From education to employment

Don’t just do something, think about it! The words we use make a real difference

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

Sometimes a single phrase is enough to tell you the quality of a college’s work is going to be very, very good. Examining the documentation provided to me on a recent visit I noticed repeated references to ‘learning, teaching and assessment’.

If you don’t work in Further Education you’ll have to take my word for this being quite unusual. The phrase that’s universally used up and down the country is so common it’s sometimes even abbreviated to ‘TLA’: Teaching, Learning and Assessment.

So why is re-ordering the words a sign of high quality?

Two reasons:

First, it means someone’s bothered to think about what the words mean; probably a whole team of people have thought it through together.

Second, if they did this it was because they knew that ensuring they all understood the same thing by these words was important: action would happen based on them. If the words weren’t right and understood, nor would any proposed action be.

The key point for me wasn’t at all that the college had hit on the right order, or a better order, but simply that they couldn’t possibly have decided on their preferred order without thinking about it. It was the thinking that mattered.

So what am I saying? That some college managements make decisions without thinking about them?

I’d rather put it positively: when college managements think really carefully about the language they’re using, quality improves.

This is especially the case when dealing with someone else’s language: the language in which government requirements are cast or the language embodying Ofsted advice.

But not exclusively the case. Another college was interested in ‘observing how well students progress’. This phrase must have been passed round and round many a management meeting like the dice in a game of ‘liar dice’ without anyone pausing to work out what it meant. Or so I surmise because there was a long interval before an answer to my email came back. I had simply asked, what do you mean by ‘progress’?

Because students don’t actually progress. They remain static most of the time in a classroom. So if we start thinking about what we’re saying, the first thing we discover is that we’ve been treating a metaphor as if it was a literal reality. But since we clearly don’t mean the physical movement of students, what do we mean?

The movement of their minds, presumably, their learning. And how can anyone observe or see learning? It’s totally hidden; it happens inside our heads.

OK, but we can look for the tell-tale physical proxies: conversations that clearly indicate exploration, jottings being made that show something’s being worked out, even the expression on a face perhaps. These are things we could look for.

But ‘progress’ as a learning journey also implies improvement over time and in the right direction. So it might be important to know how clear a picture the teachers have of their students’ starting-points, their acquisition of new skills and understanding, and how these matters relate to their course of study and final assessment. Just a few minutes’ thought squeezes from a spongy word like ‘progress’ some clear, definite ideas we can work with.

If it’s only me – an external consultant – who has to work hard to know what he’s being asked to do then not much damage is done.

But suppose you’re leading a college and you want to improve ‘student progress’. Unless you decode that lazy metaphor you’re in for trouble because you’ll all too easily find yourself having to do it on the hoof, in a public meeting.

Your staff will quite rightly want to know what you mean. Or worse, they won’t even bother to ask and your vague initiative will quickly lose impetus and be forgotten.

So however fussy and academic it sounds, thinking about the words we use makes a real difference.

The English language constantly offers you easy, off-the-shelf solutions when what you always need as a leader are clear, bespoke solutions. Give in to their temptations and slick, ready-made expressions will all too easily beguile us into ineffective action: instructions aren’t clear, motivation is enfeebled.

What George Orwell advised for the writer serves absolutely as well for the leader (from ‘Politics and the English Language’):

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?….But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in.

They will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent ….This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain.

Anaesthetising one’s brain.

Watch out!

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal.

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