Sunday, 16 November 2014

Responding to media and politicians: a reflection

I have just seen a flurry of messages in response to the BBC article of Bernice McCabe's speech about language learning.

Every now and then there are articles like this which provoke reactions, some of which can be helpful responses, but some of which can be unhelpful.

For what it's worth, here are a few reflections on this process.

1)      Reporting technique ….

Sadly, the reporter has chosen a  ‘headline ‘ that blames teaching and teachers.
How much more useful it would have been if the headline chosen had been ‘schools are put off from offering language qualifications because ….  top grades in languages are harder to obtain than in many other subjects". 

2)      Language / Assumptions

Be aware of giving credence to implicit 'assumptions' in 'catch phrases' and false logic (commonly used by politicians ...)
By the phrasing ‘Language teachers should aim beyond "functional phrasebook competence" and encourage self-expression in pupils…’  there is an implied but false inference which many people will draw that that is all that language teachers are doing at the  moment. 

Just repeating the precise phrase like ‘functional phrasebook competence’ - ’ Berlitz phrasebook approach’ … gives it credibility.

And therefore  we must positively be asserting the range and breadth of what happens on a regular basis in schools .. the rich variety and imagination that is happening day in, day out in our schools … and we must not even get into appearing to tackle the original phrase because of the risk of giving it credibility.  Politicians are very good at this kind of ‘false logic’ leading to their ‘quick solution’.

[Here’s another, this time ‘made-up’ example of a false negative / derogatory assumption ‘Teachers should be more than people in school from 9  to 3.30’ …. and so they should swear an oath to extra-curricular activities’ … Discuss!  (Actually, don’t discuss!!! It was just to make the point!!!)]

Please let’s not fall into the trap of a knee-jerk reactions e.g. to falling numbers / low grades…. Or the ‘we must do something .. therefore this something is the solution’ ….

3)      The importance of assessment / grading

I'm pleased that the Headteacher talks about grading although she is wrong to use the word ‘perception’ of difficulty of-course, as we now know it is a reality, backed up by an Ofqual report.

We  must address the grading and assessment situation otherwise we are operating effectively with ‘one hand tied behind our back’  We  need to have a level playing field with other subjects

In itself, this will not solve all problems, but it is an essential first step. We know that there are many factors which contribute to pupils’ achievement and desire to continue a subject.  But the nature of the assessment and the way grade boundaries are set are key.  I really hope that with the changes to assessment and grade descriptors someone sensible will make the conditions appropriate for pupils to experience success in a fair system.

 4)      The assumption about teaching

I am concerned about some of the assumptions being made about teaching and the  nature of language teaching in this article. 

At the ALL Language World 2012 and 2013, it was heartening to hear such positive comments about teaching from Elaine Taylor, who was then the lead Ofsted inspector for languages.  This was based on the Ofsted report 'Modern languages: achievement and challenge 2007-2010'.  See in particular Pages 28 – 31 which reports on Teaching and learning. [Read it all.. don’t dwell on the negative – note that 2/3 of schools visited were good or outstanding,  and 1/9 were outstanding … only 1/90 was unsatisfactory].  I went up to her afterwards and thanked her for being so positive and encouraging, and I told her that too often I feel teachers are over self-critical.

There is such a danger of us beating ourselves up about the situation .. believing what the press reports.  Of-course there will sometimes be teachers who do not have such high standards, just as in any subject area but official reports do not highlight teacher competence as a particular problem for language teaching

 5)      Conclusion

Advice to myself! …. (but may help others!)
  • Don’t react to the headline – look at the whole article
  • Avoid giving credence to politicians' phrases by repeating them - even if it is to disagree with them
  • Accept that there are many factors which contribute to an issue
  • Keep stressing the need for reform of assessment and grade boundaries as an essential ‘first step’
  • Enlighten people about what actually happens in language lessons (where possible giving official evidence.. not only personal anecdote or gut-feeling)

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