Little words can mean a lot

9th April 2010 at 01:00

One of the recurring themes of my articles is that language matters. The words we use in our professional lives carry more significance that their surface meaning might suggest. This was reinforced for me by two recent exchanges.

The first was a response to a question put to Pasi Sahlberg, director general of the Centre for International Mobility and Co-operation in Finland. As is well known, Finnish education regularly shows up at the top of international comparisons of educational attainment, and other countries, including Scotland, are keen to learn from its experience. Mr Sahlberg made the point that it is unwise to attempt to transplant features of one educational system onto another in a straightforward fashion, since there are so many cultural and historical values embedded in each nation's approach to schooling.

But he went on to observe, in relation to Curriculum for Excellence, that while people in his country were pleased their system was doing well, and were happy to describe it as "good", they would never use the term "excellent". The implication was that constantly striving to improve was laudable, but to claim too much was unwise.

I have detected a tendency in Scottish education to employ a boastful form of discourse. Projects are routinely described as "highly innovative", "groundbreaking" and "cutting-edge", when they may be little more than minor modifications of existing practice. Such exaggerations encourage a misleading impression of what is required to achieve high standards.

The second comment came from a headteacher who had been intrigued by the change of name from "A Curriculum for Excellence" to "Curriculum for Excellence". Why had the indefinite article been dropped, he asked a key member of the team leading the development programme. She seemed uncertain how to answer, and was not best pleased when one of her colleagues reminded her that a directive had come, in the form of an email, that ACfE would henceforth be known as CfE.

This conjured up a rather sinister image of an Orwellian central controller dictating the form of words that functionaries were allowed to use. The dropping of the "A" is significant. Without it, there can only be only one "Curriculum for Excellence". Its retention would leave open the possibility of other interpretations. The irony is, of course, that the reform is intended to be liberating, but the linguistic message in the revised name is that only one approach is permitted.

The same kind of tension can be seen in the way the experiences and outcomes of CfE are expressed. They are ostensibly designed from the learner's point of view, using terms like "I have" and "I can". This form of words is no doubt intended to emphasise the importance of personal engagement. But the words are not actually the child's own. In this sense, the "subjectivity" of the experiences is illusory.

The planners might have done better to recall the point made by the great American educator John Dewey, who said that in the final analysis there was only one educational outcome that really mattered: at the end of any educational experience, the learners would want to go on learning.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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