Towards a democratization of Classics teaching in schools?
Note: This article was originally written in Dutch, and responded to the recent curriculum reforms in Wallonia. You can read the original article at http://klassieken.nu/2017/06/16/evelien-bracke-over-grieks-en-latijn-in-het-basisonderwijs/.
Towards a democratization of Classics teaching in schools? Practical examples of differentiation and decolonisation from the UK
In recent educational reforms, the Wallonian government allocated Latin a surprisingly central place, alongside technology: it will be compulsory for every pupil from nursery to age 15. Those eager to preserve Classical heritage for future generations are rejoicing, and with good reason. Nevertheless, this reform raises questions regarding the learning outcomes of Latin. Indeed, if Latin will be taught to all, will it be possible to maintain the current pedagogy and content?
In Belgium, Classics is a subject traditionally aimed at the intellectual elite among pupils. In the UK, by contrast, a process of democratization has long begun to erode its elitist status. [i] For the past seven years, I have worked together with schools in Wales to make Classics accessible for everyone, both as part of the curriculum and through after-school lessons. On the basis of this experience, this article wishes to enter into a dialogue about pedagogy and content, not only in the context of the curriculum developments in Wallonia, but to stimulate democratization of Classics in general.[ii] I have therefore opted to discuss specific examples which may come across as controversial. I want to emphasize that what works in Wales does not necessarily work in other countries. However, I hope to start a dialogue not only regarding the issues but also the possibilities of the democratization of Classics.
1. Pedagogy: the learning outcomes of Classics
For the moment, study of ancient languages in Belgian education is primarily restricted to linguistically strong pupils at secondary level. The curriculum reforms in Wallonia, however, render Latin compulsory for pupils from an early age, and with a broad range of abilities. This means that the pedagogy must be adapted to the age and abilities of the pupils, in order for all pupils to be successful in their Latin study.
Differentiation and decolonization
Differentiation can be applied in different ways. External differentiation means that pupils are placed in different classes or groups according to their academic ability. In the UK, for example, Latin is often taught only to MAT (More Able and Talented) pupils, to provide them with a specific challenge. Simultaneously, Latin is also taught to pupils with learning difficulties, precisely in order to improve their linguistic ability. It is, however, impossible to apply the same pedagogy to both groups, on account of their distinct abilities. External differentiation is therefore a valuable way to support the cognitive development of individual pupils in a directed manner. At the same time, however, it is also an ideological contradiction in terms, since the purpose of the democratization of Classical languages is to eliminate their elitist nature. Dividing pupils into classes on the basis of Latin ability, by contrast, maintains the present hierarchy at least to some extent.
Hence the question must be asked what the purpose is of Latin (and Classical) education. Is it necessary – and will it be possible in Wallonia – to bring all pupils to the level that they can read Tacitus or Horace fluently? Will teachers opt to teach Latin as living language, as is popular in the US and the Netherlands? Should teachers emphasize understanding of linguistic structures, grammar, or culture? Since abilities and interests of pupils are incredibly diverse – even within one classroom – an internally differentiated approach which combines all the above approaches can be successful in a democratizing ideology which counters exclusivity and elitism explicitly.[iii]
Internal differentiation of pedagogy has another advantage, which is that it ‘decolonizes’ Classics. This originally political term, now also applied to pedagogy, signifies that teachers explicitly remove themselves from elitist methodologies which oppress others.[iv] The need for this removal exists because pedagogy is never neutral: every pedagogy is ideologically loaded. The traditional pedagogy of Classics was once aimed at preparing (primarily) white, rich, young men for public life. The concept of ‘knowledge’ was therefore very much context-specific. The question ‘what is the purpose of Latin education?’ is therefore quintessentially decolonizing, since it questions the concept of Latin ‘knowledge’: is it grammar, culture, text, pronunciation? In this way it moves the focus from an exclusively white, affluent, male approach to inclusivity of race, gender, socio-economic status, and ability.
In Wales I coordinate the Literacy through Classics project. Swansea University students teach Latin, ancient Greek, and ancient history in local schools to groups of of up to thirty-seven pupils. Linguistic ability among pupils is low – even among More Able and Talented pupils – and PISA results of Wales are among the lowest in Western Europe. In the first year of my project, I presumed pupils would be able to follow lessons which predominantly took a reading approach. However, this assumption proved wrong: teachers conveyed that pupils were struggling with the texts. I therefore started to experiment with my students, and it quickly appeared that an internally differentiated approach works best.
Of the traditional grammar method, we maintained the focus on language: through play – for example board games, group activities, or physical activity – pupils learn about linguistic structures, etymology, and cognates. In these activities, grammar is discussed explicitly. Through Latin, it is therefore possible to stimulate the English linguistic ability of pupils. A similar methodology has been applied with success in the USA since the ‘60s, and is indeed still used by the Aequora project.[v] While this approach is certainly successful, I find the grammar approach too narrow to focus on general cognitive development, and therefore we add elements of other approaches.
Since linguistic skills are an issue in most of our project schools, it is, however, not possible to take a straightforward reading approach. For pupils find it hard to absorb text, even when it is presented in bite-size form. We therefore work at developing pupils’ text management in two ways. First, we start by letting pupils speak and listen before they read and write – this is a known modern language technique.[vi] Secondly, we start with English, and gradually add Latin words. For example, in a play about Romulus and Remus which we introduce at the start of the project, the narrator says: ‘This is a story (FABULA) about a woman (FEMINA) called Rhea.’[vii] Since there is little Latin in the sentence and all words have been translated, there is no pressure to perform and pupils are immediately pronouncing Latin (without explicit focus on pronunciation, which we allow to improve in time through imitation). Words are mostly chosen on account of their English derivations, and after the play we do activities with the words themselves. In this way, we introduce Latin through words before we tackle sentences and then text. By the end of their second year of Latin, most primary school pupils can execute short plays in Latin themselves.
We also play creatively with language. In a play about the Three Little Pigs, the wolf says: huffabo et puffabo et inflabo tuam domum, in which the English terminology (‘huff’, ‘puff’) is combined with Latin grammar.[viii] Pupils are further encouraged to create Latin words themselves, and fit them into specific declensions (such as x-boxum from x-box or busa from bus). This may sound like a shocking degeneration of ‘real’ Latin, but it is also possible to interpret this process differently: once the traditional learning outcomes of Latin are left behind, it is possible to create space for creative playing with, and understanding of, language.
Some projects in the English-speaking world have disconnected linguistic structures of Latin from their historical contexts and teach Latin and Greek solely linguistically.[ix] While this is a successful approach, it is important to acknowledge that language does not exist in a vacuum. Some teachers may find the non-classical context of the Three Little Pigs as shocking as the made-up Latin. However, we do teach most of the language in its historical context. It is nevertheless particularly in the cultural content that ideology is conveyed to pupils, and therefore it is pivotal that the narrow historical and geographical boundaries are broadened. Therefore my students also teach Latin via Welsh mythology[x] and holidays such as Christmas and Halloween.[xi] Through the use of modern themes, it is possible to teach children about cultural comparisons, which can help them gain a broader approach to life.
By differentiating internally, it is therefore possible to create access to Classics among broader groups of pupils. It is, however, necessary to redefine the traditional concept of ‘knowledge’: what do we define as successfully learning Latin? In a democratized curriculum, the socio-economic context and abilities of groups and individual pupils are taken into account, instead of rigidly adhering to one learning outcome (e.g. the ability to read unadapted texts fluently, or converse with ease).
2. Content: boundaries of Classics
The choice teachers make in the content of classes is, just as the pedagogy itself, based on ideology. Therefore it is again necessary to enter into a dialogue regarding what we consider as ‘content’, and particularly how his all pupils can gain access to it.
Decolonisation and differentiation
The content of many Classics courses is still hugely influenced by a positivist approach to antiquity. Historically, teachers still tend to start with the Classical period from ancient Greece as well as the Golden Age in Rome. Geographically, pupils tend to focus on the great centres of antiquity such as Athens, Rome, and Alexandria. Politically, primarily male figures of the ancient world are still emphasized. Clear improvements have already been made, for example in course books which underline daily life of ‘average’ people (including women) at the edges of the Roman empire.[xii] Through the ages, a canon of Classical content has nonetheless evolved which is deemed appropriate for primary and secondary education – while this canon is slowly being loosened, it still holds strong. Emphasis still lies not only on the great stories of antiquity, but also on the greatness of the Greeks and Romans as origin of our modern (Western) civilization with regard to technology, politics, and culture. In order to reach pupils of more diverse backgrounds, it is key that we question this canon and ideology, and broaden the historical, geographical, political, and gender boundaries of antiquity.
Purposeful integration of Classical reception into lesson content is a pivotal way of doing this. Youth fiction and films – such as Harry Potter and Percy Jackson – are already popular starting places for discussions of specific themes in Latin or Greek lessons. The didactic use of Classical reception is, however, broader. Through deliberate comparison of modern with ancient texts, for example, pupils can be invited to become (more) aware of specifically Classical issues, such as slavery. This moves the focus from the greatness of antiquity to its inherently ambiguous nature. While reception has taken its rightful place among Classical subjects at university level, the gap between theory and practice is unfortunately rather big. This means new approaches to reception are not yet being integrated practically at primary and secondary level.
By widening the historical and cultural contexts in which Latin and Greek are being taught, more pupils are integrated in the didactic process, which then renders Classics more inclusive. Through this increased inclusivity, it is also possible to provide access to the linguistic aspects of Latin and Greek. Here too internal differentiation can be applied to the content of Classical languages, and in different shapes. The teacher can, for example, offer a number of activities concerning a specific (grammatical and cultural-historical) theme, from which pupils can choose themselves. The activities – all geared towards the same learning outcome – can be set up in such a manner that they test different skills in different ways, through a combination of receptive and productive activities (respectively open and closed questions), asking for more or less Latin or Greek, and at a faster or slower pace. The didactic process is thereby redefined. It is no longer a linear process through which pupils are led from baseline to more advanced knowledge. Instead, it becomes a non-linear exploration of the subject by the pupils themselves, with the support of the teacher, yet with more attention for group work and individual choice.
As part of the Literacy through Classics project we work, as said, with a large number of pupils from economically deprived areas and ethnic minorities. Not only do many of these children live in material poverty, but they also experience poverty of a cultural and intellectual nature. In order to develop pupils’ aspirations, we have adapted the content of our curriculum to their specific needs and interests.
First, to decolonize Classics, we open the multicultural nature of antiquity for discussion – while of course maintaining an age-appropriate complexity. Geographical borders, their changes through time and connections between the so-called West and East are explicitly explored. Student teachers are in fact trained to make issues regarding gender discrimination, citizenship, and identity part and parcel of their general approach to classes. They also create specific activities to explore these issues, e.g. throwing around an inflatable globe while discussing questions, such as the impact of Latin on the region they have before them when catching the ball, the connections of the Greeks or Romans with that region, etc.[xiii] This also allows pupils to bring their own origin into the discussion.
Secondly, by means of activities connecting the modern with the ancient world, history is redefined as a dynamic process instead of a static series of facts, and ancient languages as living entities instead of dead languages. Reception plays a key part in this process. By studying passages from Gladiator or Hercules, it is not only possible to discuss the differences between antiquity and its modern representations, but more importantly the continuity of history and myth through time. Why is Seneca’s representation of Hercules more authentic than that of Disney’s Hercules? Opening pupils’ eyes to the notion that this is a matter of personal and cultural perception rather than fact, also opens doors to their understanding of the literary and historiographical tradition. This reduces the importance of a canon, in which superiority of text and world view are implicitly present.
Moving away from canonical content is not always easy, since pupils too are predetermined in their interests, for example from information they got from the internet or films. Hence many boys want to learn about gladiators and make shields, while girls rather show interests in classical costume, especially at primary level. In order to counter these gender stereotypes, we have created a series of activities in which we encourage pupils to try new things: hence we ask boys to help create jewels, while girls march along as we discuss the Roman army. Obviously the anachronisms in our representations are also open to discussion. I freely admit that it is not always easy to get pupils to leave the well-trodden path, also because the student teachers are still trained primarily in the canonical tradition. This is therefore an issue with lots of room for improvement.
An area with more success are productive activities, in which pupils create new content (be they stories, plays, or letters) based on texts and iconography from antiquity. Here they themselves control the level of Latin or Greek which they apply alongside English.[xiv] As part of such productive activities, we often allow pupils to work in a group, so stronger pupils can take on a leadership role (and hence get the opportunity to develop their abilities) while all pupils get a chance to shine in their own right. Linguistically weaker pupils often reach a higher level in a group than they would on their own.
This shows that there are different ways in which Classics lesson content can be diversified and differentiated. The examples I have given are based on the specific contexts of pupils we work with in South Wales – the pedagogy for internal differentiation, however, remains the same.
In this article, I have given practical examples of how the pedagogy and content of Classics education can be democratized by means of differentiation and decolonization. I realize that many readers will find these examples rather different from the pedagogy which is current their own context, and that many may ask to what extent this decreases the level of particularly Classical language tuition. The decrease in standards has long been considered a thorny issue. This problem, however, only exists in the current pedagogy and content of Classics, since there is (usually – and I know I am simplifying) one learning outcome: reading or speaking the language fluently. However, if one adapts the learning outcome to the contexts and needs of broader groups of pupils, by means of a differentiated pedagogy and widened content, this thorny issue disappears alongside the linear learning process.
Why do we need this democratization? First of all, I doubt that with the current pedagogy all pupils in Wallonia will be able to study Latin successfully until the age of 15. Secondly, this is necessary because the world is in the grip of growing extremism severely tempting world peace. As a consequence of growing dogmatic nationalism, the creation of hierarchies on the basis of race, socio-economic background, religion, and gender – which invariably put forward the idea that some groups of people are superior to others – has come back into fashion. Teachers are in an obvious position to counter this anti-humanist trend. Since Classics has been used to maintain social exclusion for centuries, it is also possible to apply it for its opposite, namely the creation of social inclusivity. To reach this purpose, however, it is necessary to question the tradition ideology still connected with Classics.
Dr Evelien Bracke is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Swansea University. Alongside her philological research and teaching, she works together with the Welsh government to provide wider access to Classical languages and cultures in Wales. You can find more information about her projects at
[i] For more information, see my article ‘Klassieke Talen in crisis?! Internationale Perspectieven’, Kleio 46.2 (2017).
[ii] See also VAN HOUDT, T., Latijn en Grieks: goed voor de sterken, sterk voor de zwakken!, Kleio 2012, pp. 195-191. My title deliberately refers to Classics instead of Latin. Though Latin provision is much more common than e.g. Greek, the issues regarding the democratization process are indeed similar.
[iii] To achieve this, it is necessary for teachers to drop the notion of the ‘best’ approach.
[iv] See HALL, B. and TANDON, R., Decolonization of knowledge, epistemicide, participatory research and higher education, Research for All 1, 2017, pp. 6-19, which is freely available online: http://ingentaconnect.com/contentone/ioep/rfa/2017/00000001/00000001/art00002;jsessionid=15r29br47449t.x-ic-live-01.
[vi] See for example CORBETT, P. and STRONG, J., Talk for Writing Across the Curriculum, Open University Press, Maidenhead, 2011.
[xi] For our ancient Greek lessons, see e.g. http://literacythroughclassics.weebly.com/ancient-greek.html.
[xiv] See e.g. http://literacythroughclassics.weebly.com/lesson-13.html. For this lesson, pupils create a comic about their favourite superhero, for which they are allowed to use Latin as well as English.