Watch your language

The words and metaphors we use to talk about education shape our perceptions of it - and it’s time to revisit our vocabulary, says Oxford University’s Richard Pring.

When a school or a teacher's performance's grade of 'satisfactory' is said to mean 'unsatisfactory', you know that the language of education is in crisis. The pupils who are judged to be ‘satisfactory’ (I mean 'unsatisfactory') recognise a contradiction when they see one. When 'free schools' (freed, that is, from local accountability) are enslaved through contract to the person of the Secretary of State with minimal accountability to Parliament, then again 'the intelligence is bewitched by the use of language'.

Worse still is the management speak, unheard of only a couple of decades ago, whereby teachers become 'deliverers of the curriculum', head-teachers become 'chief executives', deputy heads part of the 'line management', which operates through 'setting targets' (delivered from target creators outside the school), assessed by 'performance indicators' which are regularly 'audited' with a view to improving the performance of the 'customer' or 'client'. At times one is not quite sure whether it is Lewis Carol or George Orwell who is in charge of education.  It certainly is not the teachers.

Language matters. It shapes how we see and understand the world. Pick the wrong metaphor and the world we inhabit gets distorted. That is why Wittgenstein said that the main task of the philosopher was to help people realise that what was hidden nonsense is in fact patent nonsense. So watch your language.

Michael Oakeshott, by contrast, spoke of education as an initiation into the 'conversation between the generations of mankind' in which young people (and old, for that matter) come to acquire and appreciate the voice of poetry, the voice of science, the voice of religion, the voice of philosophy. Think what a difference the change of metaphor makes to our understanding of how children learn and the significance of that which is learnt.

For example, science arises from a critical conversation between generations of scientists. 'Knowledge grows through criticism', as Karl Popper argued, and the present state of scientific knowledge is always open to further development in the light of further criticism and evidence. Learning science is a struggle to get on the inside of such a conversation, to gradually grasp the key ideas which structure the conversation. How different learning is thereby seen and understood from when it is a matter of hitting easily measurable targets. The learning can be at different levels of sophistication. It is always part of a journey in which each stage is built on the level of understanding and appreciation of the previous stage. The conversation takes place at different levels of sophistication, but the good teacher recognises this and gradually elevates the level of understanding and participation.

The implications of this for teaching and assessing are immense. First, as in all conversations the learners need to get a grip of the key ideas which shape it, and to learn how to apply them – the correct contexts, the logical connections with other ideas. The grasp of such ideas is never complete, always growing through new challenges and experiences. Assessment can rarely be, when in areas of significant learning, a matter of the young person being right or wrong, but rather of that person more or less understanding or having a partial understanding.  

Professor Richard Pring was lead director of the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training and is a Research Fellow in the Department of Education at Oxford University

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