Language and the GERM

By Richard McCance

Most teachers around the world now are probably well aware of the threats from what Pasi Sahlberg has labeled “the GERM” (Finnish Lessons, 2012). However, while some of these threats are blatantly designed to shock the system and impose a new paradigm onto existing structures, others are more subtle and covert. High stakes accountability measures and the privatisation of public education are two obvious examples of the former. One of the more nuanced and often overlooked threats comes in the form of the language used to redefine or reshape the educational system towards particular goals or outcomes.

Donald Gillies (2011) offers us an analysis of the changing use of language and associated discourse in terms of threats to individual autonomy and the dangers this may pose to public education. Key to this analysis is the shift when referring to individual learners from the use of the term ‘flexible’, which according to the author now carries the connotation of reactive and externally manipulated, to ‘agile’ which is now seen as more adaptive, responsive and able to “predict” change (p 210). This analysis stems from the notion that the ‘agile’ individual is “better placed to secure employment and to maintain their economic worth within globalised, rapidly changing markets.” (p 208). On the face of it, this shift may seem appropriate. However, the author goes on to address a number of issues which may cause concern. Gillies cites the research of Michel Foucault (2000, 2002, 2005, 2007, 2008) and his study of the nature of self and the various modes by which individuals are made subjects. This analysis offers a cautionary tale through the correlation in the use of language with the rise in a market oriented, corporate agenda.

It’s interesting to see this critique coming not only from within a linguistic/semantic context but also from the more subtle and dangerous context of the threat of neoliberal ideology to the public sector, particularly education. While the article addresses this threat in the context of tertiary education, it is relevant to all of us in our conversations around why we do -and how we say- what we do. It also has huge implications for our discourse on intended educational outcomes and social structures.

The argument that this shift in language is all ‘well and good’ and that being ‘agile’ should be a deliberate and intentional outcome of education ignores the danger of blindly following a broader neoliberal corporate agenda. Education should not be about responding to market demands to produce ever more malleable ‘cogs’ to work the ‘machine.’ Indeed, it should not only be about serving an economic imperative. While economic advancement and development may in fact be one of many outcomes of an authentic and balanced education it can be argued that this outcome is better facilitated by an approach that pushes back at this attempt at creating subservient and malleable clientele ever suited to adapt to corporate demands.

While it is understandable that some teachers may find it a challenge to make the time to read widely on the latest research, it is essential that we are aware of concerns that this research presents us. Gillies critique of the use of language in shaping the ongoing discourse and outcomes of public education provides a framework by which we can reflect on the very nature of public education and the various, and at times competing, outcomes sought. Fundamentally, it is important to consider why we are using the language we choose within this discourse. Understanding how this language reflects different agendas is essential if we are to remain autonomous and free of abuse or control.

Donald Gillies (2011): Agile bodies: a new imperative in neoliberal governance,
Journal of Education Policy, 26:2, 207-223

http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2010.508177

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Do We Have a Philosophy of Education?

By Graham Mundy

The intention of this paper is to suggest that New Zealand has no philosophy of education, and that the many problems permeating our education system are a consequence of this. A selection of some of these problems will be outlined, and will be shown to have arisen from a lack of underlying principles which, had they existed, would have provided both epistemological and ethical touchstones, which in turn would have exposed these inadequacies.
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Critical Thinking as a Key Competency in English

By Nathan Woods

This review illustrates a need for research on how teachers in New Zealand have interpreted the Key Competency ‘thinking’ and how they have attempted to embed critical thinking as a Key Competency into English courses. The review is divided into four sections. Section one, What are the Key Competencies, outlines broader issues related to the implementation of a competencies-based curriculum in New Zealand, relating these broader issues specifically to the Key Competency ‘thinking’. Section two, What is Critical Thinking, reviews the literature on critical thinking, paying close attention to how critical thinking has been defined, and how this definition reflects the idea that critical thinking is a competency that draws on skills, dispositions, knowledge, values and attitudes. Section three, What is English, briefly outlines the key features of the English learning area, as stipulated by the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). Finally, section four, Critical Thinking in English, provides a brief review of literature showing how critical thinking can be embedded in English courses. Key themes arising from the review are: (1) critical thinking can be expressed differently in different subject domains; (2) subject-specific content knowledge plays a key role in critical thinking; and (3) schools and teachers may overlook the subject-specific nature of critical thinking when they interpret the Key Competencies.

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What Does it Mean to be Well Educated: A brief response to Kohn

By Nathan Woods

In What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated (2003) Alfie Kohn criticized what he called ‘traditional’ education. Here I respond to some of Kohn’s criticisms.

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Higher Order Thinking Skills?

By Nathan Woods

Thinking taxonomies establish a hierarchy of thinking; ‘simple’ or ‘less -sophisticated’ thinking skills, such as describing, noticing, or remembering, are seen as inferior to ‘higher order’ thinking skills like analysis and evaluation. However, these taxonomies over-simplify and misrepresent thinking.

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Education and the Politics of Culture

BY NATHAN WOODS

In 1993 Michael Apple wrote that, “Education is deeply implicated in the politics of culture. The curriculum is never a neutral assemblage of knowledge, somehow appearing in the texts and classrooms of a nation. It is always part of a selective tradition, someone’s selection, some group’s vision of legitimate knowledge. It is produced out of the cultural, political, and economic conflicts, tensions, and compromises that organise and disorganise a people”. In this article I will ‘unpack’ Apple’s quotation, showing that it emphasizes the social, cultural, and political processes that underlie any curriculum. I will discuss the political life of the curriculum in New Zealand, paying attention to historical and contemporary conflicts regarding its purpose, content, and structure.  Finally, I will address criticisms of Apple’s approach to curriculum theory.

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Hackschooling?

BY BRENT SILBY

The TEDx talk below by 13 year old Logan LaPlant is spreading around various sites dedicated to “unschooling”. It is being promoted as an argument for alternative approaches to education. I am impressed with the articulation and confidence this young person demonstrates. But does he make a rationally convincing argument?

When talking about writing, LaPlant claims that he was turned off because “my teachers used to make me write about butterflies and rainbows, but I wanted to write about skiing”. I wonder if he’s being entirely honest here. Every teacher I know encourages students to write about what they know. He might be referring to that imaginary classroom that often comes up in these sorts of presentations. This imaginary classroom constitutes part of an often used strawman argument that characterizes schools as authoritarian institutions in which children are strapped into their seats with teachers shoehorning information into their heads.
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