Miss Tabatha Sheehan, Westonbirt School’s Head of English, explains how her revolutionary approach develops confidence, emotional and academic intelligence, and vital life skills.
She started writing at the age of five, books meticulously illustrated by her talented older brother, so it’s perhaps little surprise that Tabatha Sheehan channelled her love of language and literature into a teaching career. Here at Westonbirt School, she has spent the last few years instilling her passion into her department and students, pioneering a ground-breaking approach to English education in the process.
This approach has been celebrated with publications in academic journals, such as Eton’s CIRL and NATE’s Teaching English, which has even become recommended reading for PGCE students at the University of Bristol, already influencing the next generation of teachers.
Freedom and flexibility
After first teaching in the state sector, Miss Sheehan made the move to Westonbirt in 2017, where she found the opportunity to explore a revolutionary new teaching method.
“From the moment I set foot in the classroom in 2012, I fell in love with it,” she says. “But the state system necessitates a fairly rigid lesson structure, trying to teach over 30 children the information they needed in a relatively short space of time. When I moved to Westonbirt, I suddenly had the luxury of longer lessons and smaller class sizes, which meant everyone could contribute more and really get involved.”
This newfound freedom led Miss Sheehan to question some of the more traditional methods in English pedagogy. She explains, “Students are often spoon-fed what they should be thinking and saying about a piece of literature, and how they should convey that in essay form. Teachers and students can be afraid to allow discussion too, because there isn’t the time or capacity. But this can be limiting – it turns English into a tick-box exercise, which doesn’t always encourage students to develop and trust their own thinking when they study texts. Ultimately, it can limit their enjoyment and, worse, stunt their critical thinking skills.”
Meticulous research moves into the classroom
Determined to explore her beliefs further, Miss Sheehan started researching how our brains process information, culminating in her earning a place on the Oxford University MSc Learning and Teaching. The outcome of her work is a progressive teaching model, called PLE, which stands for pathos, logos and ethos. It provides students with an invaluable framework, which supports them through the process of understanding, analysing and writing about their course texts.
“The acronym PLE is rather cheekily borrowed from Aristotle, as many things are,” laughs Miss Sheehan. “He defined pathos, logos and ethos as the three modes of persuasion – essentially they are different ways to convince an audience about your subject, belief or vision. In an English Literature context, pathos can be your emotional response to a text, logos your reasoning for that response and ethos can be read as the social context or author’s moral message.
“PLE is very similar to our natural cognitive response to any stimuli, whether that’s a piece of poetry, an argument with a friend, or someone kicking you in the shin! We tend to have a physical and emotional reaction first, then we question how it happened, and finally we consider the wider context around us and the why. There are a lot of really important neurological studies, particularly in educational psychology, that discuss how we need to ‘hack’ into these processes to revolutionise teaching and learning and this is something that PLE and my research is allowing me to do.”
Over the last few years Miss Sheehan has carefully developed PLE as a unique tool, which helps her students develop their own interpretation of a text, strengthen their critical thinking and convey their arguments in sophisticatedly crafted essays.
“PLE helps students explore and extend their natural response to a piece of writing, then stretch that into high-level critical thinking,” she explains. “English is such a luxuriously discursive subject, and our approach here at Westonbirt enables students to really engage with a text, explore their response to it and trust their instinct. It isn’t always easy for students to make the leap from how a novel makes them feel to making a valid point in essay form, but PLE helps them bridge that gap.”
“Ultimately, it’s all about giving students the tools to engage with a text and develop the confidence to trust their own instincts. Of course, we are teaching children to write better essays, but we are also teaching them to think better too.
A ripple effect
With over 70% of Westonbirt’s A level English students gaining A* – B grades and more than 50% achieving top grades 8-9 at GCSE, PLE is certainly having an impact. But its benefits extend far beyond the classroom or examination hall. Once a child learns how to interpret and discuss their emotions and beliefs, they can also apply those skills to friendships and even family relationships.
“We are teaching far more than how to read a book or play and write a good essay about it – we are teaching students how to manage their feelings, to reason effectively and to use logic to solve ‘life problems’ too,” says Miss Sheehan. “They often tell me PLE has been helpful if they have had an argument with their parents, or fallen out with a friend – it scaffolds them as they try to understand why they feel the way they do and how to respond. If a student can say you’ve helped them in another context, outside the classroom, then you feel you have empowered them beyond the academics. Some of our alumni students have even been in contact to say that it is helping them outperform their classmates already at university too, which is really exciting.”
Of course, English isn’t all about critical thinking, it is about creativity too. “People aren’t necessarily born clever or creative,” adds Miss Sheehan. “There are some genetic components to if you’re an academic or an artist, but you can also choose to develop both.”
Whilst PLE helps students with their intellect, Miss Sheehan always wanted to help her students develop their creativity; encouraging them to immerse themselves in a new challenge at the start of each lesson. “The idea was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci,” she explains. “To make himself a better artist and scientist, he set himself a task or challenge every day of his life – like sketching the anatomy of a squirrel or jotting down 100 physics definitions.”
Miss Sheehan’s take on this involves giving each student a small ‘Da Vinci’ notebook and a list of 30 possible tasks. At the start of each lesson, pupils immerse themselves in their chosen challenge, which might involve writing down a series of questions about evolution or attempting self-portrait.
“It gives them time to engage with themselves, focus on being creative and stretch themselves,” she explains. “They learn to tackle something unexpected and think outside the box, which then makes them braver and boosts their confidence when it comes to critical thinking too.”
Incredible life skills
So, creative and critical skills aside, what else does studying English at Westonbirt give our pupils?
“In a more practical sense, it teaches time-keeping and organisational skills,” explains Miss Sheehan. “When it comes to sitting an exam or writing an essay, students learn how to prioritise their thoughts and figure out which points are the most important to include. I suppose it’s a bit like taking a suitcase to go on holiday – once you have boarded that flight, you accept what you had prepared to take with you.
“English students learn compassion, rational thinking and perspective, because engaging with a novel or poem helps you to understand what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s footsteps and helps you understand yourself. Of course, the subject is also utterly invaluable when it comes to communicating effectively in a variety of contexts and in both a written and verbal form.
“The importance of that can’t be underestimated. Ultimately, an ability to communicate well influences everything, from your university applications, to your relationships and your career. It’s an incredibly effective professional, personal and academic tool, but it’s also a life skill. We are not simply teaching students to read or write well, we are teaching them to become masters of themselves and the world around them. I have an excellent department here, who are all excellent and committed to this ethos and our pupils are really determined to do their best too – these are the real foundations for success.”