What are we developing?: Priorities and challenges for teaching literature in secondary subject English in Australia

Submitted by: Larissa McLean Davies
Abstract: Like in other Anglophone countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, subject English exists in a contested space in Australia: it is at once responsible for both literacy and the moral and ethical education of students (Patterson, 2000), but at the same time, seen as having ‘no content’ (Dixon, 1975) and lacking a tangible body of knowledge (Doecke et al, 2018). The subject is also complicated by a high-stakes examination environment in many areas of the country, curriculum and policy pressures, and debates around literature versus literacy (Green, 2018). This multifaceted and contested environment raises questions about the knowledge English teachers have or need to have, how institutional and social contexts shape teacher experience and pedagogy, what constitutes ‘development’ in English and the role of the literary in this curriculum domain.
This paper arises from this context, and a four-year Australian Research Council project called Investigating Literary Knowledge in the Making of English Teachers (DP160101084). This project is undertaking a multi-faceted, integrated investigation of literature and its role in English that will enable a better understanding of the meanings, practices, relationships and influences currently at work in informing teachers’ practices with regard to developing knowledge in English. As part of this project, the presenters have undertaken a nation-wide survey of English teachers (740 respondents) which seeks to understand the social and institutional contexts which have informed, and are informing teachers’ perceptions of knowledge. In this paper, we report on two key questions from the survey which reveal teachers’ key priorities and challenges for teaching literature in their English classrooms. We ask ‘What do these challenges and priorities reveal about understandings of knowledge in English? Are some forms of knowledge more or less valued than others? And, what do these priorities reveal about teacher ‘development, and development in subject English? It also considers how teachers’ level of experience impacts on their priorities as a teacher of literature and on the challenges they face and how text selection impacts on these issues for English teachers.
This paper builds on previous publications arising from the project including those considering the role of knowledge in the Australian Curriculum: English (McLean Davies & Sawyer, 2018) and debates around knowledge and literature in secondary and tertiary contexts (Yates et al., forthcoming).

Keywords: literature, development, teacher education, knowledge, english

Dixon, J. (1975). Growth through English: Set in the Perspective of the Seventies. National Association for the Teaching of English.
Doecke, B., McLean Davies, L. Sawyer, W. (2018) Blowing and Blundering in Space: English in the Australian Curriculum. In Reid, A, Price, D. (Eds), The Australian Curriculum: Promises, Problems and Possibilities.
Green, B. (2018). Engaging Curriculum: Bridging the Curriculum Theory and English Education Divide. London: Routledge.
McLean Davies, L. & Sawyer, W. (2018). (K)now you see it, (k) now you don’t: literary knowledge in the Australian Curriculum: English. Journal of Curriculum Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2018.1499807
Patterson, A. (2000). English in Australia: its emergence and transformations. In Questions of English: Ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, and the formation of the subject in English, Australia and the United States. Eds. Peel, R., Patterson, A. & Gerlach, J. London: Routledge.
Yates, L., McLean Davies, L., Buzacott., L., Doecke, B., Mead, P., Sawyer, W. (forthcoming). School English, Literature and the Knowledge-Base Question. The Curriculum Journal.