We read in order to probe ourselves, our world, our place within it.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
King Lear’s plea is, perhaps, one of the most fundamental in all literature.
It’s also a deeply personal question for there is no mistaking that he is referencing himself; this is not a question about what it means to be human, but a question about the Lear-ness of Lear. We read for similar reasons: to find the us-ness of ourselves. We read in order to probe ourselves, our world, our place within it.
Of course, all literature has, ultimately, the aim of moving us, of subtly shifting our positions towards both the material we read and our own identities as we engage with the text. This is often at odds with the teaching of GCSE English Literature which often strives for an answer. In many cases teaching and learning is still indebted to the largely mechanical PEE paragraph or some other such framework. The issue that I have with this is that it fails to capture the struggle, the grasping for meaning, the essence of reading literature which (with regards to GCSE at least) is the quest for critical exploration. When viewed in this light, some of the most fundamental philosophical questions cannot be consistently reduced to point/evidence/explain. The clunky and static nature of responses framed in this way both denies students the exploratory joy of engaging with literature and precludes their access to higher grades.
I remember the birth of the PEE paragraph well. As a participant in a New Labour initiative called ‘Excellence in Cities’ back in the very early noughties, my department had no choice other than to follow the highly prescriptive National Literacy Strategy. This dictated both materials (anyone remember My Father was a Polar Bear?) and pedagogical approaches. The simplest of these such as the starter, plenary, the four part lesson, and of course, the PEE paragraph have stuck around not because of any tangible usefulness, but largely as testimony to just how conservative the profession can be. With a shiny white and yellow folder, and a new inspection regime to go alongside it, it’s clear that the teaching of English was happy to be told who it was, and literary exploration became something to be framed, to be somehow made to fit the needs of politicians, inspectors, and consultants.
The way beyond this is to remember three simple questions that should be asked endlessly of students:
What is the writer telling us about the character? (Or the setting? Or the theme?)
How is the writer using language to do this? (Or using structure? Or using form?)
Why is the writer doing this?
This approach will nearly always liberate the students from the unhelpful (and completely reductive) burden of attempting to make their thoughts about a work of art fit a redundant framework conceived in Whitehall in the late 1990s.
Writers create character and settings. The ways those characters and settings interact will reveal some underlying (or maybe explicit) theme. Those writers use language to do so, and exploring this will enable students to negotiate the text as literature. They can start with any of the questions. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the quality of thought about the text will almost immediately improve once the trap of the three part answer has been taken away. The questions also encourage students to have a series of thoughts, some of which may be in conflict with each other. This is the Holy Grail of literature teaching: students who can see the shades, students who can express the maybe, students who are comfortable with their own doubts about what they have read.
Remember, the PEE paragraph was born in a particular political context: that of the sound bite, that in which political communication strategy became a thing, and a time in which confidence in a young political movement was high. It’s no surprise that the three-part point/evidence/explain caught on so well, particularly when it could all be wrapped up so neatly in a paragraph.
Tony Blair may well have campaigned on Education, Education, Education. It still seems seductive. Resist. Teaching literature is both more complicated and much simpler than that.