Submarine functionality v feature spotting – what Universities want.

Thanks to Dr Kate Murphy of Oriel for this func -y metaphor for competent literary text investigation which I have used with success on all students from the 6th Form down (heavily paraphrased, but in essence this is what she said):

Otter Sub II Picture  (2d, submarine, cartoon)

When reading a text, you have to imagine you are piloting a submarine deep under the sea. And when a light flashes on the dashboard, that’s worth taking note of, but not in and of itself – it is a signal to you that something needs investigating. The noticeable light is telling you to keep on looking out there, to reach out and grab whatever set the sensor off and then to study that thing lurking out there in the deep more closely. Or it is telling you that something is going on in your submarine and you need to get out your tools and work out what’s occurring inside your engine. Students coming up from 6th Form often spot techniques at work in texts and treat them as the end in itself – ‘oh look, an extended metaphor’ – without following up to delve deeper and discover what your sensor is alerting you to in the ocean of meaning of the text. I would prefer it if students spotted the technique light on the dashboard of the poem and then really went after the reason for its existence.’

Thank you Dr Murphy:

Cartoon, Shark, Submarine

Students need practice doing this, even if they find the unknown scary (which of course, due to the action of the amygdala, they always do – read more on that here:  ), so we need to find ways to:

a) make this fun,

b) show them it can be done,

c) leave them to struggle with doing it for a bit,

d) provide them with the right tools to use so that they can do it themselves,

e) let them know – and then make sure – that we will mark with attention to the meaning they produce. Null points for empty points or mere feature spotting.


RESOURCE 1: It goes without saying that simply lists of definitions tested for reproduction of those definitions won’t do it. So here is a list I made of the tools they need, in Quizlet form, for learning and then / at the same time applying:

RESOURCE 2: I heartily recommend also the glossary and marking guide at the back of this simply fantastic book on essay writing, which actually does recognise the real world and real purpose of the literary analysis essay as practiced at the Universities at which I am interested in my students being able to work competently once there.

If students realise the depth of meaning and personal satisfaction they can gain from the adventure of genuine literary text investigation, it will carry them a very long way. We need to communicate to them that this is what real literary critics do and what therefore they would be expected to do in the next phase of their literary critic apprenticeship at University (see my earlier post on Doing Difficult Things for the importance of a shared goal and communicating the values that go with it to all involved according to the theories of Lave and Wenger about building successful Communities of Practice).


In personality focus,  or mental adaptation, or role-playing, perhaps they need to become a mixture of all four main characters from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: the admirable servant Conseil who can name and classify everything in the sea, but stops there; his master, Professor Arronax who knows the science and is sufficiently excited by discovery to almost want to stay on board the Nautilus in spite of his isolation, but represents also the need to share knowledge; Ned the Whaler who knows about the sea and its beasts in practice, representing the intuition built of long-time grappling with the environment at hand; and Captain Nemo, who has become to attached to the realm of the sea that he refuses entirely to leave it. We don’t want to make Captain Nemos, so isolated in their study that they don’t think about the human impact of texts, nor do we want our students harpooning the texts to death in a cowboy of the sea fashion, but a mix of these approaches would do the trick.

Capt Nemo observing giant octopus

Analyse this for connotation and form! –

Do not tell your students about this –

Dr Murphy gave me this cracker a couple of years ago answering a questionnaire from me about what University English departments want students to bring with them in terms of what they are able to do when they arrive, particularly in the realm of essay writing. I was not very covertly seeking to test the relationship between the WJEC’s A-level Assessment Objectives and the real life of academic literary criticism.


In short? Universities want a functional approach to the study of literature, whatever their bias is. They know that authors use words to do stuff and they want students to think this way.

  • Oxford – wanted AO2 to be properly meaningful and prompt investigations of texts, with a sense of the meaning of texts being linguistically constructed as well as socially.
  • Kings – wanted AO4 to be properly meaningful and use a wide range of historical parallel sources. Keen on comparative reading across genres, within periods.
  • UCL – keen on comparative reading AO3.
  • All – wanted students to read for themselves, making a sensible stab at interpreting the ideas and issues raised by a text in AO1 stylee before resorting to AO3 critique. All also wanted critical ideas to be read, summarised and debated, not used as (gobbets or just gob).

Result? Pretty darn good work on the part of WJEC, with varying biases depending on which institution you ask. This is good as the AOs are remaining virtually unchanged with the reforms coming into place this year. Some acknowledgement that it is a bit strange to apparently champion Cambridge- style Practical Criticism with attention to the words of the text itself taking primacy in AO1 and AO2, whilst at the same time including contextual/biographical/historiographical (is that even a word?!) reading in AO4. And if you are a textual Deconstructivist like me, (beware my volumes of Helen Vendler coming at you in sonnet lessons), but with an obsession with understanding where any of this came from, then you basically just teach entirely AO4 period and genre awareness with AO2 analysis as the meat of any text work. But whatever we do, it has to be the students who are able to do it.

Doing difficult things – climbing sideways.

When it comes to working out something difficult, I think John Donne had it right:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
My father taught me early on how tiring it is to try to walk straight up a mountain (or the hill that was to me as a child, a mountain) and how very much more efficient it is to walk in zigzags up a slope or around it until you reach the top. This takes longer, but you get there in better shape. You don’t overtax your muscles or lose your balance, but your fitness gets better as you go. How can we invent cycles of activity in the classroom which do this? What are the natural ‘hills’ and circular or zigzag paths in our subjects which we can exploit? There has been much fashion for applying cognitive and thinking skills to lessons as if they map over every single area comfortably, but perhaps we’d be better off examining the terrain of our subjects and working out what the mental strata and steps actually are, then patiently practice following them.  This would also have the distinct benefit of building our base knowledge, without which, as cognitive science research on Critical Thinking tells us, it is actually impossible for us to make replicable progress in learning to think. See D.T. Willingham, on which more in later posts, at and .
When teachers in INSETS make snorting noises if asked to try to apply Bloom’s Taxonomy to a topic to which they feel it does not apply (English and History teachers unite!), they are, without saying as much openly, intuitively rejecting the proposition that an external scaffolding of thought which is not directly related to the entomology of their subject can be worth their time applying.  Although with careful thought, or a handy tool, such as (  ) Bloom’s Taxonony really can be relevant and could solve that D.T.Willingham problem of why Critical Thinking is so hard to teach, by simply succumbing to the happy position that we might as well teach it within the relevant subject matter of our subject areas, just learning to challenge ourselves that we can ask our students to think more deeply at the higher levels of our subject matter much sooner than University. Why not in Year 7 and forever after!
Solo Taxonomy also greatly helps with the conundrum of depicting and teaching relevant ways to think to master expert levels of thought.  If you take the time to sit down and work out what the levels of understanding look like, for example in an English Literature essay ( ), it turns out that extended abstract usually works out at A/A*,  relational at B/A and multi-structural at C. Or perhaps, if this seems too abstract, we need to be finding ways that expert expeditionists in our subjects behave and practice them.  The great difficulty is how you move a student from the relational knowledge of their subject to extended abstract understanding, which is no easy matter and I begin to think is mainly a matter of interest – being sufficiently curious about how the whole subject actually works tends to do the trick, which of course entails a sense that it matters.  Or we just ask, what does an expert do and how did they get that way? I bet the answer is walking around their subject matter a lot and observing a very great deal.  So maybe our students actually need focussed sessions on skills taught in context and a hugely greater exposure to the material of our subject, since the maxim that the best geologists have seen the most rocks works with poems too.  Fine to start with easy rocks/poems. It’s looking lots and working out as you go that matters.
But of course, the one thing we shouldn’t do, is pick a smaller hill. As John Hattie has noted, it isn’t a teacher’s job to make learning easy, it is to make it difficult (the challenge of goals having a .52 effect size: ).  Challenge matters. Anyone can hop over an ant hill.

It also calls for some heart in mouth guts when you find the path isn’t there and your father just tells you to look at the horizon and run – your wellies will do the rest. When faced with the yawning river chasm below and steep heather slope above, with two expectant male members of your family facing you across the way, what do you do? Run, hope and find out all is well. You didn’t break and now you know you can bridge the gaps.  This is what observers mean when they say to teachers that it wouldn’t hurt to depart from the lesson plan if it turns out that the way the lesson pans out in the classroom requires it. Teaching life is rarely as catastrophic as Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Sound of Thunder’!

So it turns out that my favoured John Donne round and round approach is how I have thought about Teaching and Learning thus far – I’ve been happy to ‘read around’, apply my ideas in cycles and re-think them constantly, essentially going round and round but getting better all the time. Gradually within the schools I have worked at, both students and other staff have come to realise that although I may look as if I am wandering around, I am far from lost.
wander not lost
This fits with the emphasis of Action Research on taking action in a research style which transforms the learning of the students but also of oneself.  It fits with the need to take things slowly, repeat attempts and be prepared to be in it for the long haul not the quick fix.  This is what we mean when we teachers tell observers that what they saw was part of a much longer journey or arc of learning.  I think we have an opportunity with Action Research becoming more common in schools to challenge the obsession with RTCs, with the need to focus only on ‘what works’ for budget expenditure (as indeed Hattie has been used to do), with the idea that you can ‘do a project’ or ‘an intervention’ and then come out the other end with a bullet-proof method to apply subsequently. Maybe this is a feminist stance ( maybe it isn’t, but I still just want to wander around some more and chat about what I find out.
Taking the long way round, you also see a lot of good stuff along the way. Like birds you can amuse yourself by distinguishing from each other, the effect of your movements on the surroundings (even if you only hear the grasshoppers stopping and starting and never get to find out if they were a grass snake instead), and the growing sense of perspective as you get higher and the land below gets smaller in detail but bigger in scale. You learn how to observe AND you get where you want to go. This is what observers mean when they tell teachers that it’s a good idea to design lessons where the activities are the basis and excuse for chat with the teacher.
But for chat to be productive of learning on the part of the student which is more than merely surface, both the students and teacher need to be engaged in a sustained common enterprise, the values, point and worth of which each member of the classroom community knows. See Lave and Wenger for their extremely illuminating research on communities of practice and why it is a nonsense to talk about learning as separate from a community of people practicing behaviour together:  The good news is that by explaining the purpose, aligning the values of it with those of the students and applying some imagination to make the enterprise therefore both meaningful and enjoyable, participation and effectiveness will rocket, in any sphere or work.
Ultimately, to carry out this work, the patience, trust and bravery which my father wanted me to have when we were engaged in our common enterprise of hillwalking when I was a child, and indeed which my University teachers wanted me to have whilst tackling more or less all of John Donne more or less on my own, is what I would like my students to have.  So I might as well show them by being honest about my constant experiments and journey towards understanding.
And lack of pride helps when it comes to picking up the right stuff (as Katniss discovers in The Hunger Games, that great pedagogical text for our times !?!). It’s so often the case that the equipment I invented to deal with Y13’s inability to understand how poetry works in sound and vision simultaneously finds its way into my rucksack for Y8 and vice versa. They have learnt not to be proud about having a special pack – if it helps them bridge the gap, they are happy. And they have learnt to trust that if I am trying something out, it will not break them. Because I spend my time taking them up small hills which are mountains to them, going round and round, until ‘what the hill’s suddenness resists’ we ‘win so’.  Then their equipment turns out to be their increased sense of self-efficacy in that task, or skill or exercise of judgment, rather than anything otherwise concretely nameable: see Bandura’s theory on this –
To stick with the circular metaphor, but shamelessly mix my elements otherwise, the only trouble with going round and round, for a teacher, is that like the shipwreck victim who casts off from their island and paddles like mad but ends up back where they started, isolation and lack of orientation is a real problem.
How can I escape from the desert island of my classroom, the hill on which may not in itself be very much worth climbing alone? Jumping into the surf of twittergogy has been a great help, but I’ve been surprised to see how much just keeps on going around and coming around there, like circular currents leading to whirlpools of simplified understanding which make me feel as if I’m drowning in the same repeated (sometimes only half understood) fashionable ideas. I often feel as if my books at home, my personal practice and what I read on twitter are separate contradictory currents, which somehow I need to take responsibility for putting back together again.
So here I’m going to try to contribute to the circular currents in a positive way, sifting out for myself what fits together for me as I go, building myself a bigger boat out of both my books at home and what I find out here. I like the idea of the rickety sense of security and adventure that might bring! Fellow cast-aways and rickety raft builders welcome. Expect quite a bit of going round and round, observing what turns up and trying to make sense of how it all fits together.
An Lochan Uaine at the Ryvoan Pass, Gelnmore.
An Lochan Uaine at the Ryvoan Pass, Gelnmore.
Flotsam and jetsam (more on that later) at Cullen, Moray.
Flotsam and jetsam (more on that later) at Cullen, Moray.