English: I would call it ‘Language Arts’

Wouldn’t it be lovely if, while we are in the process of drafting an Australian National Curriculum, we could ditch the subject title ‘English’?

I mean, what reasons do we have for keeping the name?  I know it represents an important connection to our English/colonial literary heritage, but does anyone really think that changing the name of the subject is going to slow the study of Shakespeare, Keats or Austen?  And I realise that some people will be saying ‘but it is about studying the English language, hence ENGLISH!’  But surely what we do in this subject is about more than studying language…just like the study of ‘Visual Arts’ is about more than studying design elements.

I see a lot of room for connection between subjects like English, Visual Arts and Music.  To me, these school subjects all have in common the study of

  • how meaning is made using signs/symbols
  • how people express themselves
  • how to reflect on expression to better understand the world

Currently the increase in multimodal texts has meant the expansion of English, and some would say the study of sounds and visual ‘language’ in English constitutes a colonisation of sorts…English seems to some to be taking over the material of other subjects!  On this point I disagree – there remains in English the special project of studying works/pieces/texts that are grounded in WORDS.  The fact of the matter is that many forms of expression that use words also engage with other sign systems.  Words are spoken, and heard.  They are written and seen.  They are illustrated.  They are enacted.  The subject title ‘English’ just doesn’t encapsulate all of this for me.

The other problem with the English subject label is that it lacks an emphasis on the creative element of studying words.  It would be inconceivable that subjects in the creative arts – Visual Arts, Music, Drama etc – would focus on learning technical aspects of their craft at the expense of engaging in art-making.  Yet, this scenario is all to prevalent in contemporary English classrooms.  We study novels, poems, films, as well as technical aspects of language, but the actual crafting of original texts is neglected.  While Major Works in the creative arts subjects constitute 50% of their respective HSC courses, English only requires students to complete one out of six exam sections on creative writing, and this is done as a first draft in 40 minutes :(  Although ‘Composing’ is supposed to make up 50% of the English course, much of this is done in the form of ‘composing’ texts such as essays to prove what has been learned about other people’s texts!

It is because of this that I would love to see English renamed ‘Language Arts’, and the processes of responding and composing renamed studies of ‘theory’ and ‘practice’.

The study of words should be a joy.  For this to occur, students who are learning about words must also get elbow deep in making their own texts.  It should be messy, experimental, personal and forgiving practice – like what you see in an Art room.  And if we can teach students about words in a way that helps them to express themselves and understand the world around them, they will want to learn more.  Of this I am sure.

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  1. #1 by Rachel on June 3, 2010 - 1:49 pm

    I totally agree. And. I’ve posted your blog page on our faculty noticeboard. Unfortunately, whoever’s drafting this new curriculum probably isn’t educationally-twittering, and thus may not see this awesome idea. Get the word to someone who matters! :)

    • #2 by kmcg2375 on June 3, 2010 - 2:01 pm

      aw, thanks Rachel! I agree, a change is unlikely, but I’ll still suggest it in my feedback to ACARA. Unfortunately suggestions about changing the name from ‘English’ are often met with claims that it would signal a rejection of heritage, the denial of grammar teaching, and evidence that the left have infiltrated education with crazy ideas about, I dunno, multiculturalism and Indigenous studies or something ;)

  2. #3 by Brendt Evenden on June 3, 2010 - 3:03 pm

    I also agree and have thought this for many years. It would also prevents students from saying “But I already know how to speak/write English – why do I have to do it as a subject?”

    • #4 by kmcg2375 on June 3, 2010 - 3:53 pm

      That is a good point – it would also perhaps add more credence to English as a Second Language courses and students with ESL backgrounds, and the concept of native language could be divorced from the study of ‘Language Arts’.

  3. #5 by Darcy Moore on June 3, 2010 - 8:46 pm

    Oh, you’re such a subversive! ;O)

    Seriously, I really want to tear down the fake (subject) walls of our rigidly constructed curriculum and come up with some innovating learning programs that allow for personalisation. Not sure how to do this, on a large scale but thinking broadly, subject names are the heart of the issue.

    • #6 by kmcg2375 on June 4, 2010 - 1:09 am

      Of course some kind of labelling would have to be used though, purely from a practical POV? I was thinking today that I would love to form a ‘Semiotics’ department that included all areas of sign/symbol representation. That is one example of a broad collection I think would work in a school. Perhaps something like ‘Society and Culture’ to cover all the HSIE/SOSE/History stuff, and something else to catch the Sciences, which I think work in perfect combination with Home Ec and PD/H/PE (maybe chuck maths in this last one too).

      A school made up of three broad departments, using problem based learning and special interest projects to make connections between the areas. That would be neat, and only a tad subversive :)

  4. #7 by Garry Raftery on June 4, 2010 - 7:30 am

    English, Maths, Science, et al? KLAs? Faculties? Ultimately futile attempts by us to control our existence through categorisation. Dewey, anyone? Order from chaos (now I’m starting to sound like a Dan Brown novel). I think this valuable discussion you have started highlights the current tension in education between those who seek to subvert and those who fear this ‘loss of control’. (cf. http://tinyurl.com/298mgeh) How should we ‘plan our schools’? Not sure, but we must not be hidebound to this fear of losing control. Our children now exist in, and will continue in after we are gone, a world where learning doesn’t have to be doled out in regulated doses in an ordered ‘curriculum’. Are we going to be brave enough to let them thrive?
    As it’s now Semester 2 reporting period, I’ll reuse a comment I’ve written more times than I care to remember in 30 years teaching… “Keep up the good work Kelli.”

    • #8 by kmcg2375 on June 4, 2010 - 3:49 pm

      Hehe – I do try to be conscientious in class, though at times I can be too talkative ;)

      I completely agree that categorisation is used to control. Dewey, yes, and I’d also throw in some Illich. But I also do have concerns about equity, and believe that some kind of institutionalisation is necessary to ensure that all students can engage in education in our mass-schooled context. I know my (hypothetical) kids won’t need school to learn, but I enjoy a privileged position as well-connected educator.

      I think we have to look to a new structure that ensures equity but doesn’t over-categorise.

  5. #9 by Troy on June 4, 2010 - 3:36 pm

    I want to work with you. Some place, some Utopia. The construct of ‘English’ does need refinement. I love hearing the students debate ‘English’, the connotations- negtive, positive.
    I think the main meal might be the term ‘English’, with a nice side of Union Jack.

    • #10 by kmcg2375 on June 4, 2010 - 3:43 pm

      Tell me about it Troy – our brief encounter with DER resource making wasn’t nearly enough!
      Union Jack indeed…if we can’t get people to change a flag or become a republic then I guess there is little hope of talking the pollies (who now control curriculum…) into changing the name of ‘English’.

  1. Writing about English

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