The power of exploratory writing

The piece below was written many years ago by a Year 9 pupil, Kanika, for a colleague of mine (@craigbmorrison) at Parkside Community College, Cambridge. It illustrates, I think, some features of what might be termed ‘exploratory’ writing – developing response, understanding and expression without recourse to P.E.E or P.E.T.A.L. or other formulae, and without adherence to the conventions of an ‘analytical paragraph’, of ‘academic style’, or of an exam ‘answer’. Emerging from talk, it maintains, throughout, a sense of dialogue – between the pupil and herself, and between the pupil and the text.

In the piece, Kanika is exploring this single camera shot from Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), which she chose to write about following a classroom discussion of a number of different film versions of Act 1, Scene 7.

‘In the first clip, Macbeth is having dinner at his party with King Duncan. Everyone is laughing and eating merrily, but Macbeth is nervous and distracted. The camera pans from left to right, and moves from Lady Macbeth, across Duncan, to Macbeth.

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‘Lady Macbeth is on the right side – the future side. She is wearing a white dress which connotes purity and goodness, although she is planning to murder someone. It shows that she is living her lie, and deceiving everyone with the idea of her being innocent and good. She also has her “false face” on, and fits in with the crowd. There is meat on the table, which hints that there will be another dead body soon. Lady Macbeth is eating ravenously – it is like her hunger for power – she can’t get enough of it and will be as ungracious to get it as she needs to be.

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‘The camera pans across to King Duncan, who is happy and warm – completely unaware of what is going to happen to him. He feeds a little dog some scraps, showing how caring he is and how he wouldn’t harm anyone. The music is jolly which contrasts with Macbeth’s morbid thoughts.

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‘There is an extreme close-up of Macbeth’s face He is staring off into space with no clear goal, showing how he is completely in his own world. The camera is angled so you can just see the crown on Duncan’s head in the background, like it is in Macbeth’s thoughts.

‘He isn’t eating anything because he’s nervous and can’t eat while he’s thinking of something so morbid and disgusting. This makes us have a little sympathy for him because murder obviously isn’t in his nature, and his reaction gives us the impression that he’s being made to do something that he really doesn’t want to.

‘Macbeth isn’t joining in the party because he doesn’t feel happy and he cannot pretend to be.

‘This relates back to Lady Macbeth saying she could read his face “like a book”. Again, it gives us the impression that he is sensitive – also the fact that he is really nervous – so we believe that Macbeth is incapable of murder. Of course he is, so it is a misleading idea – which could either mean that Macbeth is actually a deceptive character – or just that he has different sides to his personality, like everyone.

‘Even if he is a murderer, and the audience know that he is, this still makes him a bit more human – so either way, it gives the audience more sympathy for Macbeth, instead of fear etc.

‘The fact that we don’t see Macbeth speak, we just hear the voice over, makes us feel that we know more about him – have more insight into his character. It gives us, as the audience, more power – it is like we are conspirators with him. It also makes it more realistic because you wouldn’t suddenly blurt out something like that in the middle of a party.’

Kanika, Year 9

The depth of analysis and understanding reflects the power of working with film. However, this could have been a piece about prose, poetry, drama or non-fiction.

Register and purpose

In the first paragraph, Kanika instinctively offers a brief encapsulation of the clip. As well as describing the camera shot, she summarises the emotional content and – therefore – the dramatic tension and dramatic irony in the moment. There is an innocence in Kanika’s reference to Macbeth’s ‘party’, and this incongruity of language recurs several times throughout the piece: ‘Everyone is laughing’, Lady Macbeth is planning to murder someone’ and she ‘fits in with the crowd.’ This culminates, rather wonderfully, in the bathos of the last sentence, with its disarming common sense: ‘It also makes it more realistic because you wouldn’t suddenly blurt out something like that in the middle of a party.’

This naivety of register clearly undermines the academic authority of the writing. But that doesn’t matter here. It reflects the intention of the piece, which is not meant to be an academic essay. It is meant to be an exploration, not a presentation; a sort of stream of consciousness, rather than an obedient performance of knowledge. And that’s the point. You can sense the learning happening as she writes, especially where she is teasing out possibilities:

‘This relates back to Lady Macbeth saying she could read his face “like a book”. Again, it gives us the impression that he is sensitive – also the fact that he is really nervous – so we believe that Macbeth is incapable of murder. Of course he is, so it is a misleading idea – which could either mean that Macbeth is actually a deceptive character – or just that he has different sides to his personality, like everyone.’

The exploratory approach is reflected in the structure, which doesn’t present a big idea and then look for evidence, or start with a conclusion and work backwards; rather, Kanika describes the action and the camera work in chronological order, and then reflects on these as she goes along. Her analysis grows organically out of her observations, rather than being delivered fully formed. So she describes Lady Macbeth, whom we see first, and notes the possible significance of her appearance and her actions, before ‘panning’ with the camera to Duncan… and so on.

Growing understanding

This also works at paragraph and sentence level. There is no ‘P.E.E.’ – no ‘point, evidence and explanation’ forcing her thinking. Rather, there are observations, followed by resultant thoughts and emerging insights. So a description of the action might lead to an interpretative idea, synthesising prior knowledge of character with a growing awareness of figurative intent:

‘Lady Macbeth is eating ravenously – it is like her hunger for power – she can’t get enough of it and will be as ungracious to get it as she needs to be.’

Sometimes, these observations are of technical features; Kanika then draws upon her prior knowledge of those features and of how they create meaning, to shape her analysis:

‘There is an extreme close-up of Macbeth’s face He is staring off into space with no clear goal, showing how he is completely in his own world. The camera is angled so you can just see the crown on Duncan’s head in the background, like it is in Macbeth’s thoughts.’

In this exploratory mode, thoughts are allowed to develop and grow, from subjective feeling into considered analysis:

‘The fact that we don’t see Macbeth speak, we just hear the voice over, makes us feel that we know more about him – have more insight into his character. It gives us, as the audience, more power – it is like we are conspirators with him.’

In this example, ‘know more about him’ is translated, in the moment, into the more technical ‘have more insight into his character’. In Vygotskyan terms, Kanika is consciously converting a ‘spontaneous’ into a ‘scientific’ concept. She then develops this into a consideration of the relationship between text and audience – of agency and positioning: ‘It gives us, as the audience, more power…’ This, in turn, leads her to touch on the problematic moral positioning of the audience in Macbeth: ‘…it is like we are conspirators with him.’ In just two sentences, Kanika has enacted the journey we might want pupils to take as they develop into critics: from felt response, to observation, to abstraction, to critical insight and so to a new, reflexive understanding of what it is to be a reader.

Particularly clear in this paragraph, but evident throughout I think, is a sense of pleasure. The exploratory shaping of the whole piece, of paragraphs and of sentences maps the pleasurable pursuit and discovery of meaning. There is a sense throughout of intellectual rigour stemming from a pleasurable engagement with the text.

Scaffolding & authenticity

It’s important to stress that exploratory doesn’t mean unsupported; such writing can still be scaffolded to provide support and challenge as appropriate. In Kanika’s writing, the progress of the camera shot – panning and closing in to reveal new details – provides structure. In theory, it could also have been scaffolded at sentence level: the language which maps Kanika’s understanding of how meanings are being made (‘connotes’, shows’, ‘which hints’, ‘makes us… because…’, ‘showing how’, ‘gives us the impression’, ‘could either mean… or…’, ‘gives the audience’, ‘makes us feel’, ‘insight into’) suggests the sort of phrases which might be offered to pupils as scaffolding, as does the language she uses to connect the film to her knowledge of the play (‘which contrasts with’, ‘This relates back to…’)

And, of course, Kanika is not doing all of this in isolation. She is responding to rich classroom discussion and to ongoing teaching. But what is maintained is authenticity. There is a sense of Kanika being a real reader, engaging in her own dialogue with the text. And there is a sense of her being a real writer, developing her own critical voice, rather than obediently imitating someone else’s. The roughness of her writing is actually important. She is not trying anxiously to meet the success criteria of the perfect ‘analytical paragraph’. She’s only in Year 9 and has plenty of time to hone the crafting of succinct GCSE exam answers. (Indeed, she went on to do so easily, securing an A* in both English and English Literature.)

Approaches to the teaching and assessing of English which focus, too early, on formula-led ‘analytical paragraphs’, or on GCSE-style questions, risk denying pupils the chance to develop an authentic critical sensibility and an authentic critical voice. Some pupils, of course, will do so anyway, transcending or even thriving on such discipline. But many will form an association of English with the production of trained ‘answers’ rather than with pleasurable exploration – an association suspected by many of contributing to the fall in numbers opting for English Literature at A-Level.

At Key Stage 3, there has been an increasing tendency – partly driven by assessment – to get pupils writing in as academic-sounding a way as possible, as early as possible. Rather, I would suggest that the aim should be to build the foundations upon which such things can be built properly, when they are actually needed.

See also: Developing critical readers: preparing students for GCSE English Language reading papers

See also: From page to screen and back again: teaching Shakespeare through film and film through Shakespeare

See also: The importance of ‘extended writing at Key Stage 3

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