Some time ago I read a piece in the tescommentcolumn by Michael Rosen entitled ‘Art doesn’t come with a set of instructions’. Since then, after reading his frequent rants against the government’s attempts to improve the standards in literacy teaching across the country and his tirades against the phonics screening check, I’ve come to see how much his view of how children learn is ideologically informed.
He says in the article, that he finds it ‘odd that, throughout the history of education, an enormous amount of attention has been paid to this [“literacy”] as a skill involving instruction and exercise and much less to the substance of literate material – books, magazines, comics, signs, and, now, on-screen texts’. He goes on to claim that ‘even less attention has been paid to what we think goes on in readers’ minds as they read or in turn to how all this relates to what children might want to write’.
Apart from the fact that huge attention has been paid to what might be going on in the minds of readers, what the first statement suggests is that the skills (not skill – it isn’t a unitary activity!) are not as important as simply exposing children to print. It’s hard to be sure about this because Rosen never really spells things out so that we can pin him down.
He then recounts the experience of watching a mother sing ‘Row, row, row your boat…’ to her child, describing how the mother changed the words, how the child laughed with pleasure, enjoying the moment. This is a lovely encapsulation of the engagement between parent and child which is recognisable to anyone who has children and has learnt to make time for these and many other kinds of activities that are so enriching to the growing child.
But then, he makes a leap, an enormous ideological bound, by stating that ‘[w]henever we do something like this – in whatever medium [he mentions ‘language, clay, our bodies, voices, music rhythm, paint, film etc’) – we discover in ourselves that we have the power to change those materials and in so doing (because it’s us doing it) we change ourselves’.
I’m sure we do but not to the extent that Rosen claims. The truth is that, left to themselves, ‘changes’ children make can be minimal. Left to themselves, children arrive at wrong conclusions about the way in which the world works. Try sitting a child in front of a piano and, within minutes, they get bored with knocking out a staccato rhythm. And why, for example, would we expect children to work out for themselves something that is as complex as the English writing system. After all, scholars have spent centuries trying to decipher long dead writing systems. So, why would we expect young children to work out the English writing system for themselves. Much better to teach it in a structured and systematic way!
More broadly, Rosen is wrong about more than the teaching of reading. Some years ago I was teaching English in a secondary school and, having asked the pupils to bring to school front page news stories from a variety of papers, mostly red tops – the most difficult ones to emulate – I asked them to write a front page piece on the riot in a ‘public place in Verona’ – ‘Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?’ – involving the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. I was amazed that they couldn’t do it – not even the best and the brightest. Their ‘newspaper’ headlines and stories looked nothing like a front page from the Sunor the Mirror. And yet, they saw these papers every day and some pupils actually read them.
Until we’d explored the graphology, the phonology, the grammar, the semantics and the discourse of these types of newspaper story in a structured way, the pupils had no idea how to go about the task. Once the ground had been well prepared, they relished the engagement. What they’d done was to learn how the genre worked and, we need to be aware that before one can begin to alter the genre, one has to appropriate it.
So, it’s quite the opposite to what Rosen is arguing. Art does come with a set of instructions. All genres and sub genres are defined by the conventions established for them. The term ‘art’ actually derives from the idea of painting and sculpture being crafts. The great Renaissance teachers of the masters, Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Il Libro dell’ Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook), or indeed Leon Battista Alberti’s Della Pittura(On Painting), provided the Italian masters with a means of attaining expertise.
Cennini’s is a recipe book for all the skills involved in painting, from ‘mixing colours’ to deciding on ‘the proportions which a perfectly proportioned man’s body should possess’. Alberti, in particular, had an enormous influence on the development of Renaissance painting and sculpture. Their followers spent years and years under the tutelage of various maestri who taught them, painstakingly, every aspect of their crafts.
Of course, no one would ever argue that ‘how to make a green with blue and giallorino’ or ‘how to plaster reliefs on walls’ (Cennini), fully describes painting, any more than any phonics advocates would fully describe reading as ‘”decoding”, “reading for meaning”, “comprehension”, “retrieval” and “inference”…. (Rosen). This is Rosen’s caricature of what phonics proponents argue.
What Rosen doesn’t get and is ideologically incapable of getting is that before you can write a newspaper article or compose a symphony or play ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano, you need to understand and practise the conventions of the appropriate genre under the direction (teaching) of an expert, just as before you can enjoy or even understand the meaning of the words on the page, you need to be able to decode.
Rosen, as with so many of our ‘educators’ today, believes that exposure is enough. If he were to teach in a classroom, day after day, he would find that out soon enough that it isn’t – that pedagogy is paramount.