The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer….. and Shakespeare
The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer….. and Shakespeare

OPINIONBooksJune 6, 2024

Shakespeare. Chaucer. Grammar! Thoughts on the English curriculum ‘refresh’

The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer….. and Shakespeare
The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer….. and Shakespeare

Jordan from The Māori Literature blog weighs up arguments for and against the proposed changes to the secondary school English curriculum in Aotearoa. 

Last week the story broke that English teachers in Aotearoa would soon be presented with a rewritten curriculum featuring, among other things, a list of recommended texts for Year 7-13 students. The responses were fairly predictable all round. 

For one, the media immediately jumped on all the elements that seem the most old-fashioned: Shakespeare. Chaucer. Grammar! 

And of course, the general response from English teachers online was one of disgust. The NZATE (New Zealand Association for English Teachers) Facebook page alone has dropped several memes on the matter (like the feature meme in this Spinoff article).

Oddly enough, I had only just posted a piece on Substack a week earlier where I weighed up the possibility of a Māori literature reading list for schools. The purpose of the piece was mostly just to throw some ideas around – what works should end up on such a list? – but I also made clear just how unfashionable any sort of nationwide prescription (even suggestion) is when it comes to English teaching in 2024. These recent events confirm that.

A meme shared on the NZATE Facebook page.

So, is the response from teachers to this proposed ‘curriculum’ justified?

Well, there’s certainly a lot to be pessimistic about. The first thing that raised eyebrows was the apparent makeup of the advisory group, which seems very focused on a small range of schools in Tāmaki Makaurau (as reported on RNZ). The involvement of Elizabeth Rata – in the news for criticising the “indigenisation” of universities – also doesn’t help. Some are also criticising the “secrecy” of the process, but I don’t have the experience to comment on that.

And what of the recommended texts so far?

The inclusion of Chaucer feels bold, though it does evoke fear that this will be a backward-looking curriculum (not helped by the promise of compulsory Shakespeare at every senior year level). On the other hand, Rata has mentioned Patricia Grace’s Potiki and Witi Ihimaera’s The Matriarch as examples of texts by Māori authors, and I like the idea of these being taught more widely. Some have attacked these inclusions as tokenistic – and we’ll get a clearer sense of that soon – but to be fair, there are far easier texts to resource and study than The Matriarch if you were simply wanting to “tick a box”.

One thing I will go out to bat for is the increased focus on grammar.

As is evidenced by the recent developments around structured literacy at primary level, teachers are growing increasingly concerned over a general lack of ability to read and write. A greater level of prescription (and resourcing) could have tangible benefits to the teaching of these core language skills.

Because when commentators attack the lack of actual content in our English curriculum, they’re not far off the mark. People who aren’t English teachers are often unaware about how much freedom English teachers in Aotearoa wield over their own curriculum. There are currently no prescribed texts in this country, nor any prescribed text types – it is possible to go through secondary school without studying, for example, a novel. Core skills like grammar are generally left up to teacher interest; if you don’t want to teach it, then you don’t have to. 

The embrace of total freedom is deeply entrenched within the profession. I vividly remember someone on stage during an NZATE conference talking about how she had thrown her department’s collection of textbooks into the bin, and then everybody in the audience clapped. On one level this is genuinely enticing. There’s a real excitement to choosing your own texts, developing your own resources. It goes without saying that there are countless teachers doing great work and constantly refreshing their own practice.

But in moments like this, the profession’s commitment to total freedom takes on a deeper political angle which I’m not sure is entirely accurate. It’s easy to view English teachers as progressive, reflexive, diverse, and those who want to prescribe texts as regressive, conservative, desperately clinging to a colonial conception of the study of literature. It’s even easier to draw up these battle lines under the current government, and with what we know of the writing group behind these changes.

What I find frustrating about these discussions is that it becomes very easy to back the status quo, to smooth over the issues with the current system. And there are issues. Falling literacy rates might be surprising to the wider public, but as a teacher they seem like the natural result of an incohesive education system. When every teacher can decide how they teach reading and writing, we can’t possibly expect anything less.

Patricia Grace, author of Potiki. (Photo: Grant Maiden)

And when it comes to our obligations to Te Tiriti, I feel that a greater level of prescription will eventually be necessary. Our goal as teachers should be to instil a deep appreciation of Māori literature – both past and present – and this will require our collective knowledge and practice to develop. I want to see more foundational works find a new life in classrooms throughout Aotearoa. And to be honest, I can’t envisage these changes in a system where every department, teacher, and classroom is given absolute freedom to choose texts. At present, a student could theoretically only study texts by Māori authors. They could also study zero. The current system leaves too much to chance, and despite the wording of the “new” NCEA, there is still nothing that tangibly ensures the presence of Māori voices in English classrooms.

We need guidance and resourcing, because even the best of intentions can get trampled beneath the day-to-day workload of being a teacher. As Nicole Titihuia Hawkins puts it (in this 2023 article on The Spinoff): “[We teach] those same texts because in the thick of a teaching term [we] don’t always have gas in the tank to prepare new units of work and resources.”

The positive response to the new history curriculum seems like a good model. Sure, teachers and schools could have taught all this history before, but the prescribed changes have introduced a unified purpose, a cohesion – and yes, actual resources – that has resulted in more students learning important aspects of our past. Could the study of literature benefit from a similar approach? A novel like Potiki has endured for decades, is about issues that still ring true, and has rich, sophisticated language – it is also by arguably our greatest living writer. Why couldn’t a novel like Potiki be prescribed for every student in Aotearoa? Could prescription and firmer guidance be tools to enrich our students’ understanding of te ao Māori and our vibrant history of literature?

Am I optimistic about these proposed new changes?

No, I am not, and my reasons for pessimism are not dissimilar to those of my colleagues.

But I wish that the general response wasn’t merely a retreat into false dichotomies, into the comfort of the status quo. We need a strong vision for change within the profession. Yes, we have incredible freedom to shape our own classrooms – but surely we can think bigger.

Keep going!