This may sound a little like an oxymoron at first glance. But put another way, is the best way to deliver the syllabus really just sticking to the rubric set out in the prescription? Well, it’s one way of doing it. I certainly do not think it is the best way. Why? Well, because I believe education is about rather more than exam preparation. That is a mere part of it. Creating a sense of context to what one is learning, setting it in a wider picture are, in my opinion, more likely to foster a love of learning and excitement, and a sense of purpose in learning. Why are we reading the Aeneid? Rather than answering, ‘it’s this year’s verse set text,’ I might reply:
‘It is a marvellous poem, beautiful and powerful, which had a tremendous
influence on European culture from music to drama, poetry, and even
modern film. It is tremendously exciting in parts.’
‘Look at this character’s motivations. Have you ever felt like that? Have we
really changed that much?’
If I am reading Caesar on the Druids with a class, it is the perfect opportunity to open a discussion about how human beings stereotype other peoples or react to practices unfamiliar to us. It may not come up on the exam, but they will no longer see Caesar as an author they have to trudge through for a sixty-minute exam, than a human observer of another culture as seen through the lens of his own. What lesson can this teach us now?
Yes, there will always be that pupil who says, ‘but we won’t need this for the exam, why are we bothering?’ My response is usually to deal with the technical issue that we will finish in plenty of time first. I then open a line of questioning on whether this has made it more relatable.
There are many ways one can respond to this question. Once, I taught a Latin GCSE group an item of grammar that was not on the required grammar for the language paper. We had finished the item that was prescribed and I paused just to explain the ‘other bit’. The grammar topic was conditionals, and then only indicative conditionals were prescribed. Potential or closed conditions (were to, might, could be, could have), which use the subjunctive were not. A couple of them objected. My response was, ‘you’ll see’. The next lesson we were reading through the set text and the other type of conditional, potential/closed came up. The phrase stressed how nearly a character was trapped by a collapsing building, but he woke up in a nick of time. One of the objectors recognized the subjunctive conditional and said, ‘oh that’s why you explained them to us.’ He at once perceived the tense ‘whatif’ moment in the story created by the use of this construction.
So, if you want to really bring the syllabus to life, I would argue, you have to go a bit beyond and furnish a few extra details to achieve the following:
· Context: how our understanding of a wider subject is enriched by this
specific syllabus topic.
· Piques curiosity: pupils like a bit of extra detail to bring a text to life, or which
creates connections with other subjects.
· Relevance: I always encourage comparison with our own time when
teaching Classical texts, whether it’s human emotion, or simply the Roman
love of games and competition.
· Bigger questions, bigger world: by going beyond the syllabus, you show that
the syllabus topic is part of a bigger issue, a bigger picture, and can open up
a whole new world linguistically, historically, culturally, and one that
suddenly looks rather less remote from our own than it at first seemed.
My favourite was of achieving the latter was always to take a scenario from a set text and find a parallel modern news story or similar that broke down the understandable, but conceptually false ‘oh that’s old’ barrier.
Going beyond the syllabus enables delivering the syllabus more effectively to serve the purpose of education: encourage curiosity, critical thinking, reflection, and a desire to learn more.
(This article was a originally designed as a workshop on the subject of combining syllabus delivery with lifelong learning).