Edu-babble: the language of the generic

I have argued in several posts now that teaching ought not to be understood in generic terms. I want to use this post to examine a little further some of the problems generic language creates in education.

There are a wide array of people out there who do want to talk about education in a generic sense. School senior managers want to improve the education received by pupils across all subject; school inspectors want to judge the quality of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ across all subjects; consultants can make a lot more money if they can say that their latest innovation or strategy applies across all subjects; even well-meaning individuals who run educational charities want to find ways to talk about education as a whole.

If I am working within a subject domain, I can talk very easily and precisely about what has been learned by pupils:

  • Those pupils can use Pythagoras’ theorem to work out the length of one side of a triangle.
  • This girl has struggled to grasp the causes of the French Revolution.
  • James and John haven’t really understood what combustion is.
  • The whole class can fluently recall their times tables up to 12.

If you read these sentences you probably know immediately and exactly the precise nature of the learning that has or has not taken place. These are highly specific and, thus, highly useful.

But what is a senior manager wants to talk to staff about pupil learning across the school? What happens when an inspector walks in to judge the school? What about a consultant who wants to be paid a nice four-figure sum to run a day of training for staff across all subjects?

We then end up with something like the following:

  • Pupils are not always achieving desired outcomes.
  • Pupil learning is not always secure.
  • Pupils have made good progress.
  • Progress by pupils has been limited.

Such sentences are highly generic, but we do not learn very much from these statements. They are too generic to be useful. The greatest crimes come, I think, when someone then turns round to subject teachers and says ‘so how does all this apply in your subject?’ I’ve used those words myself and in this blog, but the very words imply that there are generic ideas that just need ‘applying’ or ‘contextualising’ in a particular subject.

I do not want to push this argument too far. There clearly are a handful of ideas (I can think of around five or six) that are generic and can be ‘applied’ in a particular subject. Currently, however, the overwhelming thrust in schools and in wider educational discussions is to pile generalisation on top of generalisation.

What does this result in?

The answer, I think, is edu-babble.

I am defining edu-babble here as something that sounds meaningful, but is actually too broad and sweeping to be useful. It is equivalent to ‘management speak’ and emerges for the same reason. In management, managers want to talk about ‘management’ in general terms, regardless of the thing they are managing (or leading, or whatever).

Here are a few very common examples of terms that are often used in a highly generic sense:

  • teaching
  • learning
  • outcomes
  • progress
  • engagement
  • assessment
  • feedback
  • analysis
  • explanation

These words proliferate in discussions about education, and indeed I have seen a number of ‘word clouds’ created which celebrate these words being particularly common.

I would argue, however, that the words on their own are in fact meaningless: they mean something if and only if they take an object or are used in a specific sense. For example, ‘teaching’ always needs to take an object: one might be teaching mathematics, or teaching dance or teaching knitting. Similarly, ‘learning’ always needs to take an object: one learns something. Progress is always progress in something: I can get better at history, or jogging, or singing, but I can’t just ‘get better’.

I have already written about how ‘engagement’ is meaningless on its own: one is always engaged in something. Similarly, there is no such thing as ‘assessment’ but rather ‘assessment of’ something else: assessment for learning manages to combine two generic terms in one. As I have written about in my critique of Bloom’s Taxonomy, there is no such thing as ‘analysis’ or ‘explanation’: these words mean something different in particular contexts. A causal analysis in history, for example, is quite different from a causal analysis in biology.

Now I do not think it is pointless to talk about education in general terms. The overarching orthodoxy at the moment, however, is that our starting point ought to be generic ideas (such as ‘learning’, ‘pupil outcomes’, etc.) with these ideas then considered in the context of particular subjects. My argument would be that this is back to front: the thing which is being taught ought to have primacy.

8 Comments on Edu-babble: the language of the generic

  1. An interesting and powerful post Michael, thank you. I think your example of the difference between ‘understanding the causes of the French revolution’ and learning that is ‘not always secure’ is a particularly telling one.

    On the whole I agree with your perspective (although I’m willing to allow a little more space than you are for some generic competencies as a teacher) – I’m curious what you believe the five or six ideas that can be discussed across subjects are?

    • Michael Fordham // 10 January 2015 at 21:33 // Reply

      Harry – yes, I possibly am verging on hyperbole here (though barely). The ideas I had in mind are those about the basic psychological structures regarding how people learn. And of course I recognise some generic points (such as the importance of good behaviour) but that’s also not something peculiar to teaching – good behaviour is needed by checkout staff in supermarkets, nurses in hospital and so on.

  2. Why was my comment not accepted?

  3. Another useful Blogpist, Michael. You mention in the post that you believe there are some useful genetic teaching ideas. Are you refering to ideas that stem from cognitive psychology ?

    • Michael Fordham // 10 January 2015 at 21:34 // Reply

      Yes, essentially. I know it only goes so far, but I rather like the analogy of hardware vs software. We need to know a little bit about the hardware, but I see us as teachers essentially as software engineers!

  4. Brilliant. “Edu-babble”, or what Orwell would call “Pretentious Diction” … the problem, I’d say, is also one of lack of inspiration, alongside the points about precision and utility. Dealing with this language all day long as a teacher hardly warms the spirit to professional reflection:

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