Literacy and Performance as Learning

Is “performative literacy” a learning behaviour?

Though Sheridan Blau has linked his concept of performative literacy to the teaching of English, it also has a lot to offer general pedagogical practice. I wonder if what he expresses might also help us to consider the way that we teach and learn.

In my first post, I suggested that the way that we arrange learning spaces can create excitement about learning. I believe that the freedom to move within and to see rooms in a new way encourages spontaneous engagement in lessons. For me, this is where the roots of independent thinking take hold. So, how can Blau’s ideas help us even more as teachers?

I was reminded of the idea of performative literacy  in an excellent day of professional learning at the beginning of the year, organized by our Head of @BSNEngDram , Anna Bradley (@mrs_abradley). She arranged for the amazing Elizabeth Stephan to work with us for a day, covering some great ways to deliver IB English A: Literature to students. As it turned out, everything that she imparted was not only useful for IB learning but also for A Level Literature and GCSE and Key Stage 3 English, too. It also made me think more widely about the relationship between performance, literacy and learning in all teaching.

That day, Elizabeth Stephan’s application of Sheridan Blau struck a powerful chord with me. Blau details seven necessary conditions or characteristics for “performative literacy” to flourish. These feel a great deal like the IB Learner Profile but they go beyond it, in my opinion, particularly as they detail both very practical but also quite abstract parts of learning.   The application of these ideas in English is obvious but all subjects try to create their own literacy so I think that these ideas will resonate with everyone. We’re all trying to create sufficient literacy in order for students to take charge of their own learning, aren’t we?

The “performative” part of this dynamic is what I think we “do” in the classroom. In fact, I can’t think of anything that I do (successfully or not) that doesn’t at least attempt to encourage such performance in some way. Furthermore, students are used to this. They perform by evaluating, problem solving, questioning and interpreting endlessly throughout every school day.

It was therefore a relief to me to see  Blau’s practical suggestions for engendering performative literacy and in my view, performative learning:

  1. Students need a capacity for sustained, focused attention. This can be fostered through silent reading or individual reflection time, which may or may not happen in the classroom. The flipped classroom can reveal the success or failure of sustained focus at home just as much as a supervised lesson in the library might.
  2. Students need to have a willingness to suspend closure: to enjoy problem solving rather than avoiding it. This can be the essay, the group discussion, the mathematical equation or just a whole class disagreement with whatever the teacher is throwing at them. This happens so often with unseen poetry in English and it is magnificent to experience. For me, these are the moments when students want to argue about the importance/relevance of Shakespeare or whether a bird in Dickinson is just a bird and not a soul or whether the ancient mariner shot the albatross for any particular reason. These are the moments that I live for as a teacher.
  3. Students need a willingness to take risks.  This can take shape quite productively in whole class discussion, provided that there is enough bouncing around the room and strategies are used to hear everyone. Students should feel free to challenge the norm, even with notions that are clearly off the mark. How else do we uncover misconceptions?
  4. Students need to embrace failure. I’m sure that many will agree that the student in the class who is able to have her work scrutinised and critiqued publicly is the student who will probably make the most significant progress. This needs to be accompanied by a willingness to re-read core material (the novel, the text book, notes taken in class). The “failure” has to lead to change through further contemplation of the subject matter.
  5. Students need to appreciate paradox and ambiguity. While plenty of knowledge is certain and unequivocal, performative literacy thrives on the knowledge that is gained through the exploration of the seemingly impossible.
  6. Students have to appreciate alternative visions. The views of fellow students are one level of this engagement but even from an early age, students can engage with “expert” opinion. Is Milton’s Satan really a hero as the Romantics suggest? Why can’t a Year 7 student engage with this debate as much as a Sixth Form student? It certainly makes reading Philip Pullman very interesting.
  7. Students need a metacognitive awareness. I find this difficult so I am ending with it. How can students adequately reflect to understand how they make themselves learn? How much awareness of long and short term memory can they cope with and from what age?

If we create the conditions for the above to thrive, students will have the chance to perform literacy, in all its forms, as much as possible.

When I first started teaching, I called my own literacy into question all of the time. I remember thinking that one day someone would inevitably find me out; they would expose me as a fraud because I didn’t know enough about Shakespeare and Eliot and Coleridge to be a real English teacher. My response then and my response now (when I prepare to teach a new author) is the same. I perform my literacy until I am convinced of it: I read in silence, I discuss the author with others, I read what the experts say. I then question what I think I know and then re-read my core texts. Other than being in the classroom, this is my favourite part of being a teacher and a learner.

To me, knowledge of these seven characteristics would seem to be a great precursor for independent learning in students.


Blau, Sheridan “Performative Literacy: The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers” in  Voices from the Middle, Volume 10 Number 3, March 2003 pp 18-22

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