Standard Non-Conformity

As I’ve blogged about before, language standards are somewhat problematic: my definition of right can vary significantly from your definition of right, and the term “standard” is very often a lazy discriminatory euphemism for prestige: essentially “if you don’t speak like the rich and powerful, then there’s something wrong with you.” Language is a bugger to control, particularly when the standard being sold is fairly arbitrary, like the finally disappearing rule of not splitting infinitives. To dictate a specific form requires a belief in absolute definitions, incontrovertible rules, even while these things become quickly abandoned by most people using the language. Even leaving aside the question of who makes the decisions, and the power issues involved there, in order to persist, the rules have to function for all the users of that language.

Now, I have to admit to being a bit of a contrary devil when it comes to standards: there’s something about the concept of “standard” that makes me want to push back, or at least to question. Tell me to not split an infinitive and, in the face of a continued absence of evidence, I’ll split them down the middle at every available opportunity. I replace a /t/ with a glottal stop whenever I can, mainly to annoy people, and, like, I’ll be like, “like is perfectly ok” whenever asked. So when it comes to standards in teaching, I have the urge to resist just as much, mainly out of habit. Even something as relatively genial as the professional standards from the Education and Training Foundation made me want to pick them apart. I get the same reaction when confronted with “best practice” or checklists of things to do to embed whatever thing we’ve been asked to embed.  I think it’s the way that these things draw a line in the sand, on one side is good, the other is not good. Such things often leave little room for “but what about…” discussions, and, despite anything the originators claim, make clear statements about what should and shouldn’t happen in the classroom.

Part of this, I have to be honest, comes of being a teacher of adults, and a teacher of ESOL, in a setting where general standards of good practice are based not in a part time, adult learning context, but in a vocational / academic full time learning for people between 16 and 19. Factor in the language barriers of an ESOL setting, and whole swathes of what is deemed best practice in FE can often be abandoned as irrelevant or unworkable. Things like stretch and challenge through higher order questions where higher order questions require a much greater command of grammar? Tell me how that works with low level second language learners, again. Things like writing learning outcomes using Bloom’s or SOLO taxonomies language learning takes place across several levels of the taxonomy at the same time at all levels. Things like trying to apply goal setting theory through SMART targets when this is an entirely language based process, with scant first language evidence, and where students find it hard to conceptualise what they need to do (because to understand what you can’t do in terms of grammar and vocabulary, for example, requires knowing what said grammar and vocabulary is in the first place.) Punitive lateness measures in a community centre class where most of the students are parents who have to leave their children at the crèche, but the crèche doesn’t open until the same time the class begins? Banning everything but water in class for all students, despite the fact that said students have been at work all day, finished at half five, and have just arrived at 6, after a 25 minute journey in the rain? A push for blended learning where many learners have limited skills or limited access to technology in order to participate with it (even though when they do they engage with it far more enthusiastically than young people). The problem is that stuff which is relevant for young people, studying in their mother tongue, in preparation for work is not necessarily relevant for adults on a part time course which may or may not be employment related. (Let’s just assume I’ve won that argument about whether all FE is about employability, and say that it isn’t.) This situation is exacerbated when the students are doing it a language they are also learning.

I get told quite a lot that I’m “too much” of a specialist, but I have long since stopped caring. Sure, being a specialist may not get you far in terms of career progression, because career progression in FE inevitably means becoming more of a generalist, but I have no eye on the greasy pole. I like, and am proud of being a specialist in ESOL, and working with adults, and I like that adult learning teachers are often asking difficult questions like “yes, but how does that work for me, in my context?” I suspect that adult learning and especially ESOL teachers have a bit of a reputation in wider FE circles as being awkward, always asking for things to be done differently and challenging standards. Good. This is exactly as it should be. A general FE institution has a responsibility for the education of all aspects of its community, but a clear political government emphasis on employability and apprenticeships for under 19s means that adult learning can get a bit lost. So now, more than ever, adult learning and ESOL need to be strident, difficult voices not only nationally and politically, but also within our own workplaces. If there is a standard or a system in the workplace that doesn’t suit our context, then while we should perhaps not reject it a upright, neither should we immediately contort our own practices to conform. Rather, we should challenge that system.  I have a suspicion that some standards and systems exists not for the benefit of those who have to apply and make use of them, but for those who set the standards and devise the systems, so we should ask questions, find out why these things are is there, and if they can be altered, if not rejected outright.

I am absolutely sure, however, that this doesn’t just apply to adult learning. I have no doubt that colleagues in foundation learning, in creative industries, and those quick vocational stereotypes of the FE sector, hair and beauty and motor vehicle engineering, would often want to level the same accusations. It is just that adult learners in an FE setting have different needs, different contexts, and are a very different fit, and so the need for challenging standards is at its most acute, perhaps. The desire is not to be different for the sake of being different, but to do the best for our learners. If standards do not benefit our learners and their learning in our classrooms, then we should always be pushing for change, always be challenging, and always, always, be awkward.

 

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One comment

  1. Sam – like you I rage against standards and rules that just don’t make sense to me. I’m all for fewer of these – too many are developed for the wrong reasons. But a new set of standards that enabled most people to become functionally literate in English and stop language proficiency being used as a barrier would surely be a good thing?
    Lack of functional literacy and numeracy is preventing many people from realising their potential – and putting a brake on UK productivity. Literacy and numeracy skills should be enablers, not barriers.

    I do a lot of work with Ufi – a charity dedicated to increasing delivery of adult vocational learning through digital tech. This includes support for novel ways to support adults to gain functional literacy and numeracy. We have a great project from a small company called Fluence – The Priorities Project, using a very clever analytics engine and to break down barriers to learning by making sure that learning content focuses on the core language required, not on unnecessary words and grammar rules.

    There is a place for lovely, rich, expressive language – and there is no shortage of people writing and publishing poetry, novels, blogs and so on. The digital world means that many people are writing more than ever. But using this level of literacy as a ‘standard’, effectively preventing very many people from being able to fully participate in life is just plain wrong. Perhaps it is time to develop a ‘simplified’ form of English that enables most people to more quickly and easily become functionally literate and opens up access to a whole wider range of learning, perhaps for employment, perhaps not. We’ve been failing to do this for generations – perhaps it really is time to develop new standards that work.

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