Harold Rosen: an inspiration for teachers today

announcing an inspiring new book
Harold Rosen: Writings on life, language and learning 1958-2008

Harold Rosen was one of the great reformers of English teaching. His work has just been republished, providing a challenge to the deadening practices of the National Curriculum – its obsession with grammatical terms, its neglect of modern texts, children writing to formula to get through tests, and the constant threat of failure. He believed in respect for working-class children’s languages and lives. The editor John Richmond explains the significance for today’s teachers. 

Harold Rosen was a leader of thought in the world of English teaching in the second half of the twentieth century. He and his colleagues forged a new understanding of English within the school curriculum. Harold’s influence spread well beyond specialist teachers of English. His teachings, writings and activities illuminated many more people’s understanding of the relationship between language and learning in any context, whatever the age of the learner and the content of the learning.

This new book brings back into circulation most of Harold’s educational writings and some of his short stories and poems. They will be an inspiration for today’s teachers.

In the early part of his career, Harold taught English in schools in Leicestershire, Middlesex and inner London. In 1958 he moved into teacher education, first at Borough Road Polytechnic and then, for 22 years from 1962 to 1984, at the University of London Institute of Education, where he rose to be head of department and a professor of the university.

Here are five of the many intersecting strands of Harold’s writings and activities which remain relevant to schools and teachers today.

The content of the curriculum which the teacher brings to the classroom must respect and incorporate the culture, language and experience which the learner brings there. This was the essential message of the syllabus for the English department at Walworth School, one of London’s first comprehensive schools, where Harold was head of department. It was then a revolutionary idea. His influence and practices spread from there into the theory and practice of progressive English teaching in Britain and throughout the world.

Schools as whole institutions need to consider how the language through which they offer knowledge to learners is actually experienced by those learners. If they fail to do this, learners will very often experience the language demands of the school as incoherent, or deadeningly repetitive, or simply mysterious. This was the central insight of the ‘language across the curriculum’ movement, inspired by Harold and his colleagues in the London Association for the Teaching of English.

Research in education must be a truly respectful, collaborative endeavour between people working in schools and people working and studying in universities and other organisations which support schools. Harold knew that much conventional research had failed to make an impact on classroom practice because of its essentially hierarchical nature. He pioneered collaborative research as a common pursuit  between schoolteachers and those who support them.

The great linguistic diversity in our classrooms – and particularly in our urban classrooms – is a resource to be cherished. Harold combined this optimism with a hard-headed recognition that many young people experience racism, subtle or unsubtle, implicit or explicit, in their daily lives. Nonetheless, linguistic diversity presents a golden opportunity: to study and celebrate it as part of the content of a modern English curriculum.

Stories – factual and fictional, autobiographical and concerning the world beyond the self, traditional and contemporary, fabulous and realistic, oral and written, permanent and ephemeral – are a fundamental element of our humanity, both as individuals and as social beings. The importance of narrative across the curriculum is not sufficiently recognised, and learners and teachers are the poorer for that. Its potential is huge, and largely untapped.

These insights are as relevant to schools today as they were when Harold and his contemporaries first forged them. However, the political context in which schools operate now is very different. This book reminds us that there is an alternative to the current situation, in which teachers are often regarded simply as machine operators, following increasingly stringent government instructions on curriculum, methodology and assessment. Many of the instructions are wrong: they are ignorant of the hard-won wisdom about curriculum, methodology and assessment which Harold and his colleagues spent so much time and intellectual effort accumulating.

The book can be ordered online at http://www.ucl-ioe-press.com/books/language-and-literacy/harold-rosen/, from other major online retailers and good bookshops. An electronic version will be published later this spring.

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