Bethan Marshall: MPs and teachers speak different languages

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The Independent Online

One of the reasons I've always retained a certain scepticism about the use of a thesaurus is that words that apparently mean the same thing don't. Each word carries with it a teasingly subtle difference, a nuance that allows us to refine the meaning we wish to convey. Even altering the part of speech of a word can change the sense.

On the other hand these same words can have a vagueness that allows for the possibility of varying interpretation. You can have a conversation where the same words are being used. Later you discover that you were talking about totally different things. The language of education and its attendant jargon is prey to subtle nuance and vagueness. Similar words hold the key to whole conceptual frameworks. At the same time they can can become the basis of controversy and strife. Take the word learning, for example. When learning is a verb it appears to be a continuous process. Something ongoing, investigative, something with the potential for action and engagement. Turn it into an abstract noun - learning - and it acquires a subtly different hue. The word becomes more acquisitive, quantifiable and finite, even more so when it is used as an adjective - learned. Yet the concept of learning is elusive. What is learning? What does it really mean to learn or be learned?

Knowledge is another. Is knowing the same as understanding? No. Does one concept contain the other? Maybe. Are they interdependent? Potentially but not necessarily. I can know for example that E = MC squared without understanding it. But is that really knowledge or, in the absence of understanding, simply factual recall? Now it is all too possible that such nit-picking over the meaning of words is a result of too many years of English study. I have to confess that my love of delving into the minutiae of a text is a passion not shared by much of the population. But on occasion it can be illuminating and never more so when it comes to analysing government policy on education.

For the arguments that arise between those involved in education and the politicians often are about semantics. Words are important. If we look, for example, at the arguments over testing that have flared up of late, we can see that at the heart of the debate lies the interpretation of the word education and all the related elements of learning, knowledge, understanding, expertise, skill, study and so on.

Charles Clarke, more than any Education Secretary in the past dozen or so years, appears to see that the national curriculum tests are problematic. With this in mind he has all but got rid of the tests for seven-year-olds and has eased some of the pressure on the tests for 11-year-olds by suspending the targets for that age group. He is, nevertheless, adamant that the tests are here to stay. This may simply be politics, a desire to save face and not admit that the policies employed have had disastrous consequences. It may be, however, that, unlike some, his view of education is such that what he values in the way of knowledge is compatible with the constraints of a timed exam. It may also be that his desire for public accountability, through targets and league tables, means that he doesn't care about the way in which national tests distort the education process. The elision between the acquisition of test data for accountability measures, and assessment for diagnostic purposes is also evident in David Miliband's latest idea. Mr Miliband, the Schools minister, calls it "assessment for learning". At its best this is the process by which teachers use anything from class discussion to exams to assess what pupils have understood or have been able to do in lessons as evidence to guide them in planning for an individual's future learning. Pupils are also encouraged to assess their own progress. Yet for Miliband assessment for learning is an opportunity to accumulate comparative statistics on individual pupils throughout their school career. "Every school will, at the click of a mouse, be able to compare and contrast the performance of individual pupils against other pupils in the school, and against similar pupils in other parts of the country." Learning for Miliband means something that can be neatly packaged and processed as data.

The problem is that teachers and politicians do not speak the same language. The words may look the same but they carry with them very different meanings and agendas. And while teachers seem anxious to communicate, politicians are too content to bellow, assuming theirs is the only language worth speaking.

The writer is lecturer in education at King's College, London