A new modern language is coming to your school soon. Are you prepared?

When I go over to Europe, like many other travellers I’m astounded at the amount and diversity of people who can speak in English. I have schoolboy French, cafe Spanish and a strong enough grasp of language theory to read signage, but there’s no denying my lack of fluency and in particular my inability to hear what they say back to me in another language. And that’s not because I can’t understand what they are saying it’s because I can’t hear what they are saying to understand them. Being profoundly deaf means relying on a narrow range of exceptionally unclear and underpowered sound frequencies alongside lipreading. Throw in another language with its nuanced sounds & new phonemes and the processing load is so much that I’m still trying to decipher their opening ‘estoy’ by the time they’ve finished their speech.

Which brings me to the idea of introducing a GCSE in British Sign Language (BSL). I have a confession: I don’t sign – mainly because I wasn’t brought up in a deaf community. I was one of the first in the country to attend mainstream school when all others with my ‘condition’ were shunted off to special school. It wasn’t much fun. Being in the top set for every subject should have gifted me the Education Endowment Fund confirmed top set uplift. However, the downside was no Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENDCO), no teaching assistants, teachers who mumble, teachers who sat you at the back, teachers who only taught in one channel (my thanks to the dual coders of today – you are helping the deaf pupils) no fellow deaf people and most certainly no BSL anywhere. Which is why I don’t sign. I’m a hearing person in a hearing world who doesn’t hear well rather than have what the deaf community call an ‘I am deaf’ identity.

Today, signing is still uncommon. If a deaf child comes into the school then an Educational Health Care Plan can pay for a signer. Good luck with getting one of them. Better learn to be a lawyer at the same time as signing. And then finding a school that wants to pay the first £6,000 of your support. And then you’ve still got to contend with bearded mumbling teachers teaching in front of brightly lit windows (just because the deaf pupil has a slow, asynchronous second channel doesn’t mean they don’t need the first channel – ever watched live out of sync subtitles?).

Which brings me back to my opening bit about the Europeans being so good at speaking English. Nick Gibb has recently supported the introduction of GCSE BSL. You can imagine it would be quite a popular take up. Modern Languages would benefit from having this socially inclusive newcomer in its midst. A language that learners can use at home and abroad.

BSL is a modern language in its own right and one which is unique. Not because it is signed, but because it lives in perpetual fear of death. Most deaf pupils have hearing parents. They all have to learn BSL as a second language. BSL is only taught by deaf parents to deaf children if the hearing loss is passed on. That’s a very small proportion of the people who are deaf. The language is also struggling due to the migration of deaf children from special schools where deaf communities operate to mainstream schools where deaf communities are not in operation. If they are lucky, they’ll meet a few other deaf people and have access to a signer (as well as a career in law).

If BSL GCSE gets introduced and indeed if the take up is strong this changes BSL as a language. I saw a video where the MP Angela Rayner was talking to her constituents and when one of them was deaf she switched to signing (she has BSL level 2) seamlessly. That’s the vision of BSL – it helps the deaf person access the hearing world. That’s how we should look at Special Needs and Disabilities (SEND) theoretically. I’m only deaf if I can’t access the societal thing which I am experiencing. Disability has liminality. It comes in and out of existence depending on the context. That liminality can be affected by making the context more inclusive – which is why we love all the Europeans speaking English (even though we make our own efforts to learn one or more European languages). When everyone is speaking English we can, as monoglot English speakers, access their society. They even speak English to each other in multi-national cosmopolitan areas – it’s the unifying lanaguge for them all.

There we have the reason for introducing BSL GCSE (and maybe even some at a younger age?) – we can bring that European experience for the monoglot English to the deaf – and keep BSL alive at the same time. And it’s happening – the GCSE will come in, we will find teachers for it and pupils will learn it. It will be fascinating to see it unfold. Mind you, I really ought to learn to sign…

Transposable habitus not disposable habitus

We discuss epistemology frequently here at the university and one thing we look at is whether knowledge is disposable or transposable. If you prioritise knowledge, you want to learn it. You make a conscious effort to recall it. If you don’t value the knowledge, you might comply with holding the knowledge within a context, but then throw it away once you leave the context. Quite simply, it becomes disposable knowledge.

I coined disposable knowledge in my book on technology-led learning. The premise is quite simple and still holds – some knowledge is disposable. E.g., if I want to do something on the computer, I don’t attend a ten week course on Microsoft Word. I google or YouTube some direct instruction, I learn just enough temporarily to undertake the task and then I throw this learning away. I deprioritise it and forget it. Why? Because if I really need it again, I’ll look up the direct instruction again. I perceive that it has little value for me in future unknown situations and therefore it does not get added to my store of highly valued transposable knowledge. There is also no escaping that some knowledge can become more disposable as time passes. Scientific and technological advancement can transfer knowledge from the science domain to the history domain.

Transposable knowledge, habits and skills combined equates to habitus, that term coined by Pierre Bourdieu – whose work has attracted more attention since Ofsted embraced the idea of cultural capital. These ideas all explore a central theme, the unknown future. We build up cultural capital and a transposable habitus that enables us to be successful in different, unknown future areas of our lives. We accept, always, that there are limitations to these concepts of Bourdieu, but this concept of transposable habitus does have a place in education.

We now turn to our teachers and teacher education – where we find trainees are building knowledge, habits and skills for future unknown schools – their transposable habitus which will equip them for a career in teaching and education. However, if they are in a school with a very fixed way of teaching and, even more, if it is a way of teaching that the trainee doesn’t believe in or feels is not evidenced, then it becomes a disposable way of teaching. Instead of moving from one school to the next with a large transposable habitus, they throw portions of it away and enter their next school with a much smaller amount of transposable habitus about teaching. We are fortunate in that our partner schools and mentors understand this and help the trainees explore different ideas about teaching beyond that in their room, department or school. If the mentor doesn’t use a projector, they understand that another school might be passionate about dual coding and so ensure the trainee explores this approach as well as not using a projector. Group work is another example. A good mentor explores both teacher-led and student-led work with their trainee regardless of their personal opinions.

One assessment on our course is that the trainee has to design a sequence of learning (a scheme or unit of work) and accompany it with an essay written at Masters level justifying their designed sequence of learning. They will cite both subject-specific pedagogy, such as the teaching of inference, and they will cite non-subject specific theories of learning: such as cognitive science, constructivism and behaviourism. They can draw on their school placements, the pre-existing planning they have seen and their wider reading for this assessment and it helps them crystallise their professional and autonomous ideas about teaching their subject. The planned learning that makes it into this assessment is the planned learning that they believe in. We are, through this assessment, trying to create in the trainee, transposable habitus that they can take to any school in England.

In designing this sequence of learning they can draw in the ideas, teaching and planning they have undertaken in their school placements. They hold these ideas up to the robust criticality of writing at L7 and justify their personal choices. They begin to make evidence informed decisions about their design of a curriculum. This habitus is transposable. They will hold their future planning up to such standards.

When a recently qualified teacher arrives at your school to begin their early career you have to be careful not to be too judgemental. What if much of what they learned was not valued by them and thus not transposable? What if the ideas they have learned to value aren’t valued at your school? They could have a miserable first year which could end with them leaving the profession. They might write their training and first job off as evidence that they were not cut out for teaching and we might lose an otherwise excellent practitioner. This debate also shows the need for entrenching teacher autonomy. If we want to keep teachers in the profession then we need to think about how to utilise and develop transposable habitus.

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Toxic teachers and toxic leaders

During the leadership and management workshops we run with the trainees, one of the concepts we introduce them to is that of toxic workers. The theory is quite simple: in an organisation there are people who work very hard and perform their jobs to an acceptable standard, but whose interactions with others is so toxic that they reduce the productivity of others. In short, their net contribution to the organisation and the profession overall is very poor compared to someone who perhaps does not work as hard, but is a pleasure to collaborate and work with.

When the trainees were invited to say if they’d met such people in their lives prior to entering the profession they all volunteered stories. These stories came from all kinds of professions, but also included schools. Toxic teachers, toxic leaders, toxic managers. And the theory says – toxic people can rise quite well through the systems. The system rewards people who are toxic. This can be from the martyred single person department who does 60 hour weeks with bitterness and moaning and who never collaborates right up to a school leader burning good teachers out of the whole profession in pursuit of an ofsted grade or a P8 score. The end result is the same – the net contribution to the organisation and profession overall is negative and easily outweighs any of the positives generated.

There is much toxicity in education. You see it on edutwitter: ‘edu-trolls’ – deeply criticising and undermining all and sundry whilst seemingly doing good themselves. You see them in teachers, disdainfully dismissing all ideas about education from others, the government, from HEI, from anyone really. Anyone can be toxic and it can take a number of forms.

Communication can be toxic – who are the people you dread emails from? Why do you dread them? Are they passive aggressive? Are they down right rude? Are they ad hominem? Do you write such emails? Are you toxic? We do need to be reflective about our own practice.

Face to face communication can be toxic. In meetings, it’s the same – whose presence do you dread in meetings? Who would you least like to have do a learning walk on you? Who would you rather not do duty with?

Recently, online meetings have been vogue. Toxic practice exists here also. People who dominate the video side with aggressive questioning, people who passively aggressively refuse to turn their videos on when speaking or notice that their video is almost black with lack of light, people who chat in the chat box throughout an important presentation – the list is endless.

Policies can be toxic. Which policies make you despair? No evidence for the policy, focused on ‘what ofsted want’, controlling for the sake of controlling, and so forth. Relentless mock exams with no costing of the hourage spent by teacher who have to mark them. With mock exams, an already busy few weeks have to make room for days and days of marking. Which policies affect your well-being and make you want to leave the school or profession?

We are turning the profession around these days – I genuinely believe we have more schools, federations, HEIs, MATs and LAs focused on well-being, work load reduction and a better profession. But we also need to recognise the toxic pollution in our system and be more conscious of it. Not replying all or CCing in someone to an email. Not using passive aggressive language in a meeting. Not formulating a marking policy which makes people leave the profession. Overall, making the profession a place where new teachers want to stay, not leave.