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Harold Rosen’s 50-year-old revolutionary message: children bring a wealth of culture, language and experience to the classroom

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 March 2017

John Richmond .
Harold Rosen was a leader of thought in the world of English teaching in the second half of the twentieth century. He and his colleagues forged and sustained a new understanding of the purpose and possibilities of secondary school English. Beyond the constituency of secondary English, Harold’s teachings, writings and activities illuminated many more people’s understanding of the relationship between language and learning in any context, whatever the age of the learner and the content of the learning.
On 20 March, the UCL Institute of Education Press launches Harold Rosen: Writings on life, language and learning 1958-2008, which I have edited. This is a bringing-together of most of Harold’s educational writings and some of his short stories and poems.
In the early part of his career, Harold taught English in Leicestershire, Middlesex and inner London. In 1958 he moved into teacher education, first at Borough Road Polytechnic and then, for 22 years from 1962 to 1984, at the University of London Institute of Education, where he rose to be head of department and a professor of the university.
Of the many intersecting strands of Harold’s writings and activities which remain relevant to schools and teachers today, here are five, all represented in the book.
The content of the curriculum which the teacher brings to the classroom must respect and incorporate the culture, language and experience which the learner brings there. This was the essential message of the syllabus for the English department at Walworth School which Harold wrote between 1956 and 1958, when he was head of department. It was then a revolutionary idea. Harold’s work, and that of his successors at Walworth School, have filtered by countless channels into the theory and practice of progressive English teaching in the UK and throughout the world.
Schools as whole institutions need to consider how the language through which they offer knowledge to learners is actually experienced by those learners.  If they fail to do this, learners will very often experience the language demands of the school as incoherent, or deadeningly repetitive, or simply mysterious. This was the central insight of the ‘language across the curriculum’ movement, which was inspired by work done in the 1960s by Harold and his colleagues in the London Association for the Teaching of English, an organisation he had helped to found in 1947.
Research in education must be a truly respectful, collaborative endeavour between people working in schools and people working and studying in universities and other organisations which support schools. Harold knew that much conventional research had failed to make an impact on classroom practice because of its essentially hierarchical nature.  He enacted structures, including the Language in Inner-City Schools network based at the Institute of Education for ten years from 1976, enabling research to be carried out as a common pursuit between schoolteachers and those who support them.
The great linguistic diversity in our classrooms – and particularly in our urban classrooms – is a resource to be cherished. Harold combined this optimism with a hard-headed recognition that the children and young people in our schools who have come ­- or whose parents or grandparents have come – from other parts of the world, will sometimes or often experience racism, subtle or unsubtle, implicit or explicit, in their daily lives. Nonetheless, linguistic diversity presents a golden opportunity: to study and celebrate it as part of the content of a modern English curriculum.
Stories – factual and fictional, autobiographical and concerning the world beyond the self, traditional and contemporary, fabulous and realistic, oral and written, permanent and ephemeral – are a fundamental element of our humanity, both as individuals and as social beings. Narrative has failed to gain the recognition and acceptance across the curriculum that it deserves, and learners and teachers are the poorer for that. Its potential is huge, and largely untapped.
These insights are as relevant to schools today as they were when Harold and his colleagues and contemporaries first forged them. However, the political context in which schools operate now is very different from that in which Harold worked, especially in his earlier career. Harold Rosen: Writings on life, language and learning 1958-2008 reminds us that there is an alternative to the current situation, in which teachers of English, language and literacy – and particularly primary-school teachers – are regarded simply as machine operators, following increasingly stringent instructions on curriculum, methodology and assessment issued by government.  The situation is made worse by the fact that many of the instructions are wrong: they are ignorant of the hard-won wisdom about curriculum, methodology and assessment which Harold and his colleagues and contemporaries spent so much time and intellectual effort accumulating.
Harold Rosen: Writings on life, language and learning 1958-2008 edited with an introduction by John Richmond, is published by UCL IOE Press. This book can be ordered online from UCL IOE Press, other major online retailers and good bookshops. Join us for the 10th Harold Rosen lecture by John Richmond, introduced by poet Michael Rosen to mark the launch of this collection of Harold Rosen’s writings. It takes place at 5.00pm on Monday 20 March in Lecture Theatre 1, UCL Cruciform Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT. For more information and to rsvp visit the UCL IOE Press blog.

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