Learning Lines

Should we be expecting excellence instead of measuring it?

October 22, 2013

This week Jacqui O'Hanlon reports back from her travels to The Ohio State University (OSU). Our on-going collaboration with the university expands our rehearsal-based teaching approaches to Shakespeare in primary and secondary schools in the UK and the US. And it supports OSU's aspiration to be a destination for the teaching, study and performance of Shakespeare's work.

I've just returned from a visit to The Ohio State University leading a professional development course attended by more than 40 teachers from elementary, middle and high schools from across Ohio State. We've been working with OSU since 2009 and in that time an extraordinary and inspiring network of practitioners has developed.

The pleasures and pains of teaching Shakespeare
We are now in year two of a new three year professional development programme for teachers in Ohio which is part of an overall postgraduate programme of study for teachers offered by OSU. It's fascinating to see the similarities and differences between US and UK teachers in terms of the pleasures and pains of teaching Shakespeare.

Similarities are:
• passion for the subject;
• a desire to engage in meaningful professional dialogue;
• a commitment to creating high quality learning opportunities for those students who otherwise wouldn't have access to Shakespeare's work;
• a frustration about operating in an educational culture that seems to value excellence in the collation of data above excellence in teaching.

Is there time to teach Shakespeare as theatre?
Both sets of teachers negotiate a desire to incorporate theatre-inspired teaching approaches into their classrooms with a concern that they don't have time because of assessment needs. Can we move the desks back, actively explore the interpretive choices in the text, engage in a creative dialogue with our students and still get them the grades they need?

The OSU team are leading a longitudinal study exploring the impact of RSC teaching approaches on the attainment of students through tracking the attainment progress of control and target classes (target classes are those with teachers that are part of the RSC/OSU training programme and control groups are not).

Their early research has found that an improved attitude to Shakespeare's work in students is predictive of higher test scores in English and Maths. Back to the 'If I can do Shakespeare, I can do anything' school of thought I wrote about in my last post.

In fact, there are very few differences between UK and US teachers and in a global context in which we believe 50% of schoolchildren in the world study Shakespeare, his place in the educational life of students in the US seems as assured as it is for students in England and Wales.

In the US, Shakespeare is a named author on the Common Core Standards (the equivalent of our national curriculum). Individual states can choose whether to adopt the Common Core but the majority have done so and as part of that curriculum students are required to study 'complex texts', which is where Shakespeare fits in.

(Read our research with the British Council on the subject of teaching Shakespeare around the world here [PDF].) 

The A, B, C, D, E and F of teaching
The biggest difference between our teaching experiences in the US and the UK are actually around how schools operate. Funding and curriculum are decided on at state as opposed to federal level.

Residents in Ohio are just about to vote on whether to increase the amount of funding going to state schools in the region, and this decision will directly relate to the amount of tax individual residents pay. So the accountability of schools to the tax payer feels more immediate and pronounced.

Schools have recently started to get awarded a grade: A – F. Sound familiar? When you're teaching in an F graded school but are working as hard as you possibly can for your students, it can get demoralising. Operating a system where schools are on a spectrum of A – F means that some schools have to be an F for the system to work.

It reminds me of the leadership consultant Benjamin Zander who recommends that we start by giving everyone an A. I'm a cynic and naturally resist the idea, but it's based on a belief that everyone wants to do their best and, when the best is expected, everyone raises their game.

What would happen if the great experiment in education was about expecting excellence in learning and teaching (and in learners and teachers) as opposed to measuring (and at its worst expecting) failure?

Photograph: Stewart Hemley

by Jacqui O'Hanlon  |  No comments yet

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Teaching Shakespeare