States of matter matter: scaffolding thought via analogy in English

We are the stories we tell.

States of matter matter: scaffolding thought via analogy in English
Photo by Zoltan Tasi / Unsplash

We are the stories we tell. Everything we know about ourselves is a narrative, internalised. We’re imaginative beings, for whom imagination is a superpower. Learning and imagination are almost synonymous when one considers Foucault’s definition of work (read: learning): ‘to work is to try to think something other than what one thought before.’ This describes imagination, too. It is no coincidence that our strongest learners in English have the most vivid imaginations. It does follow, then, that if we want learning to be deeper, we must work with and foster the power of students’ imagination wherever possible.

Like anything worth teaching, imaginative thought needs careful modelling. It’s hard to overstate the importance of modelling, especially given Cognitive Load Theory’s position that novice brains are easily overloaded and overwhelmed. This is where imagination - stories - come in.

The longer I’ve been teaching and explicitly trialling modelling strategies with my students, the more I’ve started thinking that what really needs modelling is the inside of my skull. They need to see how an ‘expert’ thinks, but this is obviously not possible. We need an intermediary, then. Our intermediary is a story, and a simple one at that: an analogy, a metaphor for thought? How else does one model thought - the abstract - but via metaphor? The metaphor lives in that liminal space between the concrete and the abstract, which is where the students can meet us.

Here is the story.


Y7 and I have been looking at Duffy’s ‘Education for Leisure’. We’ve previously got to grips with poetry as a meeting place between the concrete and the abstract, and they’re comfortable enough with poetic terminology. I wanted them, though, to have better and more exploratory thoughts about poetry and its layers of meaning. I thought about my own thought processes when I’m trying to parse and process new information and I noticed that they fell into three discrete sections: Gas: nebulous thoughts. They’re all over the place and, like gas, invisible. They move fast; they’re constantly in motion. If I want to do anything with them, or make any sense of them, I need to condense them: Liquid: Now I can see what I’m working with. These are my notes which, while not formless, will shape themselves to a container. I can be quite fluid here - sometimes the notes are annotations, sometimes fragments - either way, they’re quick and they let me slow the process down. However, because they’re liquid, they’re still sloshing all over the place. They need to be solidified: Solid: Once I know what I think, I give my ideas enough structure that they’ll stand up on their own. This is the part where my notes become full sentences, paragraph and, eventually, long-form writing.

I shared this analogy with Year 7 as we started studying Duffy’s poem. In their case, I made the matter specific: water. This was easy for them to visualise, due in no small part to the ubiquity of water. The cognitive load here was limited, because the story of how water works in its three states of matter is a simple one, so all they had to do was hang this new information over the top of that pre-existing, comfortable knowledge. With this in place, the whole lesson was structured around these discrete stages of thinking:

Vapour

I started by asking a question of the meekest student in the class:

“When’s the last time you killed something?”

“…”

“Come on. Not someone. Something.

“Erm … I … an ant. When I was five.”

“And why was the murder of that ant fine in your eyes?”

“Well … he was in my house.”

With that, we were off. We had a really big and animated talk about killing. Here are some of the things we discussed:

  • Why do we kill?
  • Why does society punish those who kill so harshly?
  • If one kills, should one lose one's own life?
  • Is the killing of an animal equal to the killing of a human?

Nobody wrote anything down. We were in the vapour phase, so we were just warming up and having lots of thoughts. We were turning big philosophical problems over in our heads. These things take time. I kept reminding them that their thoughts should feel like they’re whizzing through their heads, at millions of miles a second, and that they would probably become quite physically animated and excited, much like a particles in a gaseous state do. Sure enough, imagination became physical reality. What was modelled became so. Then we turned to the poem. I didn’t introduce it; I just read it. Then I asked them to read it through and highlight anything that stood out to them. Once they’d done that, they needed to look at what they’d highlighted and ask what, how or why questions of the highlights. Examples included:

  • Why has Duffy written using this tone?
  • What is this full stop doing in the middle of this line?
  • How does this first line make the reader respond?

More discussion followed: they asked their peers the questions they’d just come up with. More and more ideas were generated. It was at this point that we needed to see what we were working with. We needed to identify what mattered. We needed things to slow down so we could add detail and make connections.

Water

This came in two stages. Firstly, the students annotated whatever they could remember from the questioning phase onto their poems. I then put these questions up on the board:

  1. How would you describe the speaker in the poem? Why would you choose these particular words?
  2. What is most disturbing about this poem? Why is this?
  3. Duffy limits the amount of poetic imagery and instead writes in a very straightforward, almost colloquial manner. Why do you think she made this decision?
  4. Why are there so many caesurae in this poem?
  5. “This poem exists purely to shock: it has no real underlying message.” How far would you agree with this statement? Give reasons for your agreement / disagreement.
  6. What ideas have you had about the poem and its abstract meanings that haven’t been covered by the questions above? Write them down here, as clearly as you can.

They discussed them first (we dipped back into the gas phase) and then made notes based on the discussion and everything they’d discovered so far. Once they had answered each question as notes, it was time for them to crystallise their thoughts into interpretations:

Solid

You can’t skip the gas phase to get here, though students often do. Don’t think that the shortness of the liquid entry above means that the process should be shorter than the others. It doesn’t. This is the phase during which students are processing their ideas, which prepares them for this final phase. This final stage requires a different mindset - again, the analogy is useful. Here, students are bringing the particles of thought to rest. This is the end of fragmentation and the beginning of true connection. If the previous two phases have been done properly, the cognitive emphasis won’t be on the ideas themselves, but rather the expression and interrelatedness of them.

There is, however, a fourth part to this:

The Ice Sculpture

Once students knew what they thought, it was time to make those thoughts beautiful. Because they were equipped with all the ideas, with a decent sense of how to express them, they were able to share their ideas with me as we wrote a class paragraph. We didn’t finish it, but here’s what we have so far:

Explore the ways in which Duffy’s Education for Leisure presents problems in society

Duffy’s ‘EFL’ is a sarcastic argument against the way that young people are misunderstood and mistreated in society. Society denies young people opportunities and ignores their potential. At the beginning of the poem, the speaker is at breaking point, protesting ‘I have had enough of being ignored’. However, this is problematic for the reader, because it is combined with the blunt declaration that they are ‘going to kill something. Anything.’ This puts the reader in the judgemental position of society: like society, we make very quick decisions about the speaker before we have truly had a chance to get to know them. This is a mistake, because Duffy hints throughout the poem that there is more to this speaker than meets the eye. PROOF: the title: education is to blame?

We’ll be picking this up again on Monday. The emphasis now is on written expression, a vital step on the path to expertise.
And to think that the first step was a simple story.

Thank you for reading,

Alex