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Audrey writes:

There has been an effort in the past few years to address the issue, unfortunately, for a large part, grammar has to be taught by teachers who were never taught it, therefore leaving pupils quite confused about what they have to learn.

There was a lot of “lost knowledge” when grammar teaching went into decline. As a result, the first drafts of the National Literacy Strategy document listing grammatical terms and their definitions were full of mistakes. These have now been corrected, but there is still some disagreement between English language teachers and teachers of foreign languages about the grammatical terms that should be used and how to define them. Terms for describing tenses are still widely misunderstood. The National Literacy Strategy document stated initially , for example, that English verbs have only TWO tenses: present and past. Teachers of foreign languages took issue with this, with the result that the KS3 strategy document for modern foreign languages now states: “English verbs have TWO BASIC tenses, present and past, and each of these can be simple or continuous” (my capitals). I believe I am right in saying that the word “basic” was missing in the first drafts of the National Literacy Strategy document. You still won’t find terms such as “imperfect” and "compound tenses" relating to foreign languages in the KS3 document, so neither teachers nor children know what we should be talking about!

Having said that, I don't believe in pure grammar teaching, especially to younger children. There comes a point, however, when you can't avoid using specialist terms when you are "talking about" language, and this is no different from "talking about" any other subject, from physics to football. I can remember being proud of the fact that at a relatively early age I could "talk about" French and German as well as being able to pronounce "Bonjour" and "Guten Tag" correctly.

Grammar can be fun. Many years ago (1979) I picked up a little booklet produced by Newcastle Polytechnic: "Xenophobowski's Guide to Grammar" by D.M. Kaufman. Many of the examples are amusing (and therefore memorable), e.g. under "Participles", Kaufmann writes:

"There are two sorts of participles: present and past, e.g.

going - He is going.

vomiting - They were vomiting.

gone - They have gone.

cooked - He has cooked the hippo.


National Literacy Strategy, Glossary of Terms: http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/literacy/...ramework/63285/

KS3 Framework for Teaching MFL: http://www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/keystage3...b/mflframework/

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However, my final conclusion is that each society gets the education system (and testing system) it wants. One of the discussion topics that my tutor, Glyn Bradbury, set us at Goldsmiths' when I was doing my PGCE in 1976 was "why do we have exams in schools?". We students came up with all sorts of good reasons like "to see what pupils know", then Glyn asked to consider the fact that society can't afford to send everyone to Oxford to receive the kind of treatment John described from his research degree. We need therefore some way of reducing the number of pupils who are able to use those specialist resources … which is what exam systems are for.

Stephen Ball said something very similar to me on my PGCE course at Sussex. By that time I had already read Doug Holly’s Beyond Curriculum (given to me by my brother who was already a teacher). This is something that does not seem to have been discussed since the 1970s.

Frank Parkin (Class Inequality and Political Order) argued that the introduction of comprehensive schools would create certain problems: “When children of all levels of ability are educated together it is more difficult to prepare future recruits to menial positions for the fate awaiting them. The ideology of such a system is one designed to heighten aspirations and to inculcate the values of achievement. If this is the dominant ethos in the school it is clearly difficult to institutionalize an entirely contrary outlook in those who appear to lack the abilities which lead to success in examinations and in the market-place.”

As Parkin predicted, comprehensive schools have to socialise pupils into the accepting the possibility of low status occupations fairly early in their school life. Streaming, school reports, positions in the class, SATs, teacher’s comments in the classroom, etc., help them to prepare for the “menial positions’ that await them.

Comprehensive education, based upon a belief in “equal opportunities” and dominated by an academic ethos, is in many ways a better preparation for “menial positions” as it reinforces the idea that people fail due to their own deficiencies. The message that is conveyed is that because people are “intelligent they find themselves in privileged positions” rather than “due to their privilege position people are intelligent”.

The defining of intelligence is of prime importance as it is in this way we exclude people from desirable occupations. Pupils usually eventually accept the definition supplied by the school as they see the “enforcers of reality” as being experts.

This has political repercussions, as Ian Hextal (Marking Work in Explorations in the Politics of School Knowledge) has rightly pointed out: “Evaluation is about man and our conception of him. It is about hierarchy and who has the power to denote one person or product as superior to another. It is about knowing and who has the right to know. It reflects the structure of our society and the forms of social relationship within it. In all these ways it is intensely political and we need to consider it in this recognition.”

A school with streaming, exams, grading, etc., will develop the aspirations of a minority but at the same time it will gradually lower the expectations and self-esteem of the majority. For the latter, this contributes towards preparing them to accept low-status jobs. Instead of taking violent action against a system that is working against them they eventually accept it because they believe they are inferior. In the words of Clarence J. Karier (Schooling and Capitalism): “If a man truly believes that he has a marginal standard of living because he is inferior, he is less likely to take violent measures against that social system than if he believes his condition a product of social privilege.”

This is a problem that currently faces our educational system. Tomlinson is trying to find ways of increasing the aspirations and motivation of the majority. This will involve convincing students (and the general public) that vocational qualifications are equal to academic qualification. This will be a difficult job. It will become an impossible one if Blair has his way of retaining GCSE and ‘A’ level exams.

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I think that one of the failings of the UK educational system as a whole is that it fails to "stretch" people, thus foreign languages are perceived as "difficult" in this country and therefore not essential, whereas in Finland and Holland, for example, they are perceived as essential and are studied by all pupils up to the age of 16. Once a subject is designated "essential", or a "core skill" in UK jargon, it is amazing how people can be stretched.

However, we have also failed to appreciate that while a gifted high-flyer might achieve CEF B1 (Higher GCSE) in French in 200 hours it could take 1000 hours for a low-achiever to hit the same target. Teaching non-streamed sets foreign languages has always been difficult, because of the element of progression involved, i.e. if you don't understand A then you are not ready to progress to B and if this process continues you end up with half the class not understanding a word of what is being said. There are relatively few documented cases of real success in teaching unstreamed classes foreign languages.

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It's interesting seeing this question in a Swedish context too. Society is officially 'classless' here, which means that we don't talk about class at all … which means in turn that the people with the sharpest elbows (and deepest pockets) have a tendency to get to the front of the queue anyway.

However, the absence of a national system of evaluation causes all sorts of problems for the elitists because they don't get any outward, visible signs of their 'virtue'! Before 1968 they used to have a horrendous system of testing 6th formers, which involved a viva voce before a committee of teachers and academics. If you passed, you were awarded a white peaked cap and went out of the front door, where your family and friends were waiting with flowers and champagne. If you failed, you were smuggled out of the back without your cap, and your family had to sneak off home. Needless to say, the higher reaches of the education system had very few working class people in them.

I've been teaching and training people in the field of English as a Foreign Language for years, and the longer I do it, the more pointless most of the evaluation systems seem to be. One great advantage I have is that few of my students really need the certificates they get - most need the actual knowledge and skills. I wonder what schools would be like if they worked the same way.

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David writes:

I've been teaching and training people in the field of English as a Foreign Language for years, and the longer I do it, the more pointless most of the evaluation systems seem to be.

I worked for five years on a project involving the development of language training skills for the airline industry. They set pretty tough assessment tests. The tests get tougher according to the level of importance of language knowledge in carrying out a particular job. There are documented cases of planes having had near misses or even having crashed due to a pilot not hearing correctly the commands from air traffic control. When they recovered the black box after an Air China plane crashed, the first officer could be heard saying "What does 'pull up' mean?"

I would be comforted to know that pilots' listening skills in English were rigorously tested in environments with lots of radio crackle and drop-outs, and with speakers using a range of weird accents. I would also like cabin crew to learn how to be a bit more polite - actually we developed a whole series of lessons on this aspect of language in English, German and Spanish.

OK, we're talking about vocational training, but this assumes that you already have the basics from school.

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There are relatively few documented cases of real success in teaching unstreamed classes foreign languages.

Maybe so. But surely you can understand why those in low-ability classes lose interest in the subject? I say this as someone who once got -4 for a French test (I spoke during the test and lost 10 marks).

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Why is it harder to teach MFL or Maths or Science in a Mixed ability environment? Historians have been doing it for years with great success.

It is challenging but it is possible.

I suspect that the UK's ongoing commitment to setting and selection has a great deal more to do with ideology than it does education.

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Andy asks:

Why is it harder to teach MFL or Maths or Science in a Mixed ability environment? Historians have been doing it for years with great success.

This question often comes up. It's not easy to give a simple answer. MFL is a skills-based subject as well as knowledge-based. The four discrete skills that are taught and tested are: Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening. It is not too difficult to teach Reading and Writing to a mixed ability group, as it's possible to divide up the class into different groups working on different tasks. If you have access to a language lab, you can quite easily teach Speaking and Listening to a mixed ability group, again by setting different tasks. The problem with Speaking and Listening, however, is that they are performance skills that have to be exercised on the fly - and in this respect they have a lot in common with musical skills or athletic skills. You end up with enormous differences in performance that cannot easily be reconciled, and these differences manifest themselves very early on in the language learning process. Thus, in a whole-class teaching situation, the tongue-tied child becomes extremely embarrassed in expressing him/herself in front of his/her peers, and the poor listener just sits there with the language washing over his/her head and literally not understanding a word. Mixed ability teaching of MFL canbe done, but it requires the patience of Job and a teacher with skills way above the average. There is a stack of research on this subject, most of which comes down against mixed-ability teaching of MFL - but the research that comes down on the other side is worth having a look at.




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Back to the debate about what should be taught - that is exactly the battle we are fighting here. With our new curruculum (btw I'm on front page of paper again today) the battle is between tose who believe that it is now impossible to teach everything and impossible to designate exactly what is, or will be, important, so you mandate only outcomes such as "communicating" and "numeracy" etc, and leave the teacher/school to decide how to reach those outcomes, and those who belive it IS possible to determine what is common and relevant and important for students to know. It's the "cultural literacy" versus "learning to learn" debate.

And because this is now being left up to individual schools here, we now have a huge varirty in what govt schools teach - from retaining the traditional subjects and embedding the "essential learning goals" into them (ie fudging it) to high schools which have completely given up all discrete subjects and do only cross-curricular units, often taught by teachers with no specialism in aspects of the unit.

I belive this is wrongheaded and will result in didaster for both kids and teachers, but our DoE is adamant that this is the way to go for the future.

Any responses welcome!

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by Michelle Paine

The Mercury, 22 October 2004

SOME teachers are eyeing early retirement or a career switch as curriculum changes bite.

The Australian Education Union said Tasmania's curriculum and assessment overhaul had left teachers and parents behind. Several teachers said they would quit and knew others who were considering quitting out of anger and fear. AEU Tasmanian president Jean Walker said she knew of teachers working out if they could afford to retire early, depending on their years of service or if their partners had a decent income. Also yesterday: * Education Minister Paula Wriedt said retirement rates were steady and there were plenty of new graduates. * A professor of education said employers wanted major change but big resources were needed.

-- Parents and Friends groups backed changes.

Mrs Walker said teachers had been telling the department about deep concerns.

Tasmania's schools have been phasing in the new curriculum for several years.

From next year new reporting will be phased in, with children marked on areas including communication and well-being.

"People are definitely telling us if this doesn't work out, they will move on," Mrs Walker said.

"The whole curriculum changes should have been opened up more from the beginning. Parents needed more education about this. There's doubt even whether schools have the capacity to carry out the new assessment."

Tasmanian State School Parents and Friends said it supported the philosophy of curriculum changes.

President Richard Pickup said change had been under way for several years.

"We've supported it on what we do know. Why didn't the teachers come forward before?" Mr Pickup said.

"There's still development going on. We don't know all the details and I can't speak for the teachers but we believe the change is for the better."

Education Minister Paula Wriedt said the new Essential Learnings framework had been in train for more than four years.

Ms Wriedt said there was no evidence of increased retirement or resignation, with 185 last year and 192 the previous year.

"The overwhelming response from teachers is in support of the Essential Learnings package and we are working with them to facilitate its introduction," Ms Wriedt said.

She said more teachers were being trained than ever and there was a "ready pool of young teachers" should there be an unexpectedly high retirement rate.

"I make no apology for changing the system for the better," she said.

One secondary senior teacher said the system was already creating mediocrity.

"Teacher morale has really suffered. Bureaucrats talk about them learning about world and personal futures (new assessment criteria) but they're playing with kids' futures," she said.

"It's not just assessment. The more subject areas become blurred, the more standards drop. It's turning out mediocrity."

She said children were "full of opinions" but had nothing to base them on.

Australian Council for Educational Research chief executive officer Geoff Masters said cross-curricular assessment was growing in popularity - teaching children to communicate and think rather than just remember facts.

Professor Masters said major change required a lot of time, training and therefore money.

Parents should also be clear about what they wanted their children to know.

privacy terms © Davies Bros

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Can anyone tell me which countries and which academice are watching us??? (See below) Some high schools now have NO compulsory subjects at all. others are retaining subjects and just "embedding" the outcomes into them. We have a complete mish-mash of what is happening in govt schools but that is apparently the way the whole world is going?

World eyes reforms


The Mercury 22Oct04

THE world is watching Tasmania's education reforms, says Education Minister Paula Wriedt.

Dramatic changes to the state's educational system will start from next year.

But teachers fear they are not ready for the transition, which will use vastly different assessment criteria from kindergarten to Year 10.

"This does require a big shift, it's quite groundbreaking," Ms Wriedt said yesterday. "I know some people are not comfortable with the change but equally there are many who are really excited about it.

"Academics from around the world are watching us. Students don't have to learn everything in the classroom as they always have."

Ms Wriedt said the basic curriculum had barely changed for decades yet the world was a different place.

A survey of teachers in May by the Australian Education Union showed more than 90 per cent did not have a good knowledge of the new assessment.

From next year teachers will prepare report cards on how students do in whole new areas. Once phase-in is complete, report cards will not list traditional subjects like maths or english, with a grade for each.

Instead teachers will collaborate on each student and mark their ability to communicate, think and deal with issues of social responsibility.

Ms Wriedt said there was a huge cultural shift in the education system but many were embracing it.

She also said the Tasmanian Certificate of Education was not being abolished.

Ms Wriedt said she realised the assessment part of the change concerned teachers most, but there was still another six months before they had to report in the new way.

A teacher who contacted The Mercury yesterday said many of her colleagues were sceptical and angry about the new system.

She said it was over-theorised, jargonised and difficult for teachers, let alone parents, to understand.

The secondary teacher said she would have to collaborate with every other teacher on her nearly 300 students.

She said her subject which now had about 10 criteria students were measured against under the TCE would soon be measured in only one area, and the changes would leave new graduate teachers floundering.

privacy terms © Davies Bros

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OK, we're talking about vocational training, but this assumes that you already have the basics from school.

It's interesting that your example comes from English for Specific Purposes. When it comes to language testing, I keep having confirmed for myself the suggested inverse relationship between reliability and validity. (These technical testing terms refer to the way the same answer to the same question will always be marked in the same way, which is 'reliability'. 'Validity' is the degree to which the test reflects the real world.) In other words, the greater the degree of validity, the smaller the degree of reliability, and vice versa.

Vocational training tests should have, of course, a very high degree of validity. However, when you get away from banalities, and very specific types of pseudo-language, such as SeaSpeak (the very specific code which is used at sea, where you don't say "could you repeat that please", but you have to say "Say again"), tests with low degrees of reliability (i.e. which rely on the tester's professionalism to give meaningful results) seem to be the only ones worth doing.

The problem for school systems is that tests with high degrees of validity seem to be very difficult to construct for any subject which doesn't resemble a vocational subject. This is what I meant when I referred to university teachers of Physics requiring students to 'unlearn' a lot of the false certainty they have picked from school.

In other words, if there were the kind of specific outcomes airline pilot training requires in History, then the writing of History exams would be nice and straightforward. The fact that there aren't is what makes the whole business of examining so contentious.

By the way, in my experience the 'basics' which the vocational students of English I teach have picked up at school are almost invariably wrong! I often find myself in the situation of my colleagues in Physics, getting students to 'unlearn' what the school system has rewarded them for.

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David writes:

It's interesting that your example comes from English for Specific Purposes.

Only with respect to language training for airline pilots. The materials we developed for cabin crew, check-in staff, information desk staff, et al. covered English, French, German and Spanish.

Most British school-leavers applying for a job, for example as cabin crew, would probably find that they could not pass British airline companies' language assessment tests in French, German and Spanish - even with a higher GCSE behind them. The assessment tests only assess general language skills, not language skills specific to the airline industry. This probably explains why most BA and BMI cabin crew who display the "language" badge on their uniform are not British but recruited from abroad.

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David writes:

These would still qualify as <language> for Specific Purposes …

Indeed, yes!

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