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Discussing the Conceptual in English: A Concrete Classroom Strategy

It all too easy sometimes to get lost in the small stuff of textual analysis. The micro. The single words and images. This is, it goes without saying, key to any literary discussion, but so is the macro. The big stuff. The conceptual. How might we build into our classroom routines more opportunity for such conceptual exploration of the texts we teach? Well, as you ask…

I’ve been thinking recently about two things:

1. What to do that is productive and effective if the lesson reaches a natural conclusion but the allocated time of the lesson isn’t quite complete

2. How to engineer opportunities for more conceptual discussion about the texts we are studying

Combining these two thoughts, I decided to try something deceptively simple but that has proven to be really useful. Onto flash cards I write either big questions or critical positions.

Here are some examples from an A Level class:

I then show these under the visualiser and use them to scaffold and prompt a debate.

Or, here are some other examples from The History Boys, but now you’ll notice I’ve added more scaffolding by providing sentence cues that might help students make their discussion a little more targeted and rigorous:

So, the basic idea is incredibly simple: write some interesting critical positions on flash cards, put them under the visualiser, and discuss with the class. But, I find it works really well, and especially in this exact format, probably for a few reasons:

1. They are written specifically to be debatable and contentious, and so students feel a lot more able to argue or challenge the idea and each other. The fact it is written down on a card and not spoken or asked by the teacher somehow, I think, neutralises the question, making it easier to argue with and through it.

2. The exercise is framed not as ‘what do you think personally’ (although in many other scenarios this is a great question) but rather do the texts permit such a position to be sustained or do the texts seem to challenge these positions. Why? How do you know? This roots any discussion explicitly in textual detail and ensures students are activating their knowledge of the text in order to marshal a point of view about whether it upholds or challenges the given position.

3. As the activity is framed around whether or not the text challenges or upholds the position, the ensuing discussion is varied and rich, with different students reading the same text in different ways and therefore arriving at a different conclusion. What is great here is the same images are being used, but to arrive at a different way of thinking, and all of this framed in terms of collective discussion and exploration.

4. The physical flexibility of the visualiser and flash card mean you can swap these cards in and out in response to the conversation. If it’s going well then keep it under. If discussion is drying up then switch another under. Move back and forth. Place two under the visualiser to compare similar or different positions at the same time.

5. Of course, the simplicity of the task makes it possible to surround it with other useful strategies: show the card and everyone writes first; paired discussion before and after; write a summary of the discussion after it has taken place; use a card to write a more extended analysis, and so on.

6. An finally back to the first thought I had when thinking about this: what to do at the end of lesson that has naturally come to a conclusion? Well, keep a pack of these cards with you, get them out, and start an interesting and rich discussion. Simple. Although they could also be used as a more standalone activity or even lead into or out of a full lesson.

What makes this really powerful, I think, is its simplicity, both to use and produce, but the intellectual rigour it can yield. Low cost, high impact. And just some positions written on a flash card!


One thought on “Discussing the Conceptual in English: A Concrete Classroom Strategy

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  1. Just downloaded and going through. Surprisingly, a few years ago when I was HOEnglish, after experimented the year before, I decided to treat each question as a skill to be developed and perfected. Lessons were tailored to develop each skill.
    We tried this approach and the results were fantastic! I have no doubt this resource will add a new dimension to my craft, so I can further help my students to navigate the English papers better. Many thanks!


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