For those who don’t know, I am currently on a three-week placement with the school who will accredit my QTS via the Assessment-Only route. Amongst other things, this has involved a small amount of teaching and observing A-Level classes — a first for me. Reading through some pupils NEA’s (quaintly known as “coursework” to anyone above a certain age), I was transported back a number of years, to writing my own A-Level essays. Specifically, I remembered feeling pressured to write intelligently. No doubt this pressure was wholly self-inflicted. I had a truly wonderful English teacher for both GCSE and A-Level, Mrs Griggs (also my form teacher), who pretty much singlehandedly kept me in mainstream education, and I have no memory of her saying: “Tom, for the love of God, would you whip out that thesaurus over there and add some needless words to your writing!” But alas, whip out that thesaurus over there I did, and add some (many) needless words l did. William Strunk’s “Omit needless words” is perhaps one of literature’s truest maxims on the art of writing. A virtuoso sentence, unimprovable insofar as it follows the advice it offers (try to re-phrase it more concisely).
Rather less articulately, I found myself offering similar advice to an A-Level pupil. Now, this was a clever lad. Probably an A* candidate. His essay dealt with a number complex ideas on the application of Marxist theory to Larkin’s poetry. However, his writing was riddled with words. Needless words. They were everywhere. A plethora of infinitive verbs. A deluge of abstract nouns. A superfluity of phrases and clauses. And all resulting in a potentially brilliant essay descending into empty vagaries. He took a little convincing, but in time I persuaded him that, while many a writer can take a simple idea and make it seem complex, only a great writer can take a complex idea and make it simple. Back to his computer he went, and hopefully to the most wonderful key of all: delete.
All this had me thinking about the extent to which Strunk’s maxim “Omit needless words” can, or should, be applied to teaching, and in particular teacher explanations. Now, full disclosure, I am not someone who believes a the teacher should shut up and allow a class teach itself. I mean, I’ve read Lord of Flies and I’ve seen Battle Royale, y’know? You won’t ever hear me saying to a colleague who is wittering on endlessly, “Hey maaan, are you the sage on stage or the guide at the side?” I might, however, recommend they improve their explanations.
Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked as a Business Development Manager. If there’s one thing you learn quickly when you’re selling things to disinterested people, it is this: what you say is irrelevant, rather it is what they hear that is important. A good general rule is this: people like to get the information they need clearly and quickly. They don’t want to know what they don’t (think they) need to know. Please note, I’m not advocating teaching to the exam here. I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t overload pupils with flim-flam and waffle. I might love irony, for example, but still, prior to teaching ‘My Last Duchess’, there is no need for me to indulge that love by giving my bottom set Year 10 a thirty-minute introduction to the concept. This would leave many confused and most bored. Better off I give them a simple and straightforward explanation, one which will allow them to access and understand how irony works in this poem. So I’ll weave my explanation of irony into my teaching of the poem more generally.
So how do I explain it? Well, first of all, here’s some things I don’t do. I don’t explain it in terms of sarcasm, as I have seen done before (“it’s a bit like sarcasm but it doesn’t rely on tone of voice”). Why don’t I do that? Two reasons. One: confusion between irony and sarcasm is something I am trying to avoid, so comparing them is obviously counter-productive. Two: this definition doesn’t actually explain what irony is, only what it isn’t. Similarly, I won’t offer a vague definition, such as: “It’s when someone says one thing but means another”. Here pupils will reasonably respond: “Oh I get it. You mean lying, Sir?” No. No I don’t. The explanation I’ve used has confused them. And I most certainly will not give them a definition of irony up front, lest those pesky children spent their time attempting to sniff out the irony themselves and thus develop an array of misconceptions, which I must then unpick.
Instead, what I will attempt to do is provide a simple explanation, ideally within a clarifying example. Again, note that my explanation/definition comes within the clarifying example, not before it. So for ‘My Last Duchess’ I will explain the following, writing key information on the board as I go (see the end of post for an example) to prevent overloading the pupils.
- I tell the pupils that it is necessary to understand irony in order to understand the poem fully. I tell them I’ll demonstrate an example first then explain what irony is.
- I make them aware it is Browning who is being ironic, not the Duke. (The pupils need to understand this first, otherwise they are likely to confuse irony with a lack of truthfulness on the part of the Duke.)
- I explain that Browning is using the Duke’s words to mean one thing (the Duke does believe what he is saying) but he is also expecting the reader (“that’s you lads”) to pick up on another meaning.
- Note that while, as a teacher, you can see how I am beginning to introduce the concept of irony, the pupils are still in the dark. Because of this, I’ll recap points 2 and 3 a number of times, until I am happy that everyone has listened/grasped them.
- Now, as I explain the differences between what the Duke says and what the reader understands, I will draw a diagram on the board that illustrates some of the differences:
- I will then explain to the pupils that it is in this gap, between what the Duke says and what the reader understands, that the irony lives. The Duke is saying one thing, but Browning is telling us something else. (“And remember lads, it is Browning who is being ironic, and it is Browning who wrote the words of the Duke.”) Generally, at this point, a noise of satisfaction will come over the room as the penny begins to drop. With this, I will add to the diagram like so:
- Finally, once pupils have some understanding of what irony is, I will provide a definition, which I will expect them to write in their books. Something along the lines of: irony is when a writer uses words that mean one thing, but the reader understands he actually means something different or opposite. (Clearly, this is an oversimplification of the complexities of irony. But at this point the pupils have an understanding of how irony works, and a simple definition to go with it. Anything more will confuse them. Once the knowledge is embedded it can be expanded on later, should the teacher believe it beneficial or desirable.)
- At this point I might add something like: “In the case of ‘My Last Duchess’, Browning was using the Duke as an example of how some people in Victorian Britain thought about women. Some would have thought the Duke’s behaviour was fine. Can you believe that? However, he used the irony to show that the Duke was actually a madman, even though he seemed kind of normal. He wanted to show people they should not think the same way as the Duke; he wanted them to think the opposite way to the Duke, so he used the Duke’s own words against himself. Browning is saying that if you think the same way as the Duke you are also a madman.” The pupils get this. They think: “Yes, he is a madman. He had her killed for smiling.”
Before I move on with the lesson, I will have the pupils parrot back the definition of irony I provided for them. I will also have them talk me through how irony works in ‘My Last Duchess’. Here pupils will struggle. But it is particularly important to be rigorous with this step. The pupils will get frustrated, but it is good frustration; they are frustrated because they understand and yet are struggling to explain. It’s worthwhile talking them through this. I re-assure them that they have already accomplished the hard part (understanding irony) and now they just need to do the easy bit — committing it to memory.
This is at odds with how the relationship between working memory, long-term memory, and “true understanding” is typically conceived. Usually, memorisation is thought to a) come first, b) be in some sense “easier”, and c) be less worthwhile (“surface learning”). As we can see from this example, none of those things is necessarily true. When I explain irony to my pupils, they frequently understand the concept. When I ask my pupils to explain irony to me, they frequently seem not to understand the concept. But it is vital that as teachers we do not mistake a pupil’s inability to explain a concept as evidence that they have not understood it. It simply means that they have not memorised the various constituent pieces of information that are required for independent explanation. In this example, it is memorisation that is both trickier and more effortful than understanding, and it is memorisation that will enable pupils to become independent users of the concept of irony.
When I explain the concept to them, I am standing in for their long-term memory, and I am simply asking them to manipulate small pieces of information that I present and explain in a logical sequence. It is for this reason that I will often list the key points of an explanation on the whiteboard in a series of steps, an example of which is provided at the end of the post (1,2,3 etc.). It allows the information to be sequenced into small chunks, making the information easier to understand before it has been memorised and easier to memorise after it has been understood.
All this takes 15-20 minutes, depending on the group, and at no point do I get bogged down trying to explain what irony is. Like Strunk’s masterful “Omit needless words”, the irony mostly demonstrates itself. I simply stand on stage and guide the pupils’ eyes toward it…
Please, if you have something to add regarding my definition of irony, my approach to explaining, the steps, the inversion of the understanding/memorisation process, or indeed anything else, then leave a comment below. I’m keen to learn as much as I can from my fellow EduTwits, and I’ll reply when I can.
- It is Browning is being ironic, not the Duke.
- The Duke genuinely believes what he is saying, but the reader understands something different.
- Diagram. (Illustrates examples of difference between what the Duke says and the audience thinks, and includes an explanation of how irony works in My Last Duchess.)
- Definition: irony is when a writer uses words that mean one thing, but the reader understands he actually means something different or opposite.
Should you wish to read Strunk and White’s excellent, if slightly outdated, The Elements of Style, you can do so here.
My explanation of irony, particularly in relation to My Last Duchess, has been partly influenced by The Art of Poetry vol. 6. I recommend every English teacher buys it. It is the best poetry resource around, and by some distance.