students would read Simon Armitage’s version of the Odyssey and love it. It’s all about Teacher mediation. The beauty of using these texts is that they appeal equally to Yr 7s and Yr 13s. They are timeless.

W: Brilliant! I’m going to have a crack at this! Do you know a good adaptation of Gilgamesh?

DD: This is the one I’ve used: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gilgamesh-Reader-Classics-Stephen-Mitchell/dp/0743261690/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1519634171&sr=1-2&keywords=Stephen+Mitchell+gilgamesh

W: It makes perfect sense… all of the references (eg, ‘Ozymandias’) that we’ll need later on, are in these original texts (even in translation). Utterly logical.

DD: This might also help you follow my thinking http://www.learningspy.co.uk/curriculum/broad-balanced-curriculum/

W: I’m with you on exams representing a narrow portion of the subject domain. As ever, for many teachers (or HoD, SMT) it is the leap of faith in terms of change management and the fear of negative impacts on performance in high-stakes tests. But, to give some assurance to teachers contemplating the teaching of a classical text to Year 7, would you be able to suggest a typical planning approach to such texts. For example, traditionally, teachers might first read the text then read around the text, generate a reading schedule and later pick out key extracts to focus upon. Are we talking about the same basic approach, say, for Aristophanes as we would use for Louis Sachar’s Holes? Is this where the knowledge organiser comes into play?

DD: As I’ve made clear, I don’t think Young Adult novels should be part of an academic curriculum. I’d encourage children to read them, but don’t see them as worthy of serious study.

The knowledge organiser is just a way of recording – and organising – what students need to have memorised. If it’s left on the page, it’s an absolute waste of effort – it’s only useful if it’s inside children’s heads.

My planning approach is as follows:

  • What do children need to remember?
  • How will I make sure teach I these things?
  • Writing lots of retrieval practice questions to ensure children are building robust schema.
  • Lots of reading aloud interspersed with explanations, followed by Q&A.

Not complicated really.

W: Indeed not, and very practical. A couple more questions if I may… I think we’d definitely agree that an English teacher MUST be a reader: should an English teacher be a writer?

DD: In far too many cases, there’s little worse than English teachers writing poetry *vomits*. I’d shy away from prescribing writing as an activity for English teachers.

But that said, the number of job applications I’ve gotten from English teachers who clearly cannot write is stunning. I think all teachers should take the development of the subject specialist knowledge seriously. And Heads of department have an obligation to facilitate this.

W: I agree. Do you think there’s far too much focus on generic teaching skills (in INSET, CPD)? Apart from my PGCE, I can’t remember any subject-specific professional development that I didn’t undertake off my own back and under my own time. Frequently I feel enormously guilty if I use school time to read a text – should I?

DD: Do I think there’s far too much focus on generic teaching skills? YES!

Should you feel enormously guilty if you use school time to read a text? NO!

Unless it’s Holes, of course.

W: Thanks so much for your time, David. Very much appreciated.

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