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.

The Blob lives on thanks to Gove reforms

I recently had the great privilege and pleasure of working with a group of SCITT trainees, talking about the use of research in education.

It was inspiring to see such enthusiasm and professionalism from a varied group of people, covering a range of ages and backgrounds. It was refreshing to see people excited about teaching and pedagogy.

The guy who is in charge of this particular SCITT is a wonderful eccentric, brimming with the fervour of a man who loves his job.

The whole experience made me feel quite positive about the future of the teaching profession if these folks are a fair reflection of those entering it.

However, during our conversations I was stunned to hear some of the dreadful and depressing things that these guys are being told in schools.

For some context, SCITT programmes are school-based teacher training courses which give trainees a focused on-the-job training route. In this particular case, trainees come together in a “hub” to reflect and share practice. So, it isn’t the hub as such that trains them; it is the staff within he schools who do that.

Such programmes help to fulfil Michael Gove’s desire to wrench teacher training out of the hands of the progressives who (apparently) run education departments in universities and who fill trainees’ heads with dangerous and harmful ideas about student-centred teaching and so on. Instead, trainees get trained in schools, by teachers and school leaders who can shape new teachers in their own image, grounded in the realities of daily practice and with a true desire to drive up educational standards instead of being “enemies of promise”.

There is a slight flaw in the plan which is this: Schools are too often dens of deceit and untruths. Schools protect and feed myths as if suffering Stockholm syndrome. It isn’t the education departments of universities that are the Blob, but schools themselves that are riddled with ideologies, and driven by paranoia and self-preservation that are doing Bad Things in the vain hope of achieving Something Good.

For instance, many of the trainees were astonished to discover that VAK is #EduLasagne.

Many more were gob smacked when I showed them the Ofsted handbook and Guidance for Schools documents which clearly state that they don’t need to see a lesson plan. One poor chap showed me his file of lesson plans that he’d had to produce during a recent Ofsted inspection – which all teachers in the school had been told to do. Their lesson plans had to detail timings for every little bit of the lesson; they were told that if Ofsted came into their lesson and they weren’t at the point the plan specified at that time, then they would be penalised. This was not a unique anecdote within the group.

Another trainee mentioned that her school demands data entry every three weeks. This data includes a level (yes, the ones that don’t exist anymore), and grades for effort, behaviour and so on. Every. Three. Weeks.

Numerous trainees told me of their school marking policies which are filled with green pen and a system which sounds entirely like triple marking. Again, the reaction to the section of the Handbook on marking was palpable.

One particularly frustrated young man asked me, “So if Ofsted don’t want us to do all this stuff, why are we doing it?”

Everyone looked at me expectantly, their eyes filled with the hope that I would be able to give them an answer which might save them from the ridiculousness of it all.

“That’s a good question,” I replied.