Gobbling up gobbledygook

6th March 2015 at 00:00

"Sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast," the Red Queen said to Alice. The Red Queen missed out on a comfortable career in education consultancy, I fear.

Teachers these days are encouraged to deep-mark, which takes ages, but to do it every week for every student. We're invited to use peer-marking as a means to alleviate the pressure, but told that children will need boutique advice to develop. We're tasked with building mindsets of independence and autonomy, but pimped into a system that asks us to spoon-feed for every exam.

One of the more grisly side effects of the obsession with "evidencing progress" is the growth of a crypto-language, a kind of yappy bureaucrat's argot that we used at first only in formal correspondence but has now crept into common use. If you've ever compared a report card from ye olde days with one from ye newe days, you'll know what I mean. When I was a kid, it was perfectly possible to get a comment like "Tom isn't bright enough for this subject, but what can you expect?" Today that would get you a three-inch column in the Daily Mail. Now the report would read "Tom struggles with the cognitive load of this class, and prefers to express himself through mime", or some similar Esperanto.

Some phrases have crept so completely into the teachers' idiom that, fearful of displeasing our high-stakes accountability gods, we even use them with the students (or "learning adventurers" as I suppose they're known somewhere). You see evidence of this when children tell you that they have "anger management problems", that they "struggle to follow instructions", that they "couldn't access" the work. These are not phrases that human children have ever used instinctively.

My personal favourite is when a student complains that their "learning style isn't being met". No pupil could have come up with something as stupid as that: it took grown adults with degrees and research budgets to build that folly, and other grown adults to buy it and shove it down the necks of children who now write approvingly about teachers "matching lesson activities to learning modalities". And you thought Hell was other people.

I don't know what makes me weep more: that children know such phrases of anodyne gruel or that we passed them down so confidently. It's a symptom, I think, of our near-recent desire - and belief - that we could codify and metrify excellence in education. We invented a language of secret handshakes and occult meaning that did what all such languages are meant to do - obfuscate, to create the illusion that we understand. When teaching becomes a priesthood, it's time to pull back the curtain. It won't be easy; many of us are addicted to our jibber-jabber and, like all addictions, it'll take time to get clean.

But we owe it, I think, to ourselves. After all, don't we all want to evidence impact through learning gains achieved through deep understanding?

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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