Teach Like an Elizabethan Champion – Part 3

If you’ve read the first two posts and the suggested links in this series, you will hopefully now have:

In this final post, I’d like to examine how Elizabethan pedagogy relating to rhetoric compares to more recent approaches to the teaching of persuasive and argument writing. I’ll explore, a little, why these differences may have emerged and finish up by outlining a methodology we’ll be trying out to teach the art of rhetoric more traditionally and thoroughly.

What’s school like now Daddy?

As I’ve mentioned here, my training and early teaching experience were largely informed by the National Strategies. One of the key drivers of change which the Strategies team produced and which a combination of Ofsted, exam boards, publishers and SLTs were complicit in supporting was a set of different teaching sequences. Here’s the teaching sequence for writing.

Teaching Sequence For Writing

Pages 3-10 of this document (Teaching for Progression – Writing) take you through the suggested processes far more thoroughly if you’re unfamiliar with them.

So, where are the similarities and differences between this method and the classical model of teaching rhetoric?

To some extent, this is a false comparison as it assumes that all Elizabethan teachers used the process I described in my previous post and that all teachers in the early part of this century used the National Strategy’s processes unquestioningly and without adaptation. Neither of these is true, but I still think it worth making the comparison as these were the prevalent models of teaching persuasion or rhetoric in their respective time periods.

In terms of similarities, both processes involved providing examples; the teaching of specific conventions and their definitions; the teacher demonstrating and explaining the writing process and the student ultimately participating in independent writing, following some scaffolding.

The two key differences lie, I think, in:

  1. The structured collation of knowledge in the form of relevant quotations and moral lessons in the classical model’s commonplace notebook. This is not present as clearly in the National Strategies guidance.
  2. The concepts of rhetorical exercises in the Progymnasmata and repetition of rhetorical drills. This is arguably implicit in the “Compose Together” section, but I don’t recall any adviser I worked with or any school I went into arguing for repetition, repeated practice or drills for fluency in English lessons.

In fact, often the opposite was the case. That is to say, the advice was often given that “pace” required variety rather than repetition.

However, the context in which these sequences were used is important here too, not just the sequences themselves.

In the 90s and early 00s, the government (through the SATs exams) the exam boards (through the GCSE papers) and the National Strategy (through their materials) promoted something called writing triplets. Genres of text were divided up into:

  • Argue, Persuade, Advise
  • Inform, Explain, Describe
  • Explore, Imagine, Entertain
  • Analyse, Review, Comment

A successful Year 9 student needed to know the “conventions” of these twelve, arbitrarily devised text types and make use of them in two different writing tasks. At GCSE level, if you took the AQA paper, this was reduced further. Only the first two triplets listed above appeared on the exam papers and students knew that there would be a question on each, so often only the arbitrarily defined conventions for persuasion and description were taught. These conventions were often reduced to a single poster of techniques like this:

Persuasion Poster

Alternatively, a ‘handy’ mnemonic, such as AFOREST, may have been used.

  • Alliteration
  • Facts/Forceful phrases
  • Opinions
  • Repetition
  • Exaggeration
  • Statistics
  • Threes

It would be difficult to argue, when compared with teaching the full range of classical rhetorical principles, devices and structures that this is not dumbing down.

The writing tasks were not the only place where assessment led to this race to the bottom. Persuasive texts in the reading sections of the GCSE papers were, more often than not, either adverts, magazine covers, occasionally a tabloid article or rarely a broadsheet editorial. This led, I believe, teachers to be less likely to expose their students to the amazing range of rhetorical texts from the past. In addition to this, assessment criteria and the drive for C grades led the development of teacher subject knowledge to focus on strategies to push students over the D/C borderline rather than to be more aspirational. If students are only being taught a limited range of devices to be successful at C grade (in the style of AFOREST) then it’s less likely that, in struggling schools at least, the development of teacher subject knowledge will go beyond this. Finally, I think that the concept of rapid progress which was pushed for by Ofsted often led to a rush through the National Strategies teaching sequence so that there was a risk that students would actually be exposed to fewer genuinely high quality models of writing and write only relatively short snippets.

What are you going to do about it?

One of the key things which we’ve done this year is to remove the focus from individual lessons and towards a focus on teaching cycles within, across and between lessons. This is partly as a result of the thinking which Bodil Isaksen has done here and also from working with David Didau during the course of this year.

Specifically in relation to rhetoric though, our first step is an introductory module in Year 7. During the unit, students will be introduced to the history of rhetoric in order to provide them with a clear sense of context but also to develop knowledge of how these methods of communication can be empowering. Teachers will take them through how classical orators and rhetoricians through history, including Shakespeare, would have learnt their craft. They will study the structures and devices used, particularly in great oratory and letter writing. We’ll analyse some key texts, including translations of Cicero, speeches from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and medieval letters to provide models. Students will complete rhetorical drills, use exercises from a progymnasmata which we’re creating and gather quotations and moral lessons in a commonplace notebook, then produce rhetorical texts using the knowledge they have gained.

In the remainder of Y7 and the rest of Key Stage 3, they will build on this factual and procedural knowledge in further iterations of this model, exploring how the art of rhetoric has developed through time, expanding their repertoire of rhetorical devices and learning to manipulate the basic rhetorical structures.

Over time and increasingly, we’d want our students to become fluent in thinking, writing and speaking with rhetorical flair and precision. We’d also like to explore the kind of model offered at Tom Sherrington’s Highbury Grove, as outlined in this post about their Rhetoric Roadmap.

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