Back Wednesday 18 Sep 2019 9:40 am

The importance of making English an ‘open’ subject

It's always interesting to come across books that challenge dominant ways of thinking. A new one, Range, by David Epstein, does just that. Here EMC Director Andrew McCallum explores how it challenges thinking about 'deliberate practice' and 'mastery learning' and considers its implications for English teaching.
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It seems that current times crave books that reduce the secret of success to a single word: NudgePeakBounceMasteryBlinkFlowSwayGritMindsetDrive are all titles from recent years. The books have interesting things to say, but, in my view, are also deeply flawed, extrapolating from a range of diverse sources to make the case for a particular approach to all aspects of existence. Education has been particularly susceptible to their allure. Peak, by Anders Ericsson and Bounce, by Matthew Syed, for example, have helped to embed concepts of ‘deliberate practice’, ‘domain-specific learning’, ‘mastery’ and ‘the ten-thousand-hour rule’ indiscriminately into many areas of the curriculum.

A new one-word book challenges all of these concepts. Range, by David Epstein, carries the sub-title: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. As the sub-title suggests, it tends to over-state its case. It also promotes the idea – a feature of the single-word title genre – that the only people who matter in the world are hyper-successful over-achievers, often operating in the fields of sport, music and tech. But given the influence such books often have, it’s worth thinking about some of its basic tenets, and how these might help us to think about English teaching, and to challenge some of the new orthodoxies that have entered the educational discourse.

English is not sport

Early in the book Epstein points out that theories of ‘deliberate practice’ and ‘mastery’ are often based on examples drawn from the field of sport. Golfer Tiger Woods is the perfect example. Almost from the moment he could walk he was drilled by his father towards a career in golf. He went on to become the best player in the world, possibly the best player ever, and the poster boy for advocates of early specialisation, a single focus and long hours of hard work.

Compelling as Woods’ story is, Epstein explains that it is the exception rather than the rule. Those most likely to reach the top in almost any field more often than not specialise late in their development. Future sports stars, in their formative years, are often trying out multiple sports. They receive some tuition, but not all that much, and often no more than their peers. Epstein’s own model for such an approach is Roger Federer, the greatest male tennis player the world has ever seen, yet he did not focus seriously or exclusively on the sport until the age of fifteen. Instead, he played lots of different sports, and his parents actively discouraged him from focusing too much on tennis.

Epstein does not dismiss the fact that prodigies like Woods can be made: he just points out that they are not the norm. He also points out the obvious: that golf (and pretty much every other sport), is not like most other fields in terms of how proficiency is achieved. It is, he explains, practised in a ‘kind’ learning environment. Success requires the precise repetition of a very small number of actions. You get good at these simply by doing them again and again.

English, I would argue, is not learned in a kind environment, but what Epstein calls a ‘wicked’ one. Language might well be made up of patterns and literature might well exist within certain genre conventions, but these are never fixed and are endlessly mutating. Every time we use language, we rely on what we have heard and read before, but we are also creating something entirely new. An excessive reliance on repetitive, deliberate practice, on not drawing on knowledge from other domains, and on chunking knowledge up into small units, will limit rather than enable learning. It will remove agency, innovation and creativity from young people, failing to give them practice in what matters: thinking for themselves, reading critically and with insight, responding quickly and reflectively, writing and speaking in a range of different voices, and so on.

To develop fluent readers and writers, English (most of the time) needs to move away from a narrow focus on mastering small aspects of the subject. While this approach can give the illusion of success in the short term, this success is not lasting. Instead, English needs to recognise the multiple factors that come into play with any engagement with language. It needs to make links between what is brought into the classroom and what pupils bring with them (both from school and home). It needs to expose pupils to as much reading as possible and encourage them to write in multiple forms. They need clear guidance, but they also need the chance to make up their own minds about how to do things, to find their own path, to experiment, and to be playful.

Epstein mentions two other fields that are often drawn on by advocates of early specialisation and deliberate, repetitive practice: chess and classical music. Both, again, are mastered in kind environments. Mastering chess relies on memorising huge numbers of possible moves. This is not easy, but it involves containable, predictable knowledge. Classical music demands that musicians master set pieces. Errors are easily spotted, innovation and improvisation is discouraged. If we must drift into analogous reasoning for English, we might liken it to jazz rather than classical music. Jazz musicians play within certain established patterns and conventions, but improvisation is also key to their art. Interestingly, Epstein points out that jazz musicians often come late to their craft, or at least to the instrument they end up favouring. When jazz musicians have been challenged to make the crossover to classical, they have done so, research has shown, with more success than when their classical counterparts have been challenged to move over to jazz. 

English is an ‘open’ subject

Epstein quotes a 2017 review of sixty-seven early childhood education programmes meant to boost academic achievement. The programmes tended to work in the short term (so 'Head Start' in America did provide a head start) but any academic advantage bestowed by the programmes tended to fade over time, or even vanish completely. The researchers concluded that

...early childhood education programs teach ‘closed skills’ that can be acquired quickly with repetition of procedures, but that everyone will pick up at some point anyway. The fadeout was not a disappearance of skill so much as the rest of the world catching up. The motor-skill equivalent would be teaching a kid to walk a little early. Everyone is going to learn it anyway, and while it might be temporarily impressive, there is no evidence that rushing it matters.

For impact to be lasting, they argued, intervention programmes needed to focus on ‘open’ skills. For example, they would teach pupils to make connections between different aspects of their learning, or to discuss the particular context of a piece of writing.

The review brings to mind what happens when pupils make the transition from primary to secondary. End of KS2 tests suggest primary schools have done a decent job of narrowing the attainment gap between pupils from advantaged and disadvantaged social backgrounds. The gap widens again - quite alarmingly - at secondary. When presented with this fact, it looks like secondary teachers are not doing as good a job as their primary colleagues. But what if learning at primary is directed at ‘closed’ skills? (This isn’t to denigrate primary teachers – they do a brilliant job, but most would recognise the extreme limitations of the assessment system they work within.) This would certainly fit with what we know about the kinds of hoops primary pupils are made to jump through in order to meet the required standards. And what if secondary education demands a more open set of skills, which pupils are not prepared for and which the curriculum might, in large part, fail to engage with sufficiently?

The way we teach English in secondary schools must be open if pupils from across the social spectrum are to succeed. They must learn to range across texts, to select from a wide repertoire when writing, and to see connections both across the subject area and across the whole curriculum. There's a strand of thought in English teaching and in education in general at the moment that 'less is more', that pupils should 'master' a small number of texts and skills, rather than cover a rich variety. I'm sure this approach can look neater to an outside observer, but is it a 'closed' approach that gives an illusion of success, rather than one that develops long-term success?

Beware the illusion of progress

Epstein quotes psychologist Robert Bjork, who coined the term ‘desirable difficulties’. Bjork’s fundamental message about learning was that 

...students must avoid interpreting current performance as learning. Good performance on a test during the learning process can indicate mastery, but learners and teachers need to be aware that such performance will often index, instead, fast but fleeting progress.

There’s a vogue for quizzing in all subjects at the moment. Quizzing might be of some use in embedding simple information that helps with learning, but it very much conforms to notions of ‘kind’ learning and ‘closed’ skills. Real learning, difficult learning, requires ‘generative’ forms of learning. Quizzing is not a desirable difficulty, even if it relates to a difficult text. Indeed, the ‘desirable difficulties’ in English that help generate new knowledge would most likely not link to ‘difficult’ texts per se, or writing in ‘difficult’ forms. Instead, they would involve students grappling with age-appropriate literature to come up with their own responses, and working out how to structure their writing and populate it with content for themselves. 

Progress won’t necessarily be apparent in the short-term with such approaches, at least not in a tidy, obvious way. But long term it is both more likely to be present and to be lasting.

Despite everything I’ve said, Range doesn’t seem to me that great a book. It takes a long time to say something that the author says, much more succinctly, in a single illuminating article. Nonetheless, it draws attention to some really important issues that are current in education at the moment, in English as much as any other subject. Most importantly it asks us to question those issues, and to challenge their use.


If we think of writers or teachers who have impressed or influenced us, or teachers who we would like to be, 'range' seems likely to be one of their attributes. The capacity to bring disparate ideas together to write a paper, give a talk, or simply teach in an interesting manner, is based on years of life experience and wide reading. As Bakhtin pointed out, any utterance we make, however original, draws on the language that we have heard or read. Range here depends on our experience of place and culture, and - most of all - other people. Michael Armstrong speaks of the conversation of the classroom, in which the words and ideas of students and teacher connect with the language of the wider human world. This is why English is a foundational subject. Newbolt wrote in the concluding pages of the first government report on The Teaching of English in England (1921) : 'It will be noted that in these remarks we have given to "English" a very wide significance. We have looked upon it almost as convertible with thought, of which we have called it the very stuff and process. We have treated it as a subject, but at the same time as a method, the principal method whereby education may achieve its ultimate aim of giving a wide outlook on life.' By John Hodgson on 18th Sep 2019

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