To engage with literary texts deeply and meaningfully, students need to be able to confidently make informed connections between key areas within them. For example, exploring how Macbeth’s portrayal at the beginning of the play (‘brave’) compares to his portrayal midway through and beyond (‘unmann’d’) is an essential activity. Equally, so is comparing the characterisation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, or Macbeth and Duncan and so on. However, we should always also push students to think beyond the text itself. For example, take Macbeth and Othello. There are a number questions that could reasonably be picked upon to extend learning:
- What are the similarities between Macbeth and Othello?
- What errors of judgement do the characters make and what are the inciting forces?
- What are the consequences of each character’s hamartia?
- How are the female characters portrayed?
- To what extent is order restored at the point of denouement within each play?
Thinking about the relationships between literary texts helps students to engage in more complex forms of reasoning. With regard to the questions above, students who are able to consider the ways in which Othello is manipulated by Iago – and then to think about the chaos that follows – will be better equipped to gain a deeper understanding of Macbeth’s own tragic fall. This form of reasoning – relational thinking – is based on the concept of analogy which, as the cognitive scientist Keith Holyoak highlights, is ‘a special kind of similarity.’ In his essay on the subject, published in The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning, Holyoak uses an example from Charles Darwin’s studies on ‘natural selection’ to emphasise the value of drawing analogies:
Charles Darwin drew an analogy between breeding programs used in agriculture to select more desirable plants and animals and ‘natural selection’ for new species. The well-understood source analog called attention to the importance of variability in the population as the basis for change in the distribution of traits over successive generations.
Making meaningful comparisons positively influences thinking: it helps us (Holyoak’s words again) to perform ‘self-supervised learning’ and to ‘form new inferences.’ And it’s for this reason, in addition to many more, that students should read widely and often within the taught curriculum. Of course, amidst all the pressures of competing demands on teachers and school leaders, it’s easy to superficially justify taking shortcuts. In English, for example, it’s possible (although much harder now) to teach just a handful of extracts from the named GCSE texts. It’s also possible for students to study the same exam texts at KS3 and then again at KS4 in a clumsy, wholly misguided bid to help secure subject knowledge. This sort of gaming is limiting. Amanda Spielman is right to call it out and to include a greater focus on curriculum in the new common inspection framework in 2019. ‘Young people get one opportunity to learn in school,’ Spielman said at the ASCL conference in March, ‘and we owe it to them make sure they all get an education that is broad, rich and deep.’ Sounds fair enough to me.
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