'Words are slippery – and this is never more true than in educational research'

11th March 2018 at 10:02
Too often the language of educational research is reminiscent of Orwell’s 'Newspeak' – it is used to close down debate, writes Joe Nutt

Digits and words are the building blocks of every single child’s education. The only difference is, while digits are intransigent and unyielding, words, to steal from that infamous screen prostitute Vivian Ward, are slippery little suckers. A lesson painfully learned by a small team of researchers at UCL’s Institute of Education recently, when they claimed that putting school children into sets, in school classrooms, for lessons, “was a form of symbolic violence.

The reaction from experienced professionals working in those real classrooms, some no doubt teaching sets of real kids, was predictably pragmatic. One commented wryly online: “Actual violence from a pupil is just an unmet need,” demonstrating that maths specialists are perfectly capable of understanding the subtleties of rhetoric.

My advice to teachers is always research the researchers, before deciding whether or not to invest your valuable time reading their research in full. Because any teacher straying into the growing morass of educational research must feel a bit like Henry Baskerville strolling across Dartmoor, unaware that the swamp of Grimpen Mire is lurking only inches off the dry and well-worn path. What they quickly encounter are some very slippery words indeed.

Having been up to my neck in the mire for years now, I considered trying to write something along the lines of, everything you need to know about educational research on the back of a postcard, but quickly realised that behind this difficulty is something more profoundly challenging about what has happened to the way we use language in a society sodden with technology. You don’t have to be a regular viewer of BBC’s Question Time or a keen edu-tweeter to realise that listening is out of fashion. Back-of-a-postcard solutions might be handy but they’d be treating the symptom, not the cause.

'Too many painting from the same palette'

What intrigues and exercises me about the whole current business of listening or, more pertinently, not listening, are the words themselves. Current political and cultural discourse is increasingly conducted as though the journalists, politicians and commentators have been on the same Newspeak training course. George Orwell’s brilliant literary creation, a language being made to slowly eat itself, so that fewer and fewer people can find ways to express their dissent, is gradually materialising in front of us. The handy palette these key players on the cultural stage draw from is getting more and more insipidly pastel and too many educational researchers are painting from the same box of tricks. If you doubt me, next time you hear someone in the media use the words inappropriate or transparency, ask yourself what they really meant.

I always think it’s a shame so few people understand how much of an advantage it is to have been born an English speaker. It’s not that English is so often sold by sophists as the largest, most colourful language in history, which just shows a lack of understanding about how other languages are constructed, but because it’s a naturally expansive, welcoming, even greedy language. Historically, it’s gobbled up words readily from dozens of other languages, whether through trade, conquest or invasion, even at times diplomacy.

English isn’t a nationalistic tongue. Which is perhaps why nationalism appears to taste less tart on Welsh, Scots or Irish palettes.

This reductive Newspeak trend has flagship words and phrases that feature regularly in educational research, which I think, like the tyres on any second-hand vehicle, deserve a good kicking. Social mobility is a personal favourite. It trips off the lips of politicians and researchers alike as though it needs no explanation, as though everyone who hears it knows what it means and how important it is.

In reality, it’s a slovenly slogan: shorthand slapped in black paint across a hastily cobbled together banner. Teachers working in schools where there is a history of local distrust and disengagement know that there is dramatically more to real, flesh-and-blood social mobility than manufacturing university degrees and dishing them out, as though that automatically gifts someone a leg up the social ladder. All that does is expose the paucity of the political imagination behind the policy.

'Glib shorthand'

Inequality is another. Why bother to think about sensitive class, cultural or gender differences or, God forbid, discuss them, when all that messy, awkward confusion can be easily sidestepped with just the one, indisputable slam dunk – inequality. The physical space I inhabit has never struck me as especially equitable. The natural world isn’t too keen on fairness. However much success we experience, in love, in life or in our careers, we will also be struck by events that are unpredictable, undeserved and unfair. Winds change, tides turn and fairness is best used to describe someone’s complexion. All lives are balanced on a seesaw between misery and joy, and no amount of bleating or cheating is going to tip it permanently in any child’s favour just because an educational researcher chooses that nice, soft, pink word inequality from the palette.

Decoding, pedagogy, practice, modelling, socioeconomic, disadvantaged are all examples of terms researchers deploy readily from the shrinking Newspeak dictionary because it’s much easier than investigating the hard realities behind what is too often just glib shorthand.

This kind of intellectual self-censorship doesn’t convince me and I’d urge any teacher sincerely seeking guidance from professional researchers not to fall for it either. 

Yet at the same time that I’ve found myself increasingly disturbed by Orwell’s foresight, I’ve spotted the faintest glimmer of a fight back. A few journalists are beginning to shows signs of resistance. Not long ago I heard one interviewing a former, real-life Vivian Ward, an ex-prostitute seeking changes in the law that prevented her working with children. He deliberately asked her what she thought of the phrase sex worker. Forced into prostitution as a teenager, she replied with audible ferocity: “It’s neither sex nor work. And whoever thought it up has obviously never done it.” I could easily speculate from which news outlet or paper the phrase did originate. It would be quite fun to hunt it down, but shooting it down as accurately as she did was far more gratifying. The world of educational research could learn from her marksmanship.

Sadly, less than a week later and the same radio news show ran an entire interview with a sex worker who wallowed in the term and not once was she challenged about it. The beauty and genius of the pun at the heart of Orwell’s Newspeak is only just beginning to bite.

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue

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