Parrot-talk keeps kids caged

12th October 2007 at 01:00
Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University.

A visitor to a primary school encountered a young boy wearing a badge signifying some form of achievement. She asked what he had done to merit this and he replied proudly, "I'm an effective contributor." The visitor subsequently learned that this was a lad with a difficult background and that staff were working hard to encourage him and make him feel valued.

I must confess that, when I heard of this exchange, I felt a little ambivalent. At one level I was naturally pleased that the school which had just received an excellent inspectorate report was making a determined effort to reward different types of achievement. In this sense, it was adopting a genuinely inclusive approach. And for the youngster himself, it was surely beneficial for him to receive positive feedback on his involvement in school life.

At the same time, I felt uneasy about the child's use of A Curriculum for Excellence language in describing his success. I have commented on the four capacities in previous articles and have expressed concern about the narrowing of professional vocabulary to describe what goes on in education. The eagerness with which this approved discourse has been promoted (and accepted) smacks of Orwellian Newspeak.

Let me juxtapose this episode with a passage from a book by the Swedish writer Hakan Nesser. It is a crime novel and I have come to the conclusion that my fondness for the genre serves as a kind of therapy it helps to prevent me committing homicide in my professional life. The central character, a police inspector, has just had a difficult exchange with his boss and reflects: "Decision-makers, persons in positions of power, and careerists in general, usually like to give the impression of possessing a little democratic polish... They like to give the impression that they are conducting a reasoned two-way conversation or discussion... when what they are really doing is giving orders."

Managers in many occupational fields now recognise that traditional forms of authority, which rely on status, directives and sanctions against those who fail to comply, are no longer as successful as they used to be. In a society where respect for hierarchies has declined, it is better to find ways of encouraging people to monitor themselves and their colleagues. Officially approved discourse is a crucial element in this process. By promoting forms of language that are routinely used to describe and evaluate workplace behaviour, discipline becomes internalised rather than externally imposed.

If we apply this analysis to the incident I reported at the beginning, what do we find? It is clear that the staff have already internalised the language of ACfE. It has become part of their professional currency and indicates that they have complied with official recommendations. No doubt this contributed to their positive inspection report.

But staff at the school have taken the process a stage further by introducing the pupils to the approved language. Whether the children fully understand the terminology is uncertain. It would have been interesting to ask the lad with the badge what the terms "effective" and "contributor" mean.

In the absence of real understanding, such labels may simply serve as forms of control rather than a sound basis for worthwhile educational development.

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