Learning Lessons about Language #EduDiscourse

I was on the end of a teachable moment recently. In fact two teachable moments. And I’m very grateful for them.

For reasons I can’t be bothered to go into, I’d tweeted a link to this blog post from a few months ago. In that post, I critiqued a particular view about differentiation. I received this tweet in reply from @lazymum:

A short while later, I received this tweet from @nancygedge:

Nancy then clarified with this tweet:

In the resulting conversation, Nancy made an excellent point about the medicalising nature of the language that is employed around SEND. I’m sure there must be a whole bunch of interesting research which has been done around this, and I’d be glad of any links anyone might be able to provide to such work.

In the day or so since this conversation, I’ve been thinking about how this links in with my thoughts around the kind of language that we generally use in the field of education, and specifically in teaching. I had been planning to continue my critique of the language of teaching job adverts, and I still might, but a more productive avenue of contemplation would be to consider the ways in which our everyday language in the classroom, the staffroom, in meetings and so on, might reflect the nature of the discourses which flow through and inform our thinking. There is a close association between language and thought, and the way that we speak about the children in our care is, naturally, closely associated with the ways in which we think about them – there is some debate, I believe, about which comes first.

I remember during my B.Ed being taught about labelling theory and its implications and effects in education, and I think it’s probably fair to say that we have all seen examples of it. And yet we allow a plethora of labelling within education in the UK, often making use of initialisms or acronyms. SEN, of course, is one but add to that FSM, G&T (which has now developed into the rather unfortunate acronym MAGAT) and so on. We know that teacher expectations can have an impact on outcomes for pupils, and yet much of our discourse is around the deliberate and specific labelling of children one way or another. Sometimes, it isn’t about these deliberate labels. In daily practice in schools, it could be something as trivial as having “top”, “middle”, or “bottom” sets. I’m wondering about the nature of awards and certificates that we routinely give out in schools – what are they called? What are they celebrating? What do these suggest about the culture of the school? What does the school really value, and how does this compare with what the school claims to value?

Labelling also occurs with regard to staff, of course. The infamous aspirational Outstanding – a word which oozes through the educational discourse like a thick pus – is a holy grail in teaching, despite Ofsted’s opting to no longer grade individual lessons or teachers.

I’d like this reflection of the language of education to continue, and I would be grateful for any observations that you might have about the kinds of language which, if we were to just stop and think about it, we might see as problematic. Please comment below, or tweet me @sputniksteve.

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One thought on “Learning Lessons about Language #EduDiscourse

  1. One that bugs me is the use of the word delivery.. which seems to have replaced the word teaching .. and should really apply to letters not lessons. There is also the use of ability when attainment is really what’s meant.. these terms carry very different meanings.. OFSTED don’t seem to get this and insist on identifying progress of ability groups, which gives the impression that potential is fixed not fluid.

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