What if...? Learning beyond flag waving

26th October 2015 at 16:00

Dr Heather Martin, Subject Genius, integrating languages in the curriculum

School is an alternative reality. This thought is prompted by José Picardo's recent comment (in the TES magazine) that banning mobile devices from the classroom would be tantamount to 'forcing students to enter an alternative reality every morning'. Turns out it's already happening.

Step across the threshold of the school gates and you enter an artificial world with its own set of rules. This artifice takes as many different forms as there are institutions and head teachers, but can be encapsulated by the common phenomenon of 8-year-olds decked out in collar and tie and chanting 'good morning' in unison. Where else does that happen?

But perhaps the most artificial aspect of school is the most invisible: the exclusion of other languages and the construction of a fictional monoculture. This is not to say that schools only admit English-speaking children. Nor is it to say that they show no interest in other cultures: on the contrary, other cultures are a gift, the making of many an enrichment day and school trip, and integral to the Humanities and Arts in particular. In school, children learn about other cultures, as objects of curiosity and interest, dropping in and out in touristic fashion, falling foul of the myth of exoticism dismantled by Edward Said in Orientalism. They learn about other languages, in carefully circumscribed chunks of time, hygienically quarantined in tucked-away corners of the timetable. 

Irrespective of the diversity within school communities, we act on a day-to-day basis as though we lived in a one-language world. Which is, when you think about it, an extraordinary act of self-deception, on a national scale. Teachers teach in English, children learn in English, and English is what they teach and learn about.

Yet when I step out of my door in London in the morning on the commute into work, English is relatively unlikely to be the first language I hear. Or even if it is, it is more often than not being used by someone whose first language is not English. Every day I am impressed by the ability of almost everyone to converse with me in my own language, however diversely accented. I am blessed to live in a multicultural society in a multicultural world.

But in our schools, nonetheless, English rules.

One way I - and many other dedicated language teachers - have tried to work against this, is to integrate languages into the curriculum, teaching other subjects through Spanish or French or German or Mandarin. There's no doubt in my mind that this two-for-the-price-of-one approach works brilliantly, giving practical purpose to the new language and deepening understanding of the 'content' subject by sharpening concentration, facilitating overlearning, and multiplying perspectives. It's like the pedagogical equivalent of a superfood.

Then one day I woke up thinking, what if...?

What if every teacher with knowledge of another language - any language - were to make a point of teaching it? In my ideal fantasy world, this might even become a requirement of basic teacher training. Five or ten minutes here and there as part of the daily diet, the odd half hour of form or golden time, in games and clubs and assemblies and cover lessons, whether integrated or an add-on: the incremental impact in terms of general and specific knowledge would be considerable. But more importantly, the explicit acknowledgement of a polyglot reality would be transformative.

Yes, it would be messy. No, provision would not be equal. Yes, what you learned would be a lottery. Sparks would be ignited and seeds would be sown. Sometimes, near-fluency might be achieved. This dream has nothing to do with summative assessment or cross-phase transition and would stand jubilantly apart from the examination system. But then why worry so much about uniformity and standardisation? After all, when we achieve it, insofar as we ever do, we start worrying about cookie-cutter conformity instead: what Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, recently decried as 'an identikit educational experience' leading to an 'off-the-peg life'. 

Different languages are all around us in the wider world: they should be all around us in the school room too.

Perhaps the crudest artifice in school is the division of the timetable into supposedly discrete subjects which give the lie to the inter-connectedness of things. 'Ed tech' is an unhelpful concept, because technology, which is part of our everyday lives, should be part of everyday school as well. 'Character' and 'grit', 'mindfulness', 'mindset' and 'social responsibility', are (or should be) taught through every lesson, not just in PSHCE and tutor time. 'Black History Month', as Benjamin Zephaniah points out, would be redundant in a fully integrated curriculum that saw 'white' and 'black' history as intertwined and inseparable. Maths, Science and Philosophy underpin every aspect of living and learning. 

English is one of many languages. It is also made up of many languages. If we truly embraced the many, we could finally do away with the awkward worthiness of the 'European Day of Languages', that one day in the calendar when we tip the hat to linguistic diversity across the globe - and then retreat straight back into cosy insularity. 

Surely we can progress beyond the jolly annual game of merely saying hello in multiple languages, or hanging a French or Spanish flag on the wall. 

Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist, and assistant head at Kensington Prep School.