Saturday, 16 February 2008

Cheers for call to drop 'Orwellian' language in education

An insightful speaker raised a massive cheer from the audience at an education conference this week.

No, he had not called for a doubling of teachers' pay, the abolition of national tests, or even a ban on lumpy custard in school canteens.

No, his rallying cry was much simpler and involves no complex administrative changes or financial costs.

Yet it went to the heart of what education is about.

He urged everyone to stop talking about "delivery" in education and to return to talking about "teaching".

The speaker was Professor Richard Pring, of Oxford University, and he was not just being fussy about the use of language.

His point was that education has been taken over by an "Orwellian language" which has started to control the way we think and act.

Professor Pring is the lead author of a report, published this week by the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training, which looks at how the aims and values of education have come to be "dominated by the language of management".

So when judging schools and universities we now talk about "performance indicators" as a substitute for assessing the quality of their teaching.

Learning has to be measured by an "audit" of the qualifications achieved rather than a more qualitative judgement of what students have learned.

This approach has certainly driven policy in adult education, where courses that do not lead to an accredited qualification seem to be dismissed as mere hobbies by policy-makers.

A quick look at any recent government documents quickly provides further examples.

For example, they talk about "new providers" instead of schools.

'What is education for?'

Repeated phrases refer to "efficiency gains", "choice for customers", "the market", and "funding systems that respond to customer demand".

The phraseology of "inputs" and "outputs" is more like the language of industrial production than of education.

It implies there is an exact specification for the finished product.

The Nuffield paper wonders whether we have lost sight of earlier descriptions of education such as "the conversation between the generations of mankind" (Michael Oakeshott) or an introduction to "the best that has been thought and said" (Matthew Arnold)?

I suppose this could seem unfair. After all, the authors of government documents are not attempting to do the same thing as philosophers of education.

Yet this matters because the language we use shapes the answers to the question: "what is education for?"

And there is no doubt that it is the model of workforce preparation and employability that currently dominates the current education discourse.

Hence we now have "enterprise" as a compulsory part of the school curriculum, while history, geography and foreign languages are no longer required after the age of 14. Read more

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