When I started teaching the International Baccalaureate (IB) just over a year ago I was shocked and delighted by the range of texts I could teach. As an English teacher in the UK I had always accepted that there was a limited range of ‘set texts’ to choose from at GCSE and A-Level. When I stepped out of this curriculum I realised just how unambitious this approach is. By allowing teachers a vast range of texts to choose from, the IB treats literature teachers as professionals, able to make informed decisions about the content of the subject they teach, and to open up an exciting number of possibilities for their students.
I have written before about how damaging it is to limit the English curriculum at GCSE to texts by British writers. This post is, instead, about how empowering it is, as an English teacher, to be given free reign to choose the texts you teach.
The English National Curriculum does not set specific texts for study, but only makes stipulations about the fact that, for example, Shakespeare and 19th Century texts must be included. However, examination boards such as AQA and OCR provide a narrow range of set texts for teachers to choose from. Take AQA’s English Literature GCSE course (an exam board that offers one of the larger ranges of set texts) . Teachers can choose one Shakespeare play from a list of six, one 19th Century novel from a list of seven and one of twelve modern plays or novels. They are also limited to a choice between one of two anthologies of fifteen poems.
If students continue studying literature at A-level, they will again run into a narrow range of set texts. The whole AQA set text list includes about 32 novels, 15 plays (including four by Shakespeare) and 13 collections of poetry. In addition to this, students can choose two more texts for an independent essay. This may sound like a decent range of texts, but it feels anaemic when compared the IB.
The IB’s ‘Prescribed List of Authors’ (PLA) includes 42 playwrights, 83 poets, 82 novelists and 64 non-fiction writers. Unlike the A-level course, which prescribes specific titles, the PLA only prescribes the author. So when you multiply each of the 271 artists above by the number of works they have produced, the range of texts you can choose from is already into the thousands. And that’s just the texts in English. There are a further 273 foreign language titles on the ‘Prescribed Literature in Translation’ list (PLT). In addition to this, three of the thirteen texts taught don’t have to be on either list.
In terms of the number of texts a student will study, the courses are comparable: at least eight at A-level, and either ten or thirteen in the IB Diploma, depending on whether the students takes ‘Standard’ or ‘Higher’ level. The essential literary skills are also similar. So why does this huge difference in choice matter? It comes down to three things: professionalism, representation and the student experience.
Five months ago I had to sit down and plan a two year IB English Literature course, choosing thirteen texts from literally thousands of possibilities. This was simultaneously daunting and exhilarating. I have never had to read so many new texts or think so carefully about the balance and challenge of the course. I have been able to put together exciting combinations of texts including works by writers such as Murakami, Adichie, Thiong’o, Orwell, Sophocles, Camus, Hughes, Dickinson and Morrison. I have chosen a Shakespeare play that complements these choices and, incidentally, is not on the AQA set text list.
English teachers are professionals and should be treated as such. If I thought my child’s teacher incapable of selecting challenging, interesting texts, I wouldn’t trust them to teach a set text either. Providing teachers with free reign hands professional autonomy and accountability back to teachers.
When I was confronted with such a range of texts, I was motivated to extend my own knowledge-base. A direct consequence of being given this choice is that I have read more widely and am, undoubtedly, a better teacher of literature. Text choice promotes professional development.
It is important to note just how unrepresentative of British society the English curriculum’s lists of set texts are. Take AQA as an example. In a list of twenty-five plays and novels, only five are by women and only two are by people of colour. In a list of thirty poems not even a third are by women. It is marginally better at A-level, but even then the situation is bleak, with the pre-1900 poetry anthology including just one female poet.
I do not believe that students should only be given books that relate to their immediate gender or ethnicity. I believe passionately that students should study texts from the broadest range of perspectives possible. But that said, representation matters and the texts we teach our students should reflect that. If I have a class of students, half of whom have parents who were born in Nigeria, I want to teach them Shakespeare and Brontë, and Hopkins; but I also want to teach them Achebe and Adichie and Obioma and Okri and Osundare. Literature is more than entertainment; the books we choose as worthy of study define the society in which we live. Giving teachers freedom over the texts we study allows them to make choices that acknowledge and value difference.
We should read Heart of Darkness and ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and A Passage to India, but we should present them alongside A Grain of Wheat and ‘The Headstrong Historian’ and The White Tiger. To those who would accuse me of politicising the curriculum I would say two things: 1) You don’t have to teach these books, but you should be able to if you wish; 2) To exclude them from the curriculum is just as political, but much more pernicious.
In the UK I would often hear teachers discussing which texts would be most appropriate for their students. But given the narrow range of options, this hardly seems like an authentic discussion.
The very idea of an ‘appropriate’ book for students is fraught with challenges and raises many questions. Should students always enjoy the books they read? What does ‘challenging’ really mean? What will be the most useful for their future study? Which texts will they be able to engage with critically and analytically? To what extent should a book challenge a student’s beliefs, ideas, values? To what extent should it reflect them?
Perhaps some students would benefit from making some of these choices themselves or being involved in the process. Others would most likely benefit from having choices made for them by their teacher in order to push them beyond the familiar. The point is that if we actually value the experience of the student when we are selecting texts for study, the broader the choice the better.
These are questions that teachers should engage with directly. By shutting down choice we also shut down discussion and thought. This is sometimes done in the most arbitrary way (why Romeo and Juliet but not Hamlet; Great Expectations but not David Copperfield?) and sometimes it is deeply disturbing (the lack of ethnic and gender diversity). Fundamentally, providing teachers with real choices trusts in and relies upon their professional judgement to provide students with the best possible experience of literature. My excitement about teaching literature has been challenged and reinvigorated. The lists of set texts prescribed by English exam boards are manacles I do not wish to return to.