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. We once used to learn more about metallurgy than we do now!

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 will also draw on theories of knowledge and assessment – it’s a complex task. 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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Proof – the final frontier for teachers

Is it time to return to the cult of the teacher?

It’s the first thing you get told when you come into teaching: what works with one class doesn’t necessarily work with another.

A trainee teacher might lament after a lesson (that did not go so well) where they had repeated the plan from another class and their sage mentor would say – it might have worked quite well with 9x, but 9y are a different class.

This is not about learning styles, which has been substantially criticised. This is about knowing the individuals in your classes. A good teacher is always thinking about ‘maximum learning’. Don’t mistake this for, ‘entertainment’, ‘engagement’ or any other glib insult. We are not ‘making our subject interesting’ – our subject is interesting. But we are fine tuning the lesson to the unique community of learners that have been assembled to experience the subject with us in the form of lessons.

If we are really honest this is one of the biggest issues with the accountability system. A school’s results and standards of teaching don’t go up and down so dramatically as measured from year to year as the data likes to report. What happens is that one cohort is very different to another in terms of collated outcomes. A senior manager prays that a specific cohort goes through the system out of sync with the ofsted inspection cycle of a school. God help any school if ofsted turns up shortly after their one dodgy cohort’s variable results. This is really an amplified version of what Becky Allen refers to as ‘noise’ – the variables that can affect outcomes and attempts to measure progress using what is actually non-comparable data. A school could be comparing one good cohort with one not so good cohort and be deemed terrible or amazing depending on which came first. I’m afraid Progress 8 has done nothing to prevent this from happening as others have already said. The off-rolling we have seen is a direct result of people trying to manage this ‘noise’ and its impact on accountability measures. Indeed, having read Becky Allen’s blogs on closing the gap you begin to think the issue with the RCTs of the EEF is that they need to make stronger their awareness of ‘noise’ and how schools cater for this when exploring ideas that emerge from the RCTs. Rather than use the RCTs as eternal proof that setting, technology or any other intervention ‘works’ or ‘doesn’t work’, one should see the output from these RCTs as a source of information and evidence that could be useful when looking at one’s own specific cohorts (and remember, every year group is different).

All too often, we end up looking for the silver bullet. We try to remove the very thing which makes us human from the school system – our variability. Once all variability is removed then we can finally say that our resource or pedagogy is proven to work with all. Yet the inherent variables and other influential attributes all mean we cannot prove that something ‘works’ for everyone and every school.  That’s why social science can never lose its subjectivity or its lack of ability to resolutely prove things in the way that medicine likes to do. It’s therefore why you can’t ‘prove’ anything in education. But you can get the next best thing: a teacher.

A teacher, through forming a deep relationship with a class, can use their knowledge, intuition and teaching to maximise the outcomes for the individuals in that class. Those outcomes will be many, varied and not always measured or be measurable. Those outcomes will be assessment outcomes, aspirations, values, passions, inspiration, personal growth and so forth. Some will be quantified and some will be qualitative. The teacher will subjectively work out which methods, from their vast list of methods and evidence, are best for this group of individuals. It’s an amazing feat of human engineering and it’s a time-honoured ability: to be a truly amazing teacher for a class. And it’s the closest thing we will get to proving something works in education. You want a silver bullet? There it is: the teacher.