Method Valued With Content

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The suggestion of several recent books and reports that excessive emphasis on teaching methods designed to improve students' skills and inadequate attention to the content of "classic" literature have resulted in unsatisfactory student performance in English is misguided. Teachers in other fields may be able to separate method from content, and published curricula of schools of education suggest that even English teachers can or should do so. In fact, however, the way we teach is always inextricably attached to what we teach.

We use the language as we study it. We draw on our knowledge of what has been said through language, as well as on our knowledge of the language itself, in order to use it. The English teacher can talk about method only in relation to content. Even the emptiest basal readers, those books concocted to give small children the blandest possible look at decoding language, are not totally devoid of content.

The interaction of method and content, tacitly part of all language teaching, was a basic assumption of a conference sponsored by the Coalition of English Associations at the Aspen Institute last summer. Chosen by the officers of eight associations dealing with English studies, the 58 teachers in attendance contemplated for three weeks the challenges to teaching English in the 21st century. (See Education Week, Aug. 5, 1987.)

Since the meeting was held in the context of numerous reports questioning the effectiveness of our schools, much of the discussion dealt with the conditions of teaching or with research on how people learn their language, but always in relation to what had to be learned and why. The participants' common-sense view was that teachers have to deal with both what must be taught and how it is to be taught. Changes in social needs, new knowledge about English, and new writings in English require changes in our classroom agenda, mostly in the form of additions to content.

The emerging information society requires far more knowledge about the English language and what has been written in it than did the declining industrial society. Although American culture has often been described as a mobile society, modern communication multiplies many times our needs to understand how language binds us and separates us, how our culture is represented in its many traditions, how other cultures address similar issues, and how new technologies of information affect our lives. This concern with the social obligations of the English department led participants in the conference to identify its theme as "Democracy Through Language."

For some people, this concern with the broader range of needs and students obscured the assertions that more material needs to be taught. Perhaps the presence at the meeting of Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr. and E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of Cultural Literacy, who argue for a more limited content, or the later publication of Lynne V. Cheney's American Memory, directed attention to one kind of content.

Indeed, Ms. Cheney, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, even suggested that the problem of teaching in the humanities is that of excessive concern with method at the expense of content. That assumption would be more tenable if it were not that the information she identifies as missing generally is taught, even though it is not learned. Most of us would agree that facts about the American traditions and knowledge of American culture through our literature are worth teaching to all of our people. We should indeed worry about why students don't seem to learn what we offer.

We might consider the possibility that we waste students' time, attention, and zeal on make-work exercises and that we distract them with other (sometimes worthwhile) opportunities, to play violins, lead cheers, go to the doctor, take trips, fill out forms, or listen to the intercom system. Perhaps, in narrowing our study to 100 books written by Caucasian males or to 5,000 facts useful for testing, we neglect to relate what we offer to what the student already knows. "Meaning" for any of us depends on relationships; isolated facts are little more than nonsense syllables.

We might even be forgetting that language is social. To learn language we must be immersed in it; we must use it constantly. An English classroom needs purposeful talk from all of its members. More than a "method," discussion is also an object of instruction. Writing is more than an object to study; it is the means by which we consolidate our learning.

The possibility that we waste time can be illustrated easily. For example, "basal" reading offers a minimal reward of knowledge for the time spent. Yet, a good school library is crammed with amusing and lively stories, biographies, descriptions of places, and explanations of the world of nature, to name just a few examples. The students' effort in reading those kinds of books is rewarded with all sorts of knowledge and fun.

In the study of grammar and usage, instead of observing how and why different people use different forms of the language, we repeat year after year the same prescriptive workbooks in an effort to force the student to learn the form we prefer. Those who already know it are merely bored; the others are depressed. Although people who want to be in the mainstream of American culture need to know mainstream language, they also need to know the importance of variation. The rote exercises merely make people afraid of their language, probably because the meaning of rote learning is more related to schoolroom orderliness than to participation.

In a sense, the method of rote learning of forms fails because the implicit content is false. Language exists actively among people. Americans are not stamped from one die; their language is a blend of many traditions. Questions of usage or syntax or level of abstraction or definition are meaningful--and therefore memorable--when one is actually using the language to communicate with another person. A particular question once made important to the student is the very entry to additional questions. Workbooks don't serve that function.

By offering a wide range of reading experiences, school reading should open to us human possibilities. Literature, especially, offers knowledge in context; many kinds of information are fused to present a complex understanding of what a person can know and feel. By thus experiencing diverse times and places, especially from the multiple perspectives of American life, we are better able to understand the people we must live with. To cut the list to a few titles so that all will have read the same items is to invite narrow-mindedness.

The diversity imposes a method, however. Social forces--television, family structure, ethnic background, economic support, and many others--require that we keep schools and classrooms responsive to individual needs. In order to lead students from their own ground into a more inclusive world, we need to choose readings carefully. Appropriate selection requires the mixing of old "standard" titles and others more immediately bound to the confusions of our time and place.

Perhaps the best rule is to choose literature that is new enough to the student to represent exploration, but familiar enough to make sense. Romeo and Juliet offers a useful example. To become one with Shakespeare's audience is a challenge to any of us, for we have to acquire a sense of late 16th-century England to understand the implications of the words. Our students may recognize youthful passion, and be curious about how changes in the rules of the mating game highlight their own passions. To the extent that they discover many changes in the language itself, they may come to admire how elegantly their own feelings have been stated.

That is, they will find out that neither Lamb's Tales nor Cliff Notes really get at the reason for reading the play. Quite possibly West Side Story will tell them more of the meaning, as will a current film or stage version, almost always altered to speak to a modern audience. The teacher is constantly challenged to supply enough background to help the student make sense of the text, but not so much that reading is a pedantic exercise. The balance is different in different places.

Examples can be multiplied indefinitely, but for any one work we all have different points of departure. Even contemporary writing from different segments of our society requires annotation for most students; we can't afford, however, to wait around until everyone has covered exactly the same ground. As we voice our reactions to a book and compare what we say with what our immediate acquaintances say and ask, we come to understand the language and the people who use it more thoroughly. We learn from our differences. We explore meaning. The facts we remember are those that lead to meaning, and many of those will have been important because we discovered them in the reaction of our peers.

English, more than any other school subject, is pervasive. We learn far more of our language out of school than in, yet the English teacher is made more important by that fact. The teacher takes the experience of the language and helps the student turn it into knowledge about the language. The teacher also helps the student experience ranges of the language not routinely present in daily life, partly to define the possibilities of life and partly to prepare students for whatever comes next. Given such an obligation, trying to separate content from method is not a productive activity. Rather, we might ask how which piece of knowledge can lead this student at this time to become a more effective human.

Vol. 7, Issue 9, Page 28

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