John Richmond’s lecture on 20 March 2017 took the form of a retrospective of Harold Rosen’s work in comprehensive English education over a period of 50 years from 1958 – 2008. What struck me about the talk was the salience of so many of Harold’s progressive ways to potential educational practices in the digital age. Prior to the event, my friend and colleague John Potter had drawn my attention to the 1958/59 ‘Walworth School English Syllabus’ (Richmond 2017, p. 208) – Harold’s ground-breaking approach to English teaching and learning. What follows suggests parallels that can be made between the Walworth curriculum and practices associated with dynamic new media literacies.
Now as then, conservative interventions that narrow the curriculum down to ‘the basics’ and marginalise the vernacular, deny young people the space and time necessary to make connections between school work and their own experience. In many contemporary English classrooms, everyday spoken language, multimodal forms and digital technologies, are often left stripped of educational value and abandoned at the school-gate. Harold saw these kinds of ideological strategies as senseless and oppressive:
“Whatever language the pupils possess, it is this which must be built on rather than driven underground … The starting point for English work must be the ability to handle effectively pupils’ own experience.”
(Rosen’s words in Richmond 2017, p. 208)
One of the ways in which Harold engaged his cohorts of disadvantaged adolescents was to have them produce their own thematically organised print ‘magazines’ over time. The students’ ‘cumulative folders’ attended to their temperament, and reflected their interests and concerns, their family backgrounds and hobbies, their passions and preferences. Teachers would then make cultural and intellectual connections between this body of work and aspects of the curriculum.
In their 2009 article, former teachers at Walworth, Simon Clements and John Dixon, reflected on the direct influence of Harold’s work in their own practice:
“… we owe to Harold two central ideas: first, seeing our teaching as a medium for a progressive interaction between the language and culture of the neighbourhood and the enriching language and culture we might offer in response, having sensed the connections; and second, the fact that students’ cumulative written projects over a term or a year could make a contribution to the school’s cultural life. We feel that these were seminal.”
(Clements, S., & Dixon, J., 2009, in Richmond 2017, p. 218)
The layering and composing of communicative modes and practices, including oral expression, personal critical responses to texts, and the study and production of print media, were key drivers in Harold’s curricula vision for the second half of the 20th century. This being the case, is there not a compelling case to be made now for sustained blogging, for example, as a core cultural and literacy practice in the modern English classroom? Multimodal response and rumination can be constantly re-drafted and publically shared on digital platforms, in ways and forms that are familiar to young people in their wider media worlds.
In her inaugural address at the Sheffield Hallam University on 4 April 2017, Professor Cathy Burnett made appeals for relational literacies coupled with relational pedagogies. Like Harold, she rejected de-contextualised fixed notions of rule-based literacy and language: she called for learners conceived as media literate practitioners with acute and productive awareness of media crafting, critique, artistry, and the function of rhetoric in a networked society. Harold’s visionary curriculum pre-figures the digital age with astonishingly bold prescience, and it remains a travesty of immense proportion that there is barely a passing mention of ‘the digital’ in the English English curriculum. Teachers and young people obliged to follow antiquated aspects of the national curriculum are being failed by those clinging to entrenched systems and practices. Now more than ever, it is time to heed Harold’s and Cathy’s clarion call for literacies built on material and affective relations between people and experience, using tools and languages familiar to them.
Clements, S., & Dixon, J., 2009. Harold and Walworth. Changing English 16:1, p. 15 – 2
Richmond, J., 2017. Harold Rosen: writings on life, language and learning, 1958-2008. London: UCL, Institute of Education Press.