[lg policy] UK: First, They Kill Language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jun 12 19:41:27 UTC 2009

  First, They Kill Language

 With Shakespeare taking up residence in a part of their brains almost from
the moment they’re born, the British possess an inherently finer knack for
writing in the Queen’s language than we Americans. To be sure, there are
fine American writers, but we’ll never, ever be as good with English as the
English. This is both a bad thing and, as you will see, a good one.

The *Nuffield Review,* <http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/> released a few
days ago, is the first comprehensive review of British education for 14- to
19-year-olds in England and Wales in 50 years. (The U.K. system doesn’t
quite jibe with ours; The subject group approximates our high-schoolers,
with a year of college added on.) The review team, funded by the independent
Nuffield Foundation, was led by Professor Richard Pring of Oxford, but
included several others from different institutions.

The study took six years to complete, and it amounts to what they call “a
ringing indictment” of contemporary English education, particularly for
failing to serve English “Neets” (i.e., teenagers who are not in education,
employment, or training, and are likely to end up jobless).

The review minces no words, and blames much of the problem of disaffected
youth on the English education establishment, in cahoots with the
government, for imposing its wretched educationalese on schools. Pupils have
been turned into “consumers,” curricula are now “delivered,” and success is
measured by “audits” (i.e., tests). British teachers are compelled to use
such terms as “performance indicators,” “measurable inputs,” “outputs,”
“targets,” “customers,” “deliverers,” and “efficiency gains.” That last one
is a howler: It signifies — get this — cuts in funding.

My fave Orwellian nonsense word is “performativity” (which is the allegedly
positive effect that government monitoring has on achieving “targets”). But
other phrases that should be up for Big Brother Awards are “level
descriptor” (the outcomes that a learner should attain), “dialogic teaching”
(an emphasis on speaking and listening between teachers and pupils — now
there’s a novel idea) and “articulated progression” (allowing pupils options
for their next step in the qualification system).

The review argues that when educrats use the Orwellian language of
“performance management,” they “are undermining teenagers’ education by
turning them into ‘customers’ rather than students.” [Note: The report
itself — not merely me — uses the word “Orwellian” to thrash the educational
system.] In turn, the review concludes, this destroys learning for everyone
— including the brightest of the academic bunch — and creates overall social

With no route to success other than through academic tests and some kind of
university education — no alternative curricula for kids with a creative
bent, or a love of fixing machines, or making music, or making things with
plants and earth, or hair or food, or whatever — the result is that at least
half the kids have ended up not merely miserable losers, but internalizing
the idea that they’re hopeless miserable losers. The review, in sum, argues
there’s a strong and direct connection between these disaffected youth and
English outcomes-assessment practices.

To their dubious credit, however, the British — equipped with their superior
aptitude for the English language — while going about the business of
destroying a kind of education that takes account of the full human being,
have created some fabulous assessment jargon. It’s much more powerful and
intimidating than anything we’ve got. Why, we Americans are practically
plain-spoken compared to the English. Our “rubrics” — crammed with “mission
statements,” “learning goals”, “assessment goals,” “mappings,”
“interpretations,” and “concluding loops” — were at first applied to K-12
education, and are now spreading like kudzu over American higher education.
And you know what? While we’re probably doing almost as good a job at
strangling the last breaths of humanity, passion, and excitement out of all
levels of education, we’re linguistically downright pathetic, in our
description of what we’re doing, compared to our British counterparts.

Perhaps we on this side of the Pond should be thankful that we’re not quite
as handy at bureaucratic, doublespeak educationalese as the British. As the
review reminds readers, “The words we use shape our thinking.” And since we
use them less well than the British, it will probably take our own
outcomes-assessment movement just a tad longer to use them to bury
 From the Chronicle of Higher Education, 6/12/09
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