We Need a New English Curriculum

Just about anyone you speak to either inside or outside of education will happily confirm the importance of English. Indeed, being able to understand and produce texts in various mediums is something of a pre-requisite for any employment in the contemporary economic world. However, our English curriculum in this province is so stuck in the past that it has become disconnected from teaching the kind of skills that make English relevant.

 

If you read through the curriculum, you will find a great deal of language designed to create the impression that it is innovative and focused on contemporary literacy. Yet, when we consider the structure of the curriculum, what becomes clear is that it is overwhelmingly old-fashoned, myopically inward looking, and obsessed with leveraging the so-called “canon” in order to reinforce long-standing distinctions between high and low culture. For the sake of brevity, then, I won’t be dealing with all the minutiae of the curriculum. My focus is on the structure.

Ontario’s English curriculum is divided into four strands and three to four “overall expectations” per strand. The strands are oral communication, reading and literature studies, writing, and media studies. This all sounds fine until you unpack what this means. 1) Being able to access a novel in oral format via audiobook places you outside the curricular competence for strand two. This is important for English language learners to help them master their new language, but the English curriculum places them at a disadvantage by deafult. The division between media and reading and literature/writing serves no purpose other than to reinforce the superiority of the novel and play (interesting, but mostly useless forms of writing) over and above other forms which offer sometimes greater insights. Furthermore, it perpetuates the distinction between high and low culture, between the canon and other works that educational scholars have long been advocating a departure from and newer, hybrid texts. Furthermore, the concept of media studies is ill-defined, including items as varied as print advertisements, video games and pop-songs.

All this aside, what I find most offensive is the general disassociation of this curriculum from critical thinking and transferable skills. There is a throw-away metacognitive expectation in each strand that equates critical thinking with reflecting on how badly you edited your essay. This isn’t metacognition. Metacognition is reflexivity about your subject position, which means it should be connected to critical pedagogy about race, class, gender and other forms of positionality.

Like this blog, a great deal of my writing and that of others is done in digital mediums. However, as soon as a I ask a student to write something other than an essay or reflection, it ceases to be writing and becomes “creating media texts”. In-depth analysis of a hybrid or multimedia text is “analysing media texts” or “understanding codes and conventions”, not “reading for meaning”. In short, the curriculum implies that meaning is only evident in the canon; filled as it is with forgettable, racist, sexist and dated titles like To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies and any number of Shakespeare’s plays, which despite needing to be performed, still somehow count as literature on most teachers syllabi. On that note, a whole strand, “reading with fluency” all but begs English teachers to ask students to recite the bard from memory as if this cocktail-party knowledge has some innate value.

If this sounds odd and arbitrary to you, it is even worse for educators, aside from those who drank the cool-aid in their English undergrads. As someone who is by training a historian of popular children’s culture, and so thinks little of high-low cultural distinctions, I find this troubling. Where are the thinkers that animate our life and world? Where is the intertextuality that should punctuate a good liberal arts education?

As an alternative, I would be inclined to point to the Saskatchewan curriculum which has three strands:

Reading and Analysing Texts
a. oral
b. written
c. visual

Producing Texts
a. oral
b. written
c. visual

Reflecting on Skills and Strategies
a. oral
b. written
c. visual

This makes sense in so far is it reflects the reality of the texts our students find themselves encoutering and encourages educators to make their course content meaningful and useful accross mediums. It also matters in so far as someone who is strong in oral and visual literacy, but weak in print literacy still has their skills acknowledged in a fair and equitable way. Let’s make this the model for Ontario’s next iteration of the English curriculum.

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