Miltonic Vision part 2: Satan, Swiss Tony and using Threshold Concepts to organise and teach powerful knowledge

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‘Making a cup of coffee is like making love to a beautiful woman. It’s got to be hot. You’ve got to take your time. You’ve got to stir… gently and firmly. You’ve got to grind your beans until they squeak. And then you put in the milk.’ Swiss Tony

‘.… he stood and call’d

His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’

thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks

In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades

High overarch’t imbowr…’                                                          John Milton

What has a recurring sexual innuendo from the Fast Show got in common with a beautiful passage of poetry from Paradise Lost? On the one hand, the answer is clearly nothing – whilst The Fast Show, and in particular the character of Swiss Tony, may have provided some funny moments back in the 1990s, Milton’s epic work of literary genius will remain an epic work of literary genius for many years to come. Yet, despite this absurd juxtaposition of artistic genres, I think there is something that binds these two disparate works, a link I want to make the subject of this post – namely the way in which both texts use simile, albeit for different purposes: one to instigate laughter, the other to provoke wonder and contemplation about the nature of faith and knowing.

In this belated follow up to my previous post, I want to take the literary device of the simile – within the broader notion of figurative language – to exemplify how I see threshold concepts can lead to better organisation of curriculum content and assessment. It seems to me that the conceptualisation of disciplines into thresholds and domains creates a framework that forces teachers to reflect on the nature of their subject and how to teach it effectively. It offers a means for developing teacher subject knowledge by mapping out thresholds of understanding within and across domains that are directly linked to curriculum. Thinking hard about the thresholds and the liminal spaces that lie between deeper, transformational levels of understanding offers perhaps the best route to identifying the sequences required to achieve mastery,

Whilst we are quite happy with the English curriculum and assessment model we have developed, we know that it can be better. Our framework has elements of mastery to it, but it is not a mastery model in the truest form – in the sense that it lays out the content of the subject in sequential steps, which are each mastered in turn to a given level before progression. Designing a true mastery curriculum in English is hard. Whilst it might be relatively straightforward to identify a logical sequence for some of the written components, such as sentence structure and the use of punctuation, developing a mastery model for reading is understandably rather more difficult. What does a route to mastering reading look like, especially when so much depends upon a myriad of factors?

Threshold concepts and the Miltonic simile

Before the steps towards mastery towards can be identified and sequenced it is necessary to first lay bare the essence of the subject, and to identify the different transformational moves (or thresholds) that need to be negotiated. The domain that I want to strip back to understand more fully how it works is figurative language, and the example I want to draw upon to help is Paradise Lost. To me, Milton’s epic poem represents the apotheosis of figurative language, in particular his unique usage of the epic simile, which feature heavily in Book I which detail Satan’s fall from heaven and his subsequent building of pandemonium.

It strikes me that there four distinct phases or thresholds through which a novice learner must pass before they have understood the Miltonic simile. Even then, that understanding is probably still contingent, since new insights are likely to manifest in the future. I have attempted to map out these four thresholds in the table below. The first column is my attempt to define each of the distinct phases a learner needs to negotiate. I don’t think it would be possible to bypass any one of them, since each builds upon the foundations of the previous one. The second column provides some sense of indicative content, whilst the third offers up some literary examples of the kinds of texts that could act as exemplification.

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There are six main similes in Book I of Paradise Lost

  • Leviathan lines 197-209
  • Moon lines 287-291
  • Fallen Leaves lines 301-303
  • Red Sea lines 304-311
  • Locusts lines 338-343
  • Bees/Pygmies/elves lines 769-787

Here is the simile of the Fallen Leaves:

.… he stood and call’d

His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’

thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks

In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades

High overarch’t imbowr; or scatterd sedge

Afloat, when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d

Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, whose waves o’erthrew

Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry,

While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d

The Sojourners of Goshen, who beheld

From the safe shore thir floating Carcasses

And broken Chariot Wheels; so thick bestrewn

Abject and lost lay these, covering the Flood,

Under amazement of thir hideous change.

  1. Threshold – Understanding literal and figurative language

On one level the function of the simile is to describe the number of fallen angels lying prostrate on the burning lake of hell. There are as many angels as ‘Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks / In Vallombrosa’. To understand this simile, the first thing a learner needs to appreciate is the way that one thing can be used to describe or define another i.e. the difference between literal and figurative language. It may not be immediately apparent as to why leaves would be a useful way to describe the volume of fallen angels. I have attempted to schematise what this understanding might look like as an equation. So, in this first level of engagement A = B, where A is the amount of fallen angels on the burning lake and B is the multitude of fallen leaves on the floor of Vallombrosa.

  1. Threshold – Understanding literal and figurative language

Of course, Milton’s simile is more complicated than a simple comparison between leaves and angels. A deeper appreciation necessitates some kind of framework to help the learner evaluate whether or not the simile is successful. This could be aided by introducing the idea of tenor, vehicle and field. Taken together these concepts provide a means to evaluate the simile and help the learner truly see why bestrewn leaves offer up such a powerful image of the state of the fallen angels – voluminous, haphazard and inglorious. Such an analytical framework, which I think would be hard to understand for a novice, would also help tease out additional layers of meaning. The structured interrogation of the comparison, by way of the vehicle of the leaves, reveals that along with the image there is also a hidden authorial comment, one that seems to imply that because the angels are strewn they can in no sense be considered heroic.

Shortly after the simile of the fallen leaves comes another– the simile of the Red Sea. As before, the simile begins with overt visual comparison, this time between floating sea sedge (A) and the number of fallen angels on the floor of hell (B). It is another attempt to define the sheer scale of the fallen angels in their state of ruin, which in itself is a kind of additional meaning – one simile is simply not enough to conjure the image: it requires multiple comparisons to convey the torrid sight. The Red Sea simile continues with 4 more additional layers of comparison, each one complicating and confusing the original link between sedge and fallen angels.

The simile suggests the angels on the floor of hell are something like:

  1. scatterd sedge Afloat, and
  2. when with fierce Winds Orion arm’d / Hath vext the Red-Sea Coast, and
  3. whose waves o’erthrew Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry, and
  4. While with perfidious hatred they pursu’d The Sojourners of Goshen, and
  5. who beheld From the safe shore thir floating Carcasses /And broken Chariot Wheels;

A learner who has mastered the notion that one thing can be used to compare another figuratively must at this point confront the idea that multiple things can be used at the same time to make a comparison – in other words they must comprehend the idea of extended metaphor or epic simile. They must also learn how to make sense of these different elements and the way they cumulatively refine the original comparison. I see this understanding as something like A + B + C = D. The number of fallen angels are like scattered sedge (A), when God Orion parted the Red Sea (B), which drowned the Egyptians (C), while they pursued the Israelites (D), who themselves witnessed the events from the safety of the shore (E). But even this formula is not entirely accurate, since each of the additional conditions is so specific and predicated on a number of precise factors.

  1. Threshold – Figures of speech as objects of study within a tradition

This threshold is reliant on the introduction of considerable external knowledge, even more so than the previous ones. Milton’s epic simile contains echoes of Classical and Renaissance poets and their different uses of the image of fallen leaves, usually to describe the numberless dead. It would simply not be possible for a learner to understand or appreciate the simile at the level of aesthetic object unless they had encountered its literary precedents, or indeed understood the idea of tradition itself. Even if a gloss in the margin or a comment in the footnotes provided the necessary detail, it would still likely require additional comment in order to render the meaning of the secondary note. This is a clear example of the way knowledge begets further knowledge, and how students with high levels of schematic background knowledge have a distinct advantage in discerning meaning over those without. In this case knowledge of the literary precursors to the simile of the fallen leaves allows the reader to deepen their understanding of Milton’s use of it: namely to establish himself as the voice of God, and to place himself in some kind of literary hierarchy that predates and thus negates the Classical World.

Only someone with access to the knowledge of Virgil and Homer would be able to deepen their appreciation of the simile’s import. They would bring to their reading of Milton an awareness that Virgil uses the same image to describe the entrance of people to the underworld, whilst Homer uses it when the warrior Glaucus dismisses the importance of genealogy. A novice learner would have no way of arriving at these conclusions, or to appreciate how Milton is positioning himself via the simile amongst the pantheon of literary greats. The equation this time is thus something like this (A + B + C + D + E ) = F, where the totality of what is contained in the bracket is arguably of more value than the sum it generates – it sits outside of it, marking the simile itself as some kind of vehicle of meaning.

  1. Threshold – Conceptualisation of the failings of figurative language

If the last threshold was characterised by an appreciation of the ability to use tradition to build meaning in the present, then this next threshold transforms the learner into a position where the very notion of meaning itself is destabilised. This rejection of the power and certainty of knowledge, or rather knowledge of a certain, imperfect kind, is provided by the insights of criticism and theory. As we have seen, after the initial stages of the simile, which describe the number of fallen angels on the floor of hell, Milton deliberately obscures his comparison.

He likens Satan to Orion, a constellation represented by the figure of an armed man and believed to be attended by stormy weather. In Hebrew scripture the Red Sea is called sedgy sea, so ladened it is with thick weeds. So Milton appears to be suggesting that Orion – and the way he tosses aside the voluminous sedge with his mighty gusts – is like Satan, and the heroic manner in which he is rousing the multitude of the fallen host to fight on from a position of his own despair. Critic Geoffrey Hartman calls this overt kind of forward motion the plot of the simile.

Yet Milton soon blurs this pagan identification. He disrupts the forward motion of the plot, as indicated above, with a simultaneous backwards motion, which Hartman calls the counter plot. Whilst Satan may be like the wind Orion, he is also to be seen in his Christian manifestation, as the God whose intervention destroys the Egyptians, resulting in their carcasses washing up on the shores of the Red Sea. In the story of Exodus the waves part to allow the Israelites (The Sojourners of Goshen) to pass, before closing up again on the chasing Egyptian army (Busiris and his Memphian Chivalry).

Milton uses the Latin name Busiris to mean Pharaoh, and what is interesting to note is that biblical history associates Busiris with Satan. What this means in terms of the simile is that whilst Satan is Orion, blowing aside the waves of the Red Sea to allow the Egyptians to flee to safety, he is also at the same time Busiris, destroying himself just as he attempts to destroy God’s faithful. Using Hartman’s idea of the counter plot, it is thus possible to see how Milton uses the simile to show the true nature of his view of Satan: seemingly glorious and attractive but ultimately deluded by his own impartial understanding and so prone to self-destruction. The final equation might read something like this (A + B + C + D + E) + F = G, where the interpretation of Busiris (F) is added to the individual and cumulative elements of the simile to arrive at the final reading of Satan as G. Either that or it might read (A + B + C + D + E) < F, since the simile fails to reveal a full understanding of Satan.

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Final comment

Obviously, I appreciate that much of the discussion above is the stuff of university undergraduate courses. But what I hope I have shown through the example of the Miltonic simile, is the way that Threshold Concepts can provide a valuable means of helping teachers to understand what they are going to need to teach students and in what sequence in order for students to achieve mastery. I also think that threshold concepts allow teachers to understand their subject or discipline better and work out what gaps they may have in their own understanding. The next move would be to show how it is possible to break down each of these thresholds into specific, practical items for day-to-day learning. I think, however, that requires another post of all its own.

Thank you for reading.

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Miltonic Vision Part I: Trivium 21C, Threshold concepts and the power of ‘powerful knowledge’

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A few years ago, at my previous school, I taught Milton’s Paradise Lost for the first time. Whilst I had read some of the early books in my first year at university, I never managed to complete the poem and I certainly didn’t think I knew it. The thought of teaching such as challenging text to my A2 class was a little to daunting to the say the least. Faced with this vulnerability and my commitment to teach the best of my ability, I did what I always do to prepare: I hit the books.

As you can see from the picture below, getting the time to read what I should have learnt at university was not easy. Somehow, despite the clammerings of a small person, I managed to find the time to learn a lot about the poem – about Milton, his incredible life and his fascinating, yet extremely complex, religious beliefs. The more I read of and about Paradise Lost the more I understood the complexity of the poem, and the more I could enjoy and appreciate its beauty.

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Teacher subject knowledge

Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about my experiencing of teaching Paradise Lost. I suppose the hours I put in to learning the poem are an expression of my belief in the primacy of strong teacher subject knowledge as the key to great teaching – the deep understanding that helps a teacher to guide students to exam success and, perhaps more importantly, fosters a love of learning that remains after exams have been sat and results received. For me, strong teacher subject knowledge operates as both means and ends: ‘means’ as a way to inspire, challenge, provoke, articulate and clarify; ‘ends’ as promotion of the ideal that beauty and complexity are goals in and of themselves.

A lot has been written of late about the importance of strong subject knowledge. I have certainly seen it side-lined in teacher education and training programmes, which too often favour the generic at the expense of the domain specific. I have also seen the marginalisation of teacher subject knowledge in the national curriculum (and hence in the classroom), which has focused more on all encompassing themes and developing skills and less on exploring the intricate networks of knowledge that exist within and across disciplines. The dominant mood has seemed to be that teaching comes first, and knowledge of the subject comes second. It is encouraging to see this imbalance being readdressed, with excellent suggestions here, here, here and here on how to improve initial and ongoing teacher training, as well as curriculum design.

Powerful knowledge

So far I have been focusing on the knowledge of the teacher and how the relative strength of that knowledge can impact the relative strength of the learning within the classroom. Of course, the end point is obviously the learners themselves – and our job is surely to ensure that all students have the opportunity to access, engage and wrestle with the knowledge that is organised and accumulated within disciplines. I am particularly drawn to Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful knowledge’ in this regard. Unlike my use of the term ‘strong subject knowledge’ – though important, is ultimately more orientated towards the teacher rather than the student – the term ‘powerful knowledge’ distinguishes between ‘knowledge of the powerful’, the knowers of knowledge, and ‘powerful knowledge’ which is concerned with the intrinsic power of knowledge in itself. The entitlement for every young person in education.

Future School 3

‘Powerful knowledge’ lies at the heart of what Young and others describe in their excellent book Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice. The Future School 3 curriculum model is one of three possible curriculum models open to us in the years to come. Young et al argue that Future School 3 is the best way to achieve a fair and equitable knowledge entitlement for all learners, regardless of background and context. Their model runs counter to what they see as the two curriculum ideologies that have dominated the educational system of the past – Future School 1 and Future School 2.

Future School 1 treats knowledge as largely fixed and the role of the teacher as the deliverer of static bodies of learning to future generations. Its model is ‘compliance’ and ‘transmission’ and is characterised by adherents of the Arnoldian belief in the ‘best which has been thought and said.’ Future School 2 reacts against this thesis on the basis that it is elitist and removed from the lives of young people today, particularly in the digital age. It believes knowledge is changeable and the curriculum should be constructed from and for the experiences of learners in the real world. This is the curriculum model, to a lesser or greater extent, that I have seen dominate my time in education.

Future School 3, however, rejects both these positions and for me offers an exciting way of aligning the way that teachers make use of strong subject knowledge within their subjects to the idea of powerful knowledge accumulating for students across their experience of the whole curriculum. The Future School 3 model emphasises ‘powerful knowledge’ – not as a ‘given’, as with Future 1 – but as ‘fallible and ‘always open to change through the debates and research of particular specialist groups.’ In the Future School 3 framework disciplines collaborate with their learned communities (university departments, subject associations, etc) to create ‘curriculum based on engagement’ not adherence. This model helps learners develop powerful knowledge by deliberately taking them away from their own experiences – defamiliarising their worlds in order to represent them with alternative realities filled with possibility and scope.

It seems to me that one of the most profound possibilities of a Future 3 curriculum is that students are likely to better equipped to ask meaningful questions about the worlds in which they inhabit both now and in the future. I think this is empowering and moral, and in many respects sits nicely alongside what I take to be the main thrust of Martin Robinson’s concept of Trivium 21C: that schools should teach students the facts or knowledge of a subject from the past (grammar), but also give them the necessary tools (rhetoric and dialectic) to be able to interrogate the validity of these truth claims so they can shape their futures. A synthesis of past and present – not from outside in, but from inside out.

Young’s delineation of ‘powerful knowledge’, which I have barely even sketched, also dovetails with another theoretical model I have been mulling over for some time now, Meyer and Land’s notion of Threshold Concepts. I particularly like the way that Powerful Knowledge and Threshold Concepts are both concerned with the underpinnings of disciplines, and how they focus on what is true to subjects in their purest form, not interpretations of them by exam boards, which have become increasingly detached from their learned communities. The way I see it ‘powerful knowledge’ effectively lays out the ideal of what we want our young people to be taught; the Trivium’s grammar, rhetoric and dialectic offer a means of making this simultaneously coherent whilst also open to the possibility of change through a combination of debate and synthesis. Threshold concepts can here become the overarching framework that recognises and identities the nature of progression within each of the disciplines as students inhabit the tension between knowledge of the past and experience of the present.

Paradise Regained

And this is where I return to Paradise Lost, and in particular to my experience of preparing to teach it for the first time. Whilst it would certainly have helped if I had learnt more about the poem during my time at university, the reality was that I was a first year undergraduate reading a incredibly complex text that I was not really equipped to read: my previous studies (which yielded an E at A level literature and a C and D in English language and Literature respectively in the age of 100% coursework!) had left me woefully unprepared for degree level study. I simply did not posses the requisite knowledge of Milton, of poetry, of Literature itself, to properly make sense of one of the finest works in the English Literary Heritage. I did not possess ‘powerful knowledge’.

Some years later as a teacher, through a combination of hard work and the support and kindness of number of inspiring, knowledgeable tutors, I returned to the poem again. By this time I had completed my degree as well as masters in literature. I could understand the poem much better – I understood much more how it worked, what Milton was up to and some of the ways in which he achieved his aims. Above all, I could appreciate the beauty of Paradise Lost, and why I thought it sill had considerable relevance to my life today. I had experienced the way that ‘powerful knowledge’ begets further ‘powerful knowledge’ – the oft quoted, and rather fittingly given the Christian context of the poem, Matthew Effect.

In the second part of this post I intend to look at the poem itself. In particular I want to look closely at Milton’s use of the epic simile as a way of exploring the inherent power of ‘powerful knowledge’ in a little more depth. In this post I wanted to tie together my thoughts about how I think schools can create the conditions where strong teacher subject knowledge meet powerful student knowledge. I hope I have at least partially achieved this aim. Maybe.