What are the Subject Specific Big Ideas?

Generic guidance can be useful, but to ensure colleagues are on board with the more able education agenda it is essential to frame it in subject specific terms, which focus on the Big Ideas that define how a subject sees itself. And that doesn’t mean pointless complication, rather the reverse. What is it that makes the ground rules and the ‘craft’ simpler and clearer to explore and understand?

What’s the Big Idea?

“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the powers of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything.” (Joseph Conrad – born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski).

Writing in his third language, Conrad’s later letters to friends show the attention that he devoted to analysis of style, to individual words and expressions, to the emotional tone of phrases, to the atmosphere created by language. Conrad was known to search for days on end for ‘le mot juste’ — for the right word to render the ‘essence of the matter.’

Why is this important? Because it demonstrates the essential simplicity of the Big Idea of, in this case, writing. To make the audience hear, feel and see. So simple. But it also hints how hard it can be to do it well. And this will be the focus of the following series of articles. How more able education should address itself to the very heart of subjects, the tricks and turns of the trade. Be it thinking like a scientist or a linguist or historian. It should devote itself to helping learners discover the ground rules of a subject, looking closely at how to make the ‘craft’ visible and learnable.

As an example, the opening words point directly to the essence of the craft of telling stories. The nuts and bolts of writing, according to a recognised master of the trade.

So how can we as teachers take this into the classroom?

The essential lesson must be to abandon the noise and confusion that often surrounds a subject. Reject some of the absurd difficulties that are often presented as the solution to various challenges. Reading about ‘juxtaposed grammatical constructions’ and ‘fronted abverbials’ as part of assessment levels for English gives a glimpse of the needless complication that often masquerade as summary simplifications. It doesn’t do anything to clarify, it succeeds only in inventing a barrier to access and thereby effectively de-skilling teachers, learners and parents alike.

But that is not to suggest that pupil friendly messages need to be either dumbed or numbed down. The whole point of more able learners as ‘experts in development’ is that they need to grasp the essentials of a subject but also to understand how difficult gaining real mastery can be. So the messages that we give do need to be clear and framed in ways that offer our learners the chance to understand the point and purpose of, in this case, writing.

As Wordsworth wrote, “we murder to dissect”. Often by trying to strip down to the supposed basics to see how it all works, we can end up killing the subject. Keats rather more poetically called it “unweaving the rainbow”. The dreadful ‘one stop shop’ approaches to learning English that look at it as if it were a series of unrelated topics to be acquired, or that frown at poetry as if it were a crossword puzzle that needed ‘solving’ are at the centre of the problem. That is not to say that the mystery of a subject needs to remain, but rather that the questions that should be asked are often made more complicated than they need to be.

What are the nuts and bolts of writing?

Writers should be able to demonstrate the ability to take on another voice or viewpoint and sustain it throughout a piece of writing. They will have a strong sense of audience and demonstrate their awareness of genre through choice of appropriate styles and structures for different purposes.

They will be confident and controlled in their writing, with their use of punctuation aiding clarity; their texts will be cohesive in their shape and structure. They strive to be ambitious in their vocabulary and attempt to achieve particular effects or styles, understanding how language can shape meaning.

They will play with ideas, characters, genres and voice. They will be able to conjure up places and people distinct from their own circumstance and convey these convincingly and succinctly. They will use figurative language to increase the impact of their writing and will enjoy using words well and accurately, evidenced in the interest and involvement of the reader.

What do our learners need to ask themselves? 

Once the overall Big Ideas are clearer, what questions naturally drop out of them? If we look at a key transition area between a primary and secondary school as an example, what are the skills that are required to reach a level 6 and how can these be framed in a way that an 11 year old learner will understand? I would suggest that the kind of questions asked below form a more interesting way of addressing the issues.

  1. Can you ‘read between the lines’ to interpret events, characters or ideas?
  2. Can you explain why writers choose to shape their work in a particular way?
  3. Can you explain why writers choose to use particular words and sentences?
  4. Can you explain the writer’s purpose and how they use techniques to affect readers in a particular way?

In turn these can be teased out into more specific questions that ask a learner to reflect on what they can do already, and what skills they need to acquire next.

Can you understand different layers of meaning, using quotes to explore all the associations of a quotation or individual words? For example, can you work out how a character is feeling through individual words that they say?

Do you know how to explain how you think a writer is using order and structure to combine ideas, shock the reader or develop and change a character? Do you always remember to provide evidence through quotations when identifying and discussing the writer’s viewpoint, opinions and purpose in a text?

If you can name techniques and explain in detail the effects of words and sentences, understanding the effect of changing the style of language, can you also explain why the writer may have done this?

Do you clearly explain the writer’s purpose and views, using words and quotations from the text to support your ideas?  Can you clearly explain how a reader would react, using evidence from across the text to support why you think this?

When you begin to see different layers of meaning within a text, are you also able to consider these affect the text as a whole and contribute to its overall meaning?

If you can identify structural devices by discussing how repetition, for example, links to the writer’s theme or purpose, can you also show how a range of other devices such as descriptions or names combine to add to the effect of a text?

When you explore a writer’s use of language and identify the specific technique and use the appropriate terminology (such as ‘metaphor’ or ‘symbolism’) can you also begin to link different techniques together and discuss their combined effect in a piece of writing?