We use cookies to improve your website experience. To learn about our use of cookies and how you can manage your cookie settings, please see our Cookie Policy. By closing this message, you are consenting to our use of cookies.

Join the Conversation

Let’s begin by reflecting on the following statements by English educators over the past century. Any one of these quotations might prompt a wide-ranging discussion about English curriculum and pedagogy. Our reason for juxtaposing them is that they highlight how English educators have variously tried to grapple with the knowledge question since English first emerged as a subject at the start of the 20th Century. They are all seeking to characterise the special place that English occupies within education in comparison with the forms of knowledge that underpin other disciplines. And they arise out of the praxis of these educators, in their efforts to understand the nature of the teaching and learning that occur within English classrooms.

‘It must be realised that education is not the same thing as information, nor does it deal with human knowledge as divided into so-called subjects…  It proceeds… by teaching the student to follow the different lines on which life may be explored and proficiency in living obtained. It is, in a word, guidance in the acquiring of experience … The most valuable for all purposes are those experiences of human relations which are gained by contact with human beings. This contact may take place in the intercourse of the classroom, the playground, the home, and the outer world, or solely in the inner world of thought and feeling, through the personal records of action and experience known to us under the form of literature.’

Departmental Committee, Board of Education. (1921/1938), The Teaching of English in England (The Newbolt Report), London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, p.8.

‘”English” is at the other extreme from Mathematics. One can more readily talk in a descriptive and definitive way of the kind of intelligence than begin to define the discipline.’

  1. R. Leavis (1975), The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought, London: Chatto & Windus, p.20

‘It is characteristic of English that it does not hold together as a body of knowledge which can be identified, quantified, and then transmitted. Literary studies lead constantly outside themselves, as Leavis put it; so, for that matter, does every aspect of English’

Department of Education and Science (1975), A Language for Life: Report of the Committee of Inquiry appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science under the Chairmanship of Sir Alan Bullock F.B.A. (The Bullock Report), London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, p.5.

‘… two key terms in the language of teachers of other subjects, “knowledge” and “learning”, are rarely used about English. English teachers do not describe what happens in their lessons as “learning” or what their pupils end up with as “knowledge”; or, if they do, it is only when referring to subsidiary aspects of the work such as spelling or literary facts, and not to what they regard as central activities. “Knowledge” and “learning” are tied in people’s minds to facts and information, and the reason why English teachers avoid the terms is that they do not see themselves as dealing with facts. Indeed, it is sometimes said that English is “a subject without a content”.’

Peter Medway (1980), Finding a Language: Autonomy and Learning in School, London: Chameleon Books, p.3

‘But… partly because we assimilate English, by false analogy, to such subjects as history and science, we have misconstrued it and mistaught it. Although it is certainly the business of the English teacher to know as information the history and science of language and literature, it does not follow at all that he should teach these as contents to his elementary and secondary students. ‘

James Moffett (1968/1983), Teaching the Universe of Discourse, Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, pp.3-4.

‘… English is the most personal academic discipline … As teachers and students discuss stories and poems in class, it is common for both parties to bring personal experiences to bear. English teachers are also more likely to reveal something personal about themselves than other teachers: partly because of this context where the stories and student responses and student writing are so often personal and partly because so many English teachers simply turn out to be people who chose the field because they were attracted to this most personal of subjects. (My point may apply less to college professors than to English teachers in schools.)’

Peter Elbow (1990), What is English?, New York, New York/Urbana, Illinois: The Modern Language Association of America/The National Council of Teachers of English, pp.115-116.

‘My teaching was no longer based upon the belief that there was a corpus of important literature to be shared, but rather that there were issues all about us to whose understanding our shared reading and discussion would contribute significantly. My preconceptions had switched from a reified version of culture to a culture that inhered in interpersonal and social interaction, and the active meanings that they generated. I was ready for Vygotsky and his views.

Douglas Barnes (2000), Becoming an English Teacher, Sheffield: National Association for the Teaching of English, p.47.

‘It is a confusion of everyday thought that we tend to regard “knowledge” as something that exists independently of someone who knows. “What is known” must in fact be brought to life afresh within every “knower” by his own efforts. To bring knowledge into being is a formulating process, and language is its ordinary means, whether in speaking or writing or the inner monologue of thought.’

Department of Education and Science (1975), A Language for Life: Report of the Committee of Inquiry appointed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science under the Chairmanship of Sir Alan Bullock F.B.A. (The Bullock Report), London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, p.50.

‘For “knowledge”, we note, has suffered unduly from its reification.’

John Dixon (1967), Growth Through English, Yorkshire: National Association for the Teaching of English/Oxford University Press, p.15.

To say that these statements are all addressing the ‘knowledge question’ fails to do justice to the range of impulses behind them. For a more nuanced appreciation of these statements it is necessary to read them within the contexts that gave rise to them: both the texts within which they appear and the larger social and historical contexts to which they were responding. Yet, taken together, they still show how previous generations of English educators have tried to argue the distinctive character of English vis-à-vis the knowledge claims made by other disciplinary fields. Indeed, several of these statements convey a certain defensiveness. It seems that English educators have always been locked in a struggle against allowing English to be defined in terms that are inappropriate to it, both as a discipline and a subject within the school curriculum.

This special issue of Changing English invites you to engage with the ‘knowledge question’. We invite you to focus specifically on the relationship between your knowledge as an English educator and the meaning-making that occurs when students interact with one another within the social space of the English classroom. Why does this focus strike us as being especially apposite at the current moment?

The nature of our current professional landscape has been a topic of many articles in Changing English that have highlighted the growing gap between the knowledge and experience that have historically been accumulated by the English teaching profession and what governments present as the ‘knowledge’ that constitutes English. There is no doubt that the content of English, across the world, is being prescribed in increasingly narrow terms. For many students, English is now experienced as a succession of grammar, spelling and comprehension exercises that comprise standardised literacy testing or the study of a select number of canonical texts that supposedly constitute the ‘best that has been thought and written’ (to quote from the subject content and assessment prescriptions in England [DfE, 2013, p. 3]).  We are also, however, thinking of Michael Young’s arguments about ‘bringing knowledge back in’ to the curriculum (Young, 2008), which, while ostensibly working to redress an over-emphasis on skills and drills, imposes constraints on English because of its privileging of propositional knowledge at the expense of richer forms of inquiry and interpretive play. It is as though forces are aligned to suppress vital dimensions of English curriculum and pedagogy. These dimensions can only emerge when English teachers have the agency to take their students beyond the reified forms of knowledge embodied in standardised literacy testing (and the standard English that such testing privileges) and ossified notions of the literary canon in order to explore the complexities of language and meaning in ways that truly matter to them.


There are several points of entry into the inquiry that we are envisaging. Here are some possibilities. They are not intended to be mutually exclusive or exhaustive. They are simply prompts to get you thinking:

  • ‘Experience’, ‘the inner world of thought and feeling’, ‘personal’, ‘a culture that inheres in interpersonal and social interaction’ - the quotations above offer a vocabulary that we might try to make work for us again in our efforts to represent the complexity of the meaning-making that occurs within English classrooms. Yet the process of reclamation and renewal that we are envisaging here involves more than simply highlighting how the social exchanges of the classroom always exceed the conceits of measurement. You might consider tracing the meaning making that actually occurs when a group of adolescents engage with a poem or a story or some other text within a classroom (for an example of such an inquiry see Pieper and Wieser, 2012). Can we characterise the interpretive practices in which they engage as forms of ‘knowing’? Is ‘knowing’ the best word to use when you try to describe what students take from their reading of a literary text? How does the disposition that students bring to a reading of a literary text differ from the standpoint that we associate with scientific inquiry? If it is not a matter of saying what a poem ‘means’, what are we asking students to do with the text? How might you support students in their efforts to handle the multivalence of a literary text? How can we make a space for such interpretive work within the curriculum?
  • You might inquire anew into the relationship between the transactions that occur within English classrooms and your own knowledge as an English educator. But what is that knowledge and how does it really support your efforts to facilitate those transactions? Shulman’s famous distinction between content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman , 1986), which conceives teachers as devising strategies that enable their students to enter into their particular fields of inquiry, presupposes an epistemological stability that is hardly a feature of ‘English’ or ‘Literary Studies’ at a tertiary level (cf. Yandell, 2017, Parr, Bellis and Bulfin, 2013; Doecke, Locke and Petrosky 2004). The fact that the field has been rebranded in various ways is a sign of the self-doubt that in no small part lends it its dynamic and relevance. Yet how could such knowledge conceivably provide the foundations for what graduates do when they become English teachers? How does such knowledge mediate their professional practice? If it is not a matter of transforming academic content knowledge into pedagogical content knowledge, how might we explain the relationship that exists between our knowledge and the transactions that occur within English classrooms?
  • For Michael Young, the main purpose of schools is to ‘enable all students to acquire knowledge that takes them beyond their experience’ (Young et al. 2014, p.10). He draws a hard and fast distinction between local ‘knowledge’ and scientific knowledge that exists in a realm beyond everyday life. For Young, the experience that young people bring into a classroom is ‘just experience’ (p.18). The quotations that we have assembled show that words like ‘knowledge’ and ‘experience’ carry completely different meanings and values for English educators to those ascribed to them by Young. But how might we more satisfactorily conceptualise the relationship between the knowledge that students might construct within classrooms settings and the experience they bring with them into those settings?
  • You are being invited to revisit the knowledge and experience you have accumulated as an English educator in order to achieve a larger philosophical perspective on what you think and do – to achieve (if you like) a metacognitive awareness of your praxis as an English educator. How does the knowledge you have acquired as a university graduate connect with your work as an English educator? What did you learn during your time at university? Does it have any relevance to what you do when you attempt to initiate authentic meaning-making activities within your classroom? Can you think of an instance where your literary knowledge might have illuminated the semiotic transactions in which your students engage? Where does their meaning-making sit in relation to the knowledge you have gained?

By posing this inquiry as an opportunity to develop a philosophical perspective on your work, we are not asking you to write at an abstract level remote from your practice. You are an English educator writing for other English educators. We encourage you to write stories that are redolent of the concrete particularities of classroom settings, to combine storytelling with more analytical writing in order to achieve a better understanding of English as a form of ‘knowing’. Autobiographical narratives in which you explore your education and reflect on how it might mediate your practice as an English educator are especially welcome.


Due Dates
2nd March 2020                 Submission of abstract
20th July 2020                     Submission of draft
August 2020                       Feedback from reviewers
31st October 2020           Submission of final draft

Please email abstracts to either of the Editors by the 2nd March 2020:

Dr John Yandell: [email protected]

Dr Brenton Doecke: [email protected]



DfE [Department for Education]. (2013). English literature: GCSE subject content and assessment objectives. London: DfE. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254498/GCSE_English_literature.pdf

Doecke, B., Locke, T. and Petrosky, A. (2004). Explaining Ourselves (To Ourselves): English Teachers, Professional Identity and Change. English in Australia, Number 139, Joint IFTE Issue, February, 103-112

Parr, G., Bellis, N. and Bulfin, S. (2013). Teaching English Teachers for the Future: Speaking Back to TPACK. English in Australia, 48 (1), 9-22.

Pieper, I., & Wieser, D. (2012).Understanding metaphors in poetic texts:towards a determination of interpretative operations in secondary school students’ engagement with imagery. (Special issue guest edited by Irene Pieper & Tanja Janssen). L1-Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 12, pp. 1-26. http://dx.doi.org/10.17239/L1ESLL-2012.01.03

Shulman, L.S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching, Educational Researcher, 15 (2): 4-21.

Yandell, J. (2017). Knowledge, English and the formation of teachers. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 25:4, 583-599, DOI: 10.1080/14681366.2017.1312494

Young, M. 2008. Bringing Knowledge Back In: From Social Constructivism to Social Realism in the Sociology of Education. London and New York: Routledge.

Young, M., D. Lambert, C. Roberts, and M. Roberts. 2014. Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. London: Bloomsbury.


Latest Tweets