Language: Are we over-egging the custard?

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Schools must concentrate on human relationships and not public relations – and we can start by making sure our language is clear, accurate, unambiguous and readily understood. Alex Wood explains.

Language changes. That is usually a good thing but not always. A wise educational veteran, speaking to me of interviews for teaching posts, recently illustrated that. 

“What is your vision for the school/your department/your subject?” is now a standard interview question. “When I first came into teaching 40 years ago,” he said, “you would have been locked up if you said you had ‘a vision’.  Today you can’t get a job without one.”

My own bête noire at interviews was the reiterated use of “passion”, especially when applicants told me of their “passion” for their subject. I was always tempted to tell them that I hoped they’d passion for their wife/husband/partner (although that of course was really none of my business), but that if they had a “passion” for physics or geography or PE they were truly sad people.

Since sarcasm and professionalism do not go well together, a better response would be to ask what the subject about which they were so passionate did for young people. What practical skills or what intellectual skills did it provide? How did it help to develop their employability, their social awareness or their civic responsibility, and what was the teacher’s role in achieving these developments?

The great contemporary educational buzz-word of course is “excellence”. Although recently encapsulated in Curriculum for Excellence, the zenith of Scottish educational innovation, it has been floating in the educational ether since the mid-1990s. A school close to the one in which I worked at that time adopted as its motto, Aiming for Excellence. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Simultaneously inclusive and aspirational!

It is also nonsense, whether as a motto or a title for a curriculum. Excellence is that which is achieved by those who have excelled. To excel means to be the best. It is a normative concept.  Some can only excel if others fail.

The use of “110 per cent” is another piece of contemporary gobbledegook – 100 per cent is the most that anyone can achieve at anything yet sports coaches, game-show competitors and budding apprentices and master-chefs all indiscriminately insist that their commitment is 110 per cent.

There is a common theme here: hyperbole.  Exaggerate the successes, over-egg the custard, aggressively project the positives. The crass language of the advertiser and the red-top sub-editor has triumphed. It is a symptom of the cultural dominance of the neo-liberal market-place where sales are achieved, not by the quality of the product, but by ruthless (although always up-beat!) advertising.

Instead of boasting our “excellence” and devising slick slogans, should schools and teachers not spend their energy improving teaching and learning? The problem is that in the war for bums on seats, in the ruthless school-versus-school culture created by parental choice, the amorality of the advertiser is more effective than solid educational effort.

The second theme however is the preponderance of abstract nouns over concrete verbs. Instead of asking an applicant for their vision, why not ask what he/she intends doing to change things for the better over the next five years?

Somewhere in this contemporary linguistic morass, there is a moral purpose for teachers and educationalists. It is intriguing that at a time when literacy tops the agenda, language sinks to the bottom; when ethos is one of the criteria by which all schools are judged, ethics seem to be ignored. Orwell put it most clearly: “Good prose is like a window pane.”

We should speak in language that is clear, accurate, unambiguous and readily understood. We should put sound and rigorous learning at the core of our work. We should concentrate on human relationships, not on public relations.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.

 


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