Glory be, if you take my meaning

2nd March 2007 at 00:00

To begin to understand the language of recent education policy, there is one key text: Through the Looking Glass. The starting point is the exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty over his use of the word glory to mean "a nice knock-down argument".

Alice protests that this is not what glory means. Lewis Carroll writes:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - that's all."

The Humpty Dumpty theory of meaning is a form of nominalism, making words mean whatever you want, mixed with an anthropomorphic attitude: some have a temper or are proud. Which leads me to the irrational phrase personalised learning.

The Government has acted like Humpty Dumpty, first inventing the term and then trying to give it a meaning. Various actors have played the key role.

David Miliband, when he was schools minister, defined it rhetorically as having "high expectations of every child, given practical form by high quality teaching based on a sound knowledge and understanding of each child's needs". We have subsequently been told it is "an aspiration or philosophy" and should draw on the sort of pedagogy used by special education teachers.

Academic commentators say the idea is "fuzzily transmitted" and lacks conceptual clarity, but even before we have begun to master it, they are defending "deep" personalised learning, by which they mean letting young people construct their own interpretations of the goals and values of education.

Here we have it. The Government is doing away with education. Desperate attempts to make learning relevant, to use it to solve social problems, have finally found a philosophy. A meaningless label and a ridiculous theory of meaning have been combined to produce something so empty that it is up to children to give it their own meaning.

The truth is that the more learning is personalised, the less it is educational. The further children are taken from subjects that can develop understanding, the more superficial learning becomes. Instead of English, maths, science, languages and skills, personalised learners will be facilitated in devising learning programmes that are important to them.

But they cannot know what is important. That's the trouble with the learner voice aspect of personalisation. It makes people innocent parties to a rejection of education that can only harm by trapping them in their childish interests.

Although personalised learning, as an idea, is as empty as a blown egg, policy wonks, ministers and their academic hangers-on show no signs of letting this Humpty Dumpty fall. But there can be only one outcome. Ask any 3-year-old.

Dennis Hayes is head of the centre for professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church University

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