Watching a ‘Horizon’ programme on how illusions shed light on how the senses operate, I experienced the familiar sense of feeling that the fairly arbitrary distinctions we make between ‘subjects’ in school are as illusory as some of the common-sense perceptions we cling to, but that empirical observation reveal to be false.
I like being an English teacher, but, on the whole I don’t much enjoy the inter- subject rivalry that tends to characterise secondary school life, albeit usually at a fairly lighthearted level. You see, really I want to be able to bring everything I learn about into my teaching practice. And I want to be able to lend the particular areas of expertise I may have picked up, and borrow in turn those of others, in the service of richer, deeper, broader learning experiences that I and my students can share.
How to do that in the confines of a rigid timetable and a curriculum geared towards discretely examined subject areas is difficult to engineer. On a personal level, I try to do a little of it simply by making connections. For example when teaching about the way language and perception may interact I find myself talking about the relationship between the wavelength of light and the perception of colour, showing how the ‘white’ of an interactive whiteboard, and the ‘black’ parts of an image projected onto it are in fact the same (in fact the ‘black’ is actually slightly brighter than the ‘white’ as some light from the projector still bleeds through onto the ‘black’ areas).
That kind of exploration fascinates me, and I think that the insights being gained in perceptual psychology are directly applicable to, say, literary criticism. Obviously that, in itself, is hardly a new idea. ‘English’ at university level has long been the site, at some places at least, of interdisciplinary innovation, but that has filtered down to school level, if at all, in very weakened form.
That I was watching that ‘Horizon’ programme on BBC iplayer on my phone while lying in bed several days after it was first broadcast, and was then able immediately to begin composing this response on that same handheld device, before uploading it for potentially anyone to read also acts as a reminder that ways of learning, thinking about that learning, and developing and disseminating the products of that learning are changing in ways that the education system as currently constituted is only beginning to take the first lumbering cognisance of.
(And in the current political climate it may even be lumbering in quite the wrong direction…