Sunday, June 29, 2008

7 'bad language' habits in learning

My first beef is the word 'learner'. Imagine walking into a room and calling the people in the office, library or cafe - 'learners'. They're not learners, they're people. But there's lots more...
1. Language of learning as work and punishment
“Have you finished your work? Have you done your homework? Get down to work. Stop working now. Show your working. This is how you work it out. I’ve finished my work, Miss.”
Research by Guy Claxton has shown that teachers unwittingly use the inappropriate language of industrial labour, for learning. This turns learning into a series of chores or tasks to be completed. It’s the language of closure, not learning. Completion, not competence, becomes the goal. Learning is further presented as a series of tasks that sound like punishments. To lecture someone in the real world is to patronize and talk down to them. To teach someone a lesson is to punish them.
2. Language of behaviourism
The lecturer, trainer, instructor are all rooted in deeply behaviourist models of didactic instruction. Is there anything more inappropriate than the job title Lecturer? We know that the 1 hour lecture is a hopeless method of learning. We also know that many lecturers are actually researchers, who are sometimes unskilled even unenthusiastic about teaching. There are few professions where the basic skills (teaching) are so loosely acquired, taught or evaluated. And in the training world, you train horses don’t you?
3. Language of time and place
Taking a class is another giveaway, suggesting that learning is synonymous with sitting in a room and being talked at. We have autumn, winter, spring and summer terms {prison-terms?), something you have to get through. Schools have other echoes of prison – gates, uniforms, corridors, incarceration interrupted by short exercise periods and detention.
4. Language of profession
And lastly, we have odious, professional jargon; the words learning styles, kinaesthetic, pedagogy, metacognition, learning objectives, competences and so on. There is no need to expose people to this nonsense. Ordinary language is just fine.
5. Language of opposites
A sort of apartheid exists in British education, between academic and vocational, between knowledge and skills. We foolishly want to mirror this in A-levels versus Apprenticeships. Much of this is simply linguistic. The boundaries, in real life, are massively blurred. We’d do well to stop using these artificially opposed and falsely exclusive words.
6. Language of assessment
Language of assessment is the language of fear and failure. We sit exams and tests. We pass or fail. It’s a red pen culture, where failure is failure, not an opportunity to try again, overcome and succeed. It’s the finality of failure – no second chances that make it all so depressing.
7. Language of accreditation
If the language of assessment isn’t bad enough, the English accreditation system has produced bewildering layers of confusing language and brands. As a student and parent the world of GCSEs and A-levels will quickly unravel into: Foundation and Higher levels, KS1, KS2, KS3, KS4, Levels 1-8. Then there’s the crazy fact that each subject has several awarding bodies, each with their own variants on the curriculum – AQA A, AQA B, Edexcel A, Edexcel B, OCR, NICCEA, WJEC. Then there are BTECs and dozens of other vocational acronyms. I’d be surprised if it’s any different in other countries.
Promote language of learning, not teaching
At West Kidlington school they’ve tried to shift the language of learning towards positive values. They have 22 words; trust, respect, quality, responsibility, unity, peace, thoughtfulness, happiness, patience, care, appreciation, honesty, understanding, love, friendship, humility, hope, simplicity, tolerance, courage, cooperation and freedom.
I like this but feel that this language is a bit abstract. It’s the everyday language of a school that determines its culture. It’s the language of encouragement, not censure and closure; let’s try, how come, how could. There’s Kipling’s ‘who, what, where, why, when and how’, pushing students to probe, explore and push beyond the task.
We need to simply stop defining learning as work, homework, lessons, classes, lectures and redefine these as aspirational activities; sessions, challenges, projects and clubs. Then there’s the avoidance of terms of incarceration. A school is not a prison, the school gate is not the prison door, and attainment, not attendance, is the aim. As for teachers, lecturers, instructors and trainers, surely tutors, coaches and mentors would be better. The branding of qualifications simply needs to adhere to Occam’s razor – the smallest number of entities to reach a give goal. Keep it simple stupid. Much of the language of learning is actually the language of teaching. In business the language of sales is the language of the customer, not the vendor. We need the language of batting, not bowling.
The language of the web is, I think, a good place to look for trends. It is the language of inclusion – myspace, facebook, youtube and so on. We could also learn from the language of games - challenge, game, play, player – to motivate students.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Donald!

I so much agree with your analysis of the misuse of words to do with learning. And it is a misuse.

My hunch is that it is a hangover from the work-ethic-driven times when jobs were not done until everything, and I mean everything, was 'finished' and 'complete'. For some who lived through those times there was almost a 'holiness' associated with doing work and completing it.

I'm a Scot. I must admit that the thorough teaching techniques that came out of Scotland carried with them the language of the working-class. You had to do work to complete the tasks to finish the job - sigh!

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful. A lot to be learned from this. This blog is becoming a very relevant learning experience. I am trying to share this with all learning professionals I come across. As a parent, I shall watch out for these words. Thanks

Donald Clark said...

This language does indeed have Victorian, industrial roots kept alive by the dominance of a Calvinistic ethos in education. Interestingly we only had the creation of professional training after the two world wars, where there was the need to skill up large numbers of uskilled people to work in armaments factories. This was whe traiing was cleaved off as a separate department. The third influence was the more acncient latinate, medieval world of the early European Universities - degrees, lectures etc.

We're stuck in several liguistic time warps.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. It's no surprise to me that huge numbers of kids are turned off learning & turned on to gaming.

It's interesting that many of the alternatives you give are now being used increasingly in adult learning in recognition that many of the learners have been disallusioned by the the whole process when at school.

In a recent consultation by the Scottish Government on the modernisation of the exam process in school, they indicated a desire to hold on to Highers and the associated memory test exam system of assessment as "it has a pedigree going back to the late 19th century" & therefore must be good!!!

They've totally missed the point - perhaps I should email them the link to your blog ...

Paul said...

Excellent post.

One of the other cruxes of the problem though, is that these old verbal constructs are so ingrained into culture and language that trying to oust them becomes - or at least seems to be - a rather herculean task. Even for those of us that notice when others use these terms, we will subconsciously utter them ourselves when answering a question. In other cases it's a matter of the fact that work in the industry is driven by these words, effective communication of industry ideas being tied to these terms or usages. So changing the vernacular takes on an air of deep complexity.

I've always found the word "train" to be problematic. The word has such a linear, monodirectional connotation to it. Just say the word: "train". It sounds like an act of commanding information onto others. Not a good picture if you ask me. I would much prefer the proliferation of a better identifier.

Paul said...

I very much agree with the sentiments of this post. The problem is in how we change a vernacular that is so automatic to so many people. Even within the industry, several of these words are used without question to what they imply or the connnotation they impart.

For my part, I've always found the word "train" or "training" problematic. It seems to connote that information is being commanded down from on high. It's a very inneffective word IMO, and one with a less than positive connotation, especially in the corporate world.

I like the ideas for changing vernacular where children are involved. Rewording these activities could mean the difference between the sighing "aw mom!" and a more positive response

Donald Clark said...

Nice observation on adult learning. In my experience, the older you get the more you shed all of the institutional vocabulary and attitudes to learning. Indeed, the fact that you are 'learning' becomes invisible.

I'm no stranger to the Scottish system, and you're right - it's trapped in the shackles of Calvinism that go back to the 16th century.

Donald Clark said...

This is a key issue. Meaning is use. However, we have seen more learner-centric language emerge. The use of 'work' laguage should be easy to fix through learning if the institutions are willing to change. Ufortunately, they have adopted a hard line academic approach with lecturers, lectures and the language of academe. I always flinch when I hear the term Professor of E-learning. It's totally inappropriate.

bernsch said...

I stumbled on your comments and agree completely. Language can do a lot to muddy the waters. The language I find distasteful is the use of the words 'easy', 'simple', 'just' and 'merely' - you get the idea. They're used a lot in computing manuals. The fact is that the steps described are not necessarily simple for everybody. But the language does enforce the separation of those with the skills from those striving to gain them.

Diego Leal said...

Hi there!

Great post. Now I wonder how much this 7 habits do apply to my context (I'm writing from Bogotá, Colombia), because we really don't use the idea of detention, for example.

I agree with you about the need to stop thinking about learning as work. And I wonder if there's any relation between this use of language, and the role that some teachers feel they have to play. I really think that if we (teachers) recognize ourselves as learners, that new role will have a concrete impact on the language we use.

I just added you to my reader.



Anonymous said...

Dear Donald,

thank you very much for this issue thinking about my own language usage und habits. Besides the individual aspects it is also a matter of the institutionalized usage of words. And it needs a change in behavior too. Do I automatically behave better when I speak "good" words? - I am not quiet sure ;)

Anonymous said...

I agree with some of your points about institutional culture and language.

But I feel what you say re the language of assessment is over-simplified - the examples you give really relate to older models of assessment heavily focused on exams. Newer models of assessment are not pass/fail and do not rely on 'finality of failure'.

Also, we shouldn't deny that hard work has a place in learning. I've always enjoyed the fun, creative side of learning but a few things I've learned which I highly prize have involved hard, difficult work.

Anonymous said...

I'm another new 'convert' to your blog (and also Scottish… mmm…)

As a teacher of English, I have become more and more disgruntled at the use of writing as a punishment exercise. I'm trying to encourage pupils to enjoy writing for writing's sake, and as soon as they step out of line (It's so hard to escape the language of the workshop!), they are given a piece of writing to do as a punishment…

I'm thinking seriously of giving them a drawing to do, or some extra maths, or a song to learn as a 'punishment' if they misbehave in my own department!

Donald Clark said...

Hi Neil
My 14 year old came home this week saying that he had loved his English class. A first in his 9 years at school! Why? The teacher had asked them to spend ten minutes using their camera phones to take a picture of a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. They then got down to the task of writing. It's all to do with motivation, I suspect.

Anonymous said...

What a great idea! I'm going to nick it for a class or two! ;0)

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