Debates about the purpose of English are not new. Perhaps the most highly politicised subject in the curriculum, English is tasked with developing literacy skills so today’s learners can be tomorrow’s workers, and with the challenge of confronting multiple versions of Australian culture.
For many students, studying English today is not that different to what happened a century ago. In the 1920s, students in England were allotted five periods of English a week, with half a period dedicated for grammar, half for the novel, one period for composition, one for poetry and two for Shakespeare.
But the world has changed substantially since then, and it is time to assess whether the way English is taught should change too.
While students still need to be able to interpret and produce the printed word, the world is now multimodal. This means communication happens many ways – with image, sound, movement and, for many workplaces and communities, in digital spaces. This change requires a new way of thinking about what texts are best used in English education.
To test this, I introduced videogames into a secondary school English classroom using the four dominant models of English teaching in Australia – skills, critical literacy, personal growth and cultural heritage. My findings are published here.
I discovered these dominant models of English teaching can be adopted and applied to videogames to support the development of essential knowledge and skills for future work and life.
Videogames support development of many of the skills we currently focus on with novels, films and plays. Understanding story elements, unpacking complex language, and exploring how the creators of games construct particular themes are essential components of most good games and material ripe for student analysis.
Contemporary videogames also encourage many of the ‘new’ skills highly valued by future employers. Problem solving and collaboration are at the core of most videogames. Providing environments to support students to develop a range of skills in these areas, and to demonstrate how these can be applied to non-videogame contexts, is essential.
While many people are wary of the presence of violence, highly sexualised imagery and risk-taking behaviour in videogames, English teachers are purposefully trained to support students to become critical users of texts containing this kind of content, and not just consumers.
Advocates of critical literacy argue that the English classroom demands working with students so they come to understand popular culture texts in new ways.
The research is clear on this point. Students can be supported to develop a critical lens to interrogate the underlying beliefs and values in videogames. Videogames, like all texts, create versions of the world that parents may not always like. But through classroom activities and structured play, students can learn to critically analyse these versions of the world.
At a time when students are disengaging from learning at alarmingly high levels, introducing texts that relate to their reality can help them feel connected between home and school.
When we bring these texts into classrooms we are telling students their hobbies and interests outside of school matter. Activating the experiences of learners and the knowledge they bring with them is known to be one of the most powerful motivators for learning.
This view of English emphasises how studying literature can be enriching.
I found that contemporary videogames place gamers in fictional worlds often designed around reflective decision-making. When combined with learning activities, videogames become texts which have the capacity to prompt reflection and help students understand the culture they live in.
A new way of defining literature
Literature is no longer about a narrow body of printed words that represent some kind of list of the best that has been said and done.
It is naïve to think that English classes can only achieve their learning goals through engagement with the so-called literary canon. Nourishment of the intellect and the imagination of students needs as much stimulus material as we can get.
Students entering high-school today probably won’t enter the workforce until 2030 - food for thought for those charged with writing the English curriculum, and delivering its priorities.
We would do well to head the advice of Brutus, from Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar, who proclaims
That time is now, and if we are to do more than teach students to recite quotes from so-called canonical works, then perhaps we need to start thinking outside of the page, and inside the screen.
Banner image: Shadow of Mordor: Campfire Party, mr.hasgaha/Flickr