The Homer-Dragon Dichotomy: Cultural Capital vs Exploratory Curiosity

Reflecting on the idea of what learners might get out of classical studies, there is a contrast between traditional topics that will help build a wealth of knowledge and cultural capital or enabling learners to explore relevant areas that they are interested in.  An example of this can be found in my Classical Mythology semester in NCEA Level 2 Classical Studies (16-17 year olds):

  • Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey are foundational pieces of literature that resonate throughout the classical world & all of Western culture.
  • Dragons are awesome! Who doesn’t want to study it.

For better or worse, external assessment is a necessary evil & is a necessary skill that needs practice for those wanting to get university entrance & to do well in university exams.  Homer is perfect for this.  Dragons are not (both are equally viable for an internal assessment).

One might be a snob & think, well, surely Homer is more difficult than dragons, but you would be wrong.  Dragons is much more complex due to the textual requirements across a broader range of sources. There are a lot more resources to help one learn about Homer & I have range of resources specifically developed by me to work with my pedagogical approaches.  While practicality is a consideration, I found myself going backwards & forwards between student empowerment & choice over their learning contexts & cultural capital.  Now, I could go on a tangent about the fact that high culture is merely a construct of evil power structures seeking to suppress democratic agency, but I do genuinely believe that Homer is such an important text that everyone should study it.

This issue & our renewed focus on course design principles to refocus on learning rather than assessment had me thinking of assessment & learning occurring naturally together.  I have traditionally had three units, built around three assessments, on three different topics.  The first was quite controlling as we learned the key processes to learning in our environment.  The second was open & students took an inquiry-project approach on areas that interested them.  The third was tyrannical, in which learners chose from a list of topics that would put them in good stead for the external assessments.  I tended to be quite flexible, being a fan of the why not principle: if a student had a suggestion about their learning, like a topic or way of doing things, the first reaction would be to try & accommodate this.

The idea of classical monsters came from a student’s interest in gaming & how the classical world was strongly represented throughout many game genres.  Over my time teaching classical studies I have increasingly tried to be flexible & responsive to the interests of my students.  It is not unusual for there to be half a dozen different contexts being engaged with at the same time & a range of different learners working at different stages on these different contexts.  I have increasingly tried to collect & invest in a broad range of source books & build context resources that are designed to fit into my pedagogical approaches.  I like to think that this flexibility has led to a dramatic uptake of classical studies, where the numbers have nearly tripled from when I started (in 2016 I will only have classical studies classes).  My blatant propaganda has also helped.2016_2CLA_Topics.png

Small changes have been made to align the course with a stronger focus on learning rather than credit-hunting in response to our new course design principles:

Course Design Principles

  1. In classical studies, students have the opportunity to co-contruct their learning programme & assessment opportunities. This means that the assessment is used to enable the learning program as students are able to be assessed when they are ready.
  2. In classical studies, all students are provided scaffolding into the basic skills & processes. After this, students can co-contruct the intensity & difficulty of the programme. This enables students to be able to engage with a curriculum that enables them to be challenged at an appropriate level.
  3. A gamified environment is adopted with purpose-built context resources & modelling & process scaffolding examples relevant to historical inquiry methods.

I spent some time thinking about all of the learning that occurs that does not get captured as evidence for assessment.  I also pondered how I could continue pushing a free-range learning agenda further.  In 2014 I was part of a focus group on this issue.  One of the more colourful metaphors suggested by an unnamed SLT member (& former English teacher), & condemned by the English department as a poor stylistic choice,  was that we do need some gates, or the chickens will get out & be eaten by the neighbour’s dog.  So we wanted to try & use genetically modified chicken feed to help prepare the chickens to become chick-o-saurs.

Web_Kelly Poster A4.jpg So we focused on how, where, what, & evidence collection.  We focused on a spectrum model to encourage experimentation.  Working with seniors, it is our responsibility to prepare them for life-long learning & the types of andragogical approaches towards the right-hand side of the scale. This was a progression approach.  This is what I wanted to work towards but the limitations of appropriate external contexts & cultural capital still sat in the back of my mind.  These things are important aren’t they? Really, they are not.  Who am I to say that Ovid is more important than Virgil? Or that we shouldn’t study Aristophanes but Alexander the Great.  I still stand strongly against the teaching of stupid pots (Greek vases).

My answer then, was that there are many things that have value as areas of learning that have cultural capital.  In 2014 a keen Level 1 student asked me about possibly studying Aristophanes.  I was not ready for that then as I felt I could not be as supportive as I would like to be, as I still believe I am a better provoker of learning through questions when I have at least some strong knowledge.  Having read all the plays & many critics’ works this year it is now one of my favourite traditional contexts.

So, what did I resolved to be my answer? A compromise.  Half of our class time would be based on a choice of contexts that had significant cultural capital (the first half of the week).  The second half of our class time will be open for students to build their own project around areas of curiosity.  The structure & an approach to assessment that captures more evidence in portfolio form will be the subject of another post.


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