Our guest walked down the aircraft steps onto the tarmac and was greeted by a small band and a few dancers dressed in traditional costume.  I wondered if I should tell him that we hadn’t arranged the reception and that it wasn't for him. I mumbled an explanation, but I don't think I was heard.

A little later, our guest, the writer Romesh Gunesekera, was welcomed again, but this time it was personal. He was sat down in a small theatre, then the lights were dimmed and a group of 15 and 16 year old students performed a play they had written, based on his short story, 'Carapace'.  I was expecting this, but Romesh wasn't and I detected a tear in the authorial eye as he sat, spellbound. I was impressed by the technical skills of the students in converting the play from the original story, which was largely a dreamy monologue in the first person, to a swift moving, three dimensional sequence that captured, beautifully, the indecision of the tale's narrator.  This had been the students' idea alone, and they had written it, rehearsed it and performed it without any interference from the teacher.  The word 'interference' was the teacher’s description.  When the short play ended, Romesh was able to discuss the performance with the young actors, who were starry eyes, but articulate. It was a very intense half an hour.

Later, Romesh visited the school down the hill. Anyone who knows Funchal, the capital of Madeira, will know that the city is built vertically on muscle-straining hills and it is always advisable to have your second appointment downhill from the first.  Downhill it might have been geographically but not in any other sense.  The students had been studying a wide range of Romesh’s output, including working on a theatrical adaptation of his novel, ‘Heaven’s Edge’.  The whole school had been involved in one way or another, not just those in English department. Romesh had been adopted as the 'Author of the Year', part of a tradition going back some twenty years, though Romesh was the second living author to be nominated and was the first author to visit the school.  Charles Dickens, for example, had been unavailable. 'Heaven's Edge ' deals with "a spoiled paradise" and is clearly modelled on Romesh's native Sri Lanka, extended to a dystopian future with tragic consequences.  It was the Sri Lanka of the present that enthralled the school, and teachers of art, music, history, geography, philosophy, Portuguese and English all became involved.  The school had immersed itself in what it could of Sri Lankan culture, and Romesh's vivid descriptions of the lush landscape were the inspiration for paintings which formed an impressive exhibition.  Concerts of Sri Lankan music were heard, Sri Lankan food prepared and eaten (Romesh describes food in his work with mouth watering results) and students studied references to the Portuguese as the first Europeans to land on Sri Lanka – as mentioned in the epic poem, 'Os Lusiadas' by the 16th century Portuguese poet, Luís Camões.

To say that Romesh was impressed by his visit to Madeira would be an understatement.  As soon as he arrived back home in London he started to explore for himself the connection between Portugal and Sri Lanka.  To his surprise he found a direct link between Funchal and Sri Lanka and managed to trace a number of seventeenth century cultural influences which can still be seen to this day.  As a result of his research, and spurred on by the memory of his inspirational visit to the schools, Romesh wrote a series of new short stories, tracing the real life adventures of a 17th century sea captain who retired to Funchal following his trips to the Spice Islands.  These stories were published in a bilingual edition, called 'The Spice Collector', to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the city of Funchal.

So what had brought about this extraordinary burst of activity and energy from teachers, students and author?  Let's look first at the school down the hill.  What could possibly have galvanised the teachers into embarking on such a remarkable and exhausting programme of work that was clearly far and beyond the normal demands of a school curriculum?

The answer was even more surprising:  it had been simply business as usual; a continuation of work that the school had been involved in year after year. In earlier years the school entrance had been turned into a giant space ship for the year when Sci Fi writer Ray Bradbury had been author of the year, and into a giant rabbit hole for Lewis Carol’s year, a dark place where students could dream their own wonderlands.  The maths department had been involved in the Lewis Carol year, of course, and science, in the form of alchemy, had featured for Geoffrey Chaucer.  And so the list goes on.

I asked how many students got involved in the project over the course of a year and the two organising teachers looked a little puzzled and then I realised the question should have been how many students at the school didn’t get involved.  I then came across evidence that the activities involved parents and other members of the local community, including ex-students and ex-teachers.  It was at this point I sighed, “I wish I’d been to a school like this,”  and both teachers nodded in agreement.  But the degree of motivation that had led to all this also led to a difficult question:

“What about the syllabus?”

The Head of Department flashed me a knowing look.
“It gets the attention it deserves,” says she. “All the requirements are met.”  It was quite clear that the syllabus was treated not exactly as an unwelcome intruder but rather like a rather tiresome elderly aunt who has to be placated and comforted while the family’s real life goes on regardless.

The amount of work involved in such a broadminded and holistic approach to teaching is daunting to anyone who sees teaching merely as job of work.  I pushed the two dynamos behind so much of the school's success on this point, trying to find places where support hadn’t been given, searching for cracks in the scheme of things, and I was told in a very matter-of-fact voice that “There are, and always will be, two kinds of teachers.”  The point was not elaborated.  It didn’t need to be.  Teaching should be seen as a vocation, not just a job, was what they were saying.

Back up the hill we had witnessed other examples of vocational teachers. In terms of class management what seemed to have happened here was a classic case of what we might refer to as non-linear teaching or, to be more precise, non-linear learning.  The opportunity had arisen to respond to a series of apparently casual circumstances – the introduction of a new story set in a new culture; the challenge of the language itself as well as the cultural overtones; the advent of the author visiting and the decision by both students and teachers that they would not be merely passive recipients for this event, but active participants, exchanging, rather than just receiving ideas. Here was an almost perfect example of the interaction of language acting as both catalyst and means of communication between teacher and students.  While the dramatic offering at the school down the hill might have been grander in scale and more daring in scope, what had happened at the school up the hill was more intensely driven by the students, more personal – and more ‘owned’: the students' sense of value of the project was enhanced by the manner of their participation.  In both schools this sense of ownership and partnership was what made the efforts stand out though the ways in which this energy was released were significantly different.  While the tremendous work done at the school down the hill took a vast commitment of time and resources – albeit time and resources that were available to every school in the country – the impressive offering from the school up the hill was available through the work of a few short weeks, using snatched hours and stolen moments. Naturally this meant that a considerable amount of work was done outside of regular class time; which brings us back to our vocational teachers.

The point of this story is simply one of hope.  Wonderful work is being done in schools all the time, young minds energised into sometimes extraordinary amounts of creativity.  At the same time it reminds us of the dark, ominous shadow that falls over educational establishments for far too much of the time: rigid timetables and the demands of exams.  At the two schools mentioned above, teaching had been reduced so that learning could take place; that's positive news.

By Fitch O'Connell

Find out more about BritLit, including work by Romesh Gunesekera.



I was following the discussion and didn't really intend to comment, but then I read this in laureneraw's last comment:In a world more and more obsessed with the ideas of skill-based learning, based on clear aims and objectives, the study of literature in itself will become more and more subject to scrutiny. This is where your proposals, Fitch, fit in; your example offers a model for using literature for more practical purposes which I believe will become more and more widespread.Herein lies a problem in regards to what Fitch is trying to do with his narrative-based approach.  "The clear aims and objectives" are the result of linear (i.e. traditional, bureaucratic) methods of evaluation and analysis, how else would they be measured?  Whereas the critical thinking component of this approach which Fitch (and myself) find so important doesn't really lend itself to linear means of evaluation, or could even be seen as not in the best interests of the evaluators at all . . .

Dear AllI have also been lurking here for a bit and was reluctant to come in but, whatever... here we go.I loved when Fitch said that non-linear thinking should be celebrated and the idea of linear assessment be challenged. However, it is perhaps naive to believe that educational authorities and parents will buy it just because we think this is good for students' development. Then what we tend to do is to put literature on the straightjacket of assessment disguising it with 'reports', 'fun quizes', 'projects', 'portfolios' and the like.I'll probably be killed for saying this, but if we really believe that literature has an educational role to play and is also relevant for language learning, then just let it be! Do not force it down on students - reading should be there on the syllabus but for enjoyment, for discussion, for critical thinking, to help students to develop their imagination and creativity. We cannot assess what is 'unassessible'.Our Positivist heritage is hard to overcome. It is somehow under our skins. I totally abhor comprehension questions, vocabulary exercises, genre rewriting and other such tasks used for language learning. I favour activities where students are asked to look at the text more closely and ask themselves how language is being used to convey ideas and create feelings and meanings.I honestly doubt that students, parents, teachers and educational authorites will ever be able to think outside the box if even teachers find it hard to do so.Cheers - Chris 

I am strongly in favour of some kind of assessment criteria being introduced into literature syllabi for the following reasons: 1)people talk about 'critical thinking' skills, but there seems little consensus about exactly what such skills involve or require of learners. I recently did a trawl of material relating to critical thinking and ELT in the British Library, and came up with at least eight different definitions of the term. Moreover it has often been used as a defence mechanism by those who would force a more mechanized view of teaching literature down learners' throats. Unless there is some kind of criteria by which we can measure, or at least evaluate learners' critical thinking abilities, then literature teaching will always remain marginalized. 2) While I agree to an extent with Chris's observation that there are some immeasurable aspects of reading, learning and thinking about literature, the incontrovertible fact remains that it has to be assessed in some way. This was something that was debated many many years ago, which is why New Criticism and Leavisism held such sway in educational institutions in Britain and the United States. I don't think it's very helpful to say that policymakers, parents, and teachers cannot be persuaded as to the value of literature in the language classroom; it's the responsibility of those involved to try and convince them. Otherwise literature will continue to be marginalized in terms of the ELT curriculum.

First off though, let me say that I agree with laurence as to "some kind of assessment criteria being introduced into literature syllabi".  This would be in line with this approach since the syllabus is by definition linear.  The way I read this approach is not that "linear" is bad, but that this approach realizes that we attempt to force an exclusively linear approach on what is in reality a non-linear social interaction.  There is however room for plenty of linearity in regards to the syllabus, course book use, skills evaluation, etc.  This also goes in line with student/teacher/parent/bureaucrat expectations.  It is the non-linear elements of this approach in operating in a non-linear interaction which do not lend themselves to linear measure, which was the point of my first comment and Chris's as well (as I read it).  I think the question here is one of balance.
Defining "critical thinking" has always been a problem in ELT.  The definition I prefer is that based on Jacques Ellul and Max Weber.  Critical thinking would be a "second level of literacy" which would allow the student/reader to critically analyze a text.  This would include being able to "reflect and discern", to get beyond simply accepting or rejecting the text, and would also allow comprehending a sequence of actions/results that follows a specific course of action, essentially Weber's concept of an "ethic of responsibilty".  This is pretty much the same thing that Neil Postman talked about in regards to a "typographic culture" in which a highly literate "discourse is generally coherent, serious and rational", that is the reader is able to understand, question and perhaps adopt part or whole of the narrative.
Notice that this take on critical thinking is reactive, it involves interaction with a text, but does not start with a pre-conceived agenda, other than the goals mentioned above.  Also it is restricted to the target language of English and (at least initially) to the textual context. 
Some maintain that we are losing ground on even the first level of literacy in education and devolving to a sort of "image-oriented" level of thought.  If this is the case, and there are many indications of it, then there is much work to do in regards to critical thinking . . .   

Hi Laurence, Fitch & EveryoneSome further comments -just to keep the discussion intellectually stimulating:)1. Indeed, there are lots of definitions of critical thinking, critical literary and other critical approaches and people working along these lines do not always see eye-to-eye. But perhaps this is how it should be because, as I understand it the very idea of a critical approach is that there are not definite truths and we should all realise that this openess to a multiplicity of views is exactly what a critical approach requires us to adopt. People's obsession with definitions is another example of the linear thought Joseph is talking about.2. I do not see the need to assess respose to literature as an 'incontrovertible fact'. Why would it be so? We have plenty of other opportunities to assess reading skills with non-fictional texts that abound in textbooks. Literature will always be marginal - as it is with any sort of art - I think it is naive to think otherwise. Personally, I do not think my role as an educator is to 'persuade' people of anything. I can share my points of view and the paths I've been taking myself. The moment education becames an act of persuassion we are far from authoritarism - this is the antithesis of critical thinking.My take anyway - open to debateChris

Dear Jiseph, Chris, Fitch and others,
Many thanks for the lengthy comments; I do think it's important to debate these issues surrounding critical thinking. I would be the first to agree that 'critical thinking' is subject to perpetual (re-)negotiation, and depends not only on individual learners' responses to text, but is also culture-specific. In some contexts, 'critical thinking' is equated, for instance, with 'westernization' (as happened here in Turkey several decades ago). However I still maintain that some kind of consensus has to be reached as to what it constitutes, particularly if you are trying to create a space for literature learning and/or teaching within the curriculum, and therefore have to convince policy-makers and/or other figures of the value of what you are doing. Perhaps the question here is one of balance; of forging some kind of compromise between working definitions and/or individual interpretations of said definitions. People might be 'obsessed' with definitions, Chris; but don't you think that's one of the realities that every educator has to deal with, when she is trying to construct her own programme of learning within the confines of a curriculum set and evaluated for its effectiveness by her department, or her institution, or anyone looking to assess its 'effectiveness' (and thereby ensure its future survival)?
I think we are at slight cross-purposes here. I agree wholeheartedly with the comment that literature teaching in class should not be persuasive but rather discursive. But I still believe that to a large extent those who are involved in literature matters still have to defend their corner against those who would question its value to the curriculum, or to ELT in general. These are the people who have to be 'convinced'. They might be policy-makers, they might be heads of department, they might be those who distribute funds within NGOs (like the British Council). I speak from bitter experience here: I used to work for the British Council, and had to spend much of my time convincing my superiors that literature/cultural studies work had a value within the ELT curriculum. These are the people who need to be 'persuaded' or 'convinced.'
Just a quick comment: I don't think that literature has to be considered a marginal subject. Let me cite the example of Nazim Hikmet, a Turkish poet who was regularly imprisoned for expressing his views in public, criticizing the governments of the time. Many learners know and understand the significance of his work here; if I can help to stimulate that knowledge by citing the examples of other authors who write about politics (e.g. Orwell), then I believe that literature can be catapulted into the curricular mainstream. At least, that's my hope, anyway.

I think there have been some useful statements and opinions which show a high degree of consensus on the relative values of linear/non-linear processes in learning and teaching environments so perhaps it is the differences that need examination.  Thank you, Joseph, for a useful definition of critical thinking which to my mind is highly pertinent to our discussion and to the role of reading in language teaching.  I would like to test this definition under different conditions to see how it holds up, though it does seem pretty robust to me!  I also concur that because the linear process of assessment can be best applied to reading of non-fiction then this is where it should be placed, fitting into assessment after having determined the purpose for reading; where reading for pleasure, for example, is the purpose then clearly this would be inappropriate.  The problem with this approach, however, is that 'reading for pleasure' and other purposes that do not submit themselves readily to linear assessment processes will get marginalised in the great maw of the process of education.  So, back to Laurence's concern - how do we move the orthodoxy to encompass a wider range of reading skills, abilities and outcomes?  I , for one, need to reread Amos Paran's thoughts on the topic .... off I go to read - in the hope that I won't be assessed as a result! 

One of the teachers taking part in the Romesh project in Madeira wrote to me about some of the debate above, and I have her agreement to post some of her thoughts here:"It always makes me a bit sad to see that teachers consider literature in the classroom as a burden or something that should be brought to students only if it's included in the syllabus, otherwise it will cause a revolution among students and parents. I  must have a very simplistic mind but, aren't students learning while reading? If they improve their language skills by reading literary texts, aren't they going to use that same knowledge in the exams?Why discuss those same topics included in the syllabus, the same way, year after year? A short story, an excerpt of a longer story or a poem can be a way of doing it.Literature can be helpful and above all it should be something pleasant. I totally agree with the comment by Chris. The problem with the use of literature is that it takes time and dedication because you have to read a lot before you make your selection according to what you like and to what you predict your students will like. Then you have to decide on the type of approach you'll make, etc.  That is possibly why many teachers would rather have a certain story by acertain writer in the syllabus because then the course book would have it there, all ready to use. But, even for the ones who don't like searching for themselves, there's this precious help given to us by BritLit or Wordpowered. Thank God you do this work, specially because you introduce us to writers who we wouldn't easily know about and give us the freedom to use it our own way."Thank you, Carmo.

Dear Fitch, Carmo and others.
Many thanks for initiating and continuing such an interesting debate. I think Carmo's comment is interesting here, in view of what we have previously discussed - that educators' views on what they like and what their students might like need to be taken into account. Perhaps the way forward is to adopt a negotiating position; not to try and justify literature's place in the curriculum, but rather to create a space for it in whichever way seems appropriate to the specific institution. If that means taking others' views into account, then so be it. But isnt that what critical thinking involves as well? In other words, can we transfer critical thinking skills acquired through the study of literary texts into other situations - for example, within an educational context? Maybe that's how we can work towards widening/expanding/ revaluating/ repudiating existing assessment practices. I'd like to think so.
By the way, Fitch, you said you had a second piece to put up soon; I'm looking forward to reading it.

Carmo's comments bring us back to some of the basics.  This includes the place of theory in regards to praxis.  Consider the connection between the different elements in the sequence of "approach - theory - methodology - product".  Praxis comes in at every level and has a close relationship with all.  Also as the product develops through praxis, which in turn expands the theory which allows a more complex and richer approach, a more refined methodology and an "improved" product.  We see here more the actual nature of the interaction that we are talking about.  Much of the sequence of "approach - theory - methodology - product" is linear, but it is operating in a non-linear environment.  The product also allows for the students to create something using the target language which in open to traditional evaluation.
In other words we start with a linear base and delve into the non-linear environment of the ELT classroom only to emerge again with a linear result of the students' creation which is subject to linear evaluation.
So, I would say that definitions and methodology are necessary.  The reason for this is that it allows our theory and methodology to be tested and compared to others.  It also makes for easier communication among ourselves and leaves no question as to where we are coming from, that is there are no hidden agendas.  We can disagree as to definitions, but without a common base how exactly are we going to actually test and compare what we are doing?   


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