Why You Should Ditch the Canon

By Giovanelli, Marcello; Mason, Jessica | Times Educational Supplement, December 16, 2016 | Go to article overview

Why You Should Ditch the Canon


Giovanelli, Marcello, Mason, Jessica, Times Educational Supplement


Placing too much emphasis on teacher knowledge fails to recognise the importance of the understanding each student brings to the act of learning, argue Marcello Giovanelli and Jessica Mason

Literary texts are relatively static objects. Regardless of which shelf in the world they're on, versions of the same work will tend to contain the same words in the same order. Of course, there are some minor differences - alternative covers, new editions, introductions and so on - but, in a broad sense, the fact rings true for all texts, whether they are by William Shakespeare, John Green, Charles Dickens or JK Rowling.

Readings, however, are not static, because reading involves not just the text but also the reader, and readers are different from one another. Readers bring different knowledge, experiences and tastes with them, which form an inextricable and fundamental part of their interaction with any text they encounter.

There are often common threads and broad agreements between readers, but our own interpretations, responses and evaluations are still unique to us: they are different because we are different.

Dynamic process

Equally, the same person's reading of a text will change over time because reading is a dynamic and interactive process.

The knowledge and experiences we bring to and have foregrounded in our minds vary and change, too. These are the central principles of how reading and the mind interact, and they raise important questions about why and how we read fiction with young people in school.

The knowledge and experience a person brings to the act of reading is often termed their "schematic knowledge". A schema is, in essence, an individual's dynamic understanding of a concept, object, event, person, place or thing. The schemas students bring to a lesson are relevant considerations across school subjects - their understanding of gravity before a science lesson is a schema they will consciously and unconsciously draw on in the same way that they bring their existing knowledge of texts, genres, and themes to their reading of a novel or poem in English. Regardless of the topic, the interaction of background knowledge with new information is how humans make sense of and negotiate new knowledge and experiences: it is how we learn.

The role that the knowledge and expertise students bring to the classroom should play in lessons has been a near-constant source of debate among stakeholders in education. There has been a recent surge of support, in some spheres, for the didactic, teacher-led approach, which adopts the view that time is "better spent" in lessons focusing on maximising the articulation of teachers' schematic knowledge about the text and their "expert" interpretation of it - with a de facto framing of students' knowledge as less useful or valuable.

An unfortunate consequence of this view is that students' schematic knowledge is often downplayed, and their reading of non-canonical texts, in particular, maligned. For example, young adult fiction regularly receives heavy criticism from some quarters. Teachers who do choose to engage this knowledge can be variously accused of dumbing-down, lowering expectations or pandering to students' interests when they should (inferentially and sometimes explicitly) be teaching them about Shakespeare, Donne or Chaucer. …

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