Where’s my jar gone? Some thoughts on Frank Furedi’s #ResearchED2013 talk.

In his presentation at ResearchED last month, Professor Frank Furedi shared some thoughts on the terminology used to talk about education. He looked to pull apart and question the endemic use of medical and business language in schools and in education. His example of medical language that pathologized children was the use of the word “intervention” – a term that normally is the preserve of anxious families hoping to help their drug user family member. The example of business-speak was “best practice” being bandied around when referring to good teaching. As a newcomer to the teaching profession a few years ago, I remember being struck by the use of terminology from other fields being applied to education.

Every domain of human endeavour has its own language, just as every academic discipline has certain key concepts enshrined in words that apply only to that same discipline. We call it jargon, sometimes pejoratively.

When jargon is taken out of context and applied to another domain alien to its original, it can have a positive or a negative consequence. The positive consequence is that this new terminology can provide a new perspective on existing thoughts and practices. The negative is that the new terminology frames thinking in a way that does not best suit the new discipline where it now finds itself. Education benefits and suffers from both consequences. Without delving too deeply into semiotics or Orwellian Newspeak, I agree with Professor Furedi that the metaphors that we use affect our perspective on a given subject matter, at times unconsciously so.

The use of business-speak in education seems like an anathema to many in the profession. Business, motivated by profit, seems not belong in a domain dedicated to the imparting of critical thought, moral values and knowledge. There is a risk that the jargon of business frames the interactions in education as commercial transactions. The worry is that this linear approach (quantifiable input > measurable output) reduces something complex and nebulous in a way that damages it. Two examples spring to mind: the REF cycle in universities and the use of league tables to measure performance, both of which create hoops for schools and educators to jump through to meet SMART targets that demonstrate impact and meet outcomes. School leaders held to account according to a simple metric of 5A*-C or Best of 8 need to look at the return on investment (ROI) in all that they do. You have a larger ROI if you focus on the C/D borderline or narrow the curriculum to focus on best of 8, much like university departments that seek to gain a 4 star rating (jargon from the hotel industry?) for the quality of their research by offering contracts and tenure to academics with a proven track record of publication or several publications in the pipeline that will boost their score. A football-style transfer window ensues. Writing this paragraph reminds me of one of my favourite blogs of all time looking at footballing clichés in Sunday League football. Can you see the parallel?

But (to coin an original metaphor) we risk throwing the infant out with the bathing water. Schools and teachers can benefit hugely from considering business approaches. The return on investment analogy is a good one in some instances. For example it was this metaphor that best described the time I wasted as a new teacher making card sorts and jazzy PowerPoints for my classes for activities that took a small fraction of the lesson to deliver but hours and hours to plan. That’s not a good return on investment – far better that I’d put the time into considering the purpose of what I was teaching and better explaining the language and grammar that needed to be taught. I disagree, however, with Professor Furedi that saying something is an intervention for a pupil pathologizes someone who just needs extra support. I actually feel that the word intervention conveys very well the urgency with which something needs to be done about a group of pupils or an individual who has been identified as falling behind or in need of support. It forces a teacher to think of a strategy and a timeline and plan a series of actions. This is an instance of medical jargon helping us think differently.

But there are two more dangers of jargon – one identified by Professor Furedi in his talk, the other illustrated by E.D. Hirsch in The Knowledge Deficit.

First, jargon packages ideologies in far too infectious a way that makes a reduction of what could potentially be a more valuable and nuanced way of looking at things. Professor Furedi warns of what he calls the “hyper-rationalisation” of research, for example, as proposed by Ben Goldacre, where key findings could be presented as a research synopsis of, say, three paragraphs: “3 paragraphs of anything is not worth the paper that it’s written on. And the reason why, is because all that it can give you is abstract, decontextualised instructions.” Far more important that teachers are trained and equipped to engage with research findings critically, than that they be presented with simplified research findings that lack the complexity necessary to make them useful.

As anyone who has trained teachers or led CPD knows, new teachers thirst for the panacea, the ‘top tip’ that will fix things in their classrooms. But few and far between are the things that work for everyone. Context is king for so much of what we do. What can be shared are key principles: the teacher must be consistent and calm, the pupils should understand why they are studying what they’re studying, the lesson should be carefully planned, the teacher should be ready to change their plan if necessary, and teachers should observe each other and invest time in getting to know their pupils.

The second danger of jargon is when it serves as a flawed metaphor and carries with it implicit philosophies and connotations that do more harm than good. Hirsch talks about the metaphors for education that stem from the Romantic Movement but which belie a fundamental error of judgement. Words such as natural and development which mask the idea that we are all born with something in us that needs care and nurture in order to flourish but is already there congenitally: “The word development means an unfolding in time of what at birth we potentially contain. The romantic concept of education as a natural unfolding – by far the most influential idea in the history of American education – has small basis in reality when it comes to reading, writing and arithmetic.” As all early years teachers know, and as was demonstrated by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed, the environment in which you are born and brought up will affect your character from a very early age. Given how formative these early influences are on success later in life, Hirsch is right in pointing out that we should be wary of the philosophy of education espoused in the metaphor of what is natural development.

When jargon is badly translated across disciplines it is a danger because it leads to mantras in teacher training such as those inculcated in me during my first few years of in the profession, which included the principle that a teacher should be a facilitator and not a didactic practitioner. In this instance, the jargon doesn’t translate meaningfully to teaching as most teachers have very little experience of effective facilitation in a business or corporate context. The metaphor is thereby misunderstood and you end up with suggestions that ‘teacher-talk’ is a bad thing. As Professor Furedi said in his presentation, “your intuition as a teacher has got to be continually evolving and developing in light of your experience.” It was only after two years of experience that I recognised that verb conjugations should be taught explicitly and by rote – ‘old school’-style if you will – rather than expecting my classes to deduce and infer conjugations from texts that I presented to them in groups to analyse.

As teachers we hate it when our glazed-eyed colleagues parrot half-digested jargon as justification for something they’re doing. It’s why we love straight-talking blogs like this one by Barry Smith. It cuts through the language that we somehow know doesn’t belong and we enjoy what is lucid. Following on from Geoff Barton’s wonderful thoughts on school mottos here, one realises how simple it is to satirise jargon. Why can’t teachers just teach, schools just be called schools and business speak stay right out of it?

Crucially, how can we cut through the myriad of jargon to what really matters without losing the potential benefit of a word borrowed from another discipline? Well funnily enough both Professor Furedi and E.D. Hirsch come to the same conclusion: we have to be experts in our subjects. As Professor Furedi said in his presentation: “The more they know, the more likely they’ll find ways of turning the classroom on fire.” As Hirsch impresses on us repeatedly in his work, schools must move away from naturalistic and formalistic approaches to teaching towards the imparting of subject-matter knowledge. Subject knowledge is king.

It seems incredibly obvious, but is worth restating: the more you know about (and love) your subject, the better your judgement in picking through the jargon flung your way by pedagogues peddling business speak or medical terminology. You are less likely to be diverted from what Professor Furedi calls your “intuition” – your professional judgement built up through critically reflecting on experience – by a new research paper condensed into a few paragraphs and suggested to you as part of a new whole-school initiative, for example.

Being expert in your subject applies specifically to secondary school teachers, I suppose, but equally impresses on us the challenges inherent in being a primary school teacher delivering an entire curriculum. The challenge is to remain open minded enough to accept when a fresh perspective on things could be useful, but knowledgeable enough in your own discipline to dismiss those fads which run counter to what you know works.