Education reforms lost in the language

When talking about education, we tend to lose our focus on ‘good teaching’ and replace it with ‘good learning outcomes’

Education reforms lost in the language

Language is not just a tool for communication. We use language to construct the social and political realities. In an essay written as early as 1929, anthropologist Edward Sapir observed that humans were at the mercy of a particular language and that their "real world" was unconsciously built up in the language habits of the group. The famous German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, spoke at length about his views on the affordances and limitations of language. "We are bound up with a language, we are hanging in the language."

A physicist of his stature, whose job it was to use language precisely, was painfully aware that while words were meant as a connection between reality and ourselves, we could never quite know how well they did this job. Sapir and Heisenberg were only two of a long line of 20th century thinkers who have talked about the ways in which language constructs, reveals, and more importantly, hides what we understand as reality.

In this column, I am concerned about how we are talking about schools. Far-reaching changes may be taking place in the way we use language to talk about schools and education. Seldom do we pause and think about how our ways of talking about education, both its policy and practice, may be creating as well as restricting the possibilities for thinking about education reforms.

A good deal of talk about the schools is now done in terms that were hitherto typically used to discuss the production of products and services other than education. We increasingly assume the learning to be something similar to, say, production of android tablets of certain specifications. Suppose we were to determine the relative productive efficiency of two or more production units producing the tablets. We would do so by measuring the number of tablets produced and the resources used to produce these tablets for each production unit.

The production unit that would combines its resources in such a way as to produce a given number of tablets at the lowest cost would be deemed the most efficient. Now all you need to do is substitute schools for production units and learning for android tablets. Schools, then, are production units, and learning is their product. Comparing them for relative productive efficiency appears to follow smoothly from this assumption.

Measuring production of learning has become possible due to the associated discourse of standards, which are statements about the knowledge and skills that must be acquired by children at different grade levels. It is also facilitated by development of psychometry, the craft of developing high quality tests. While it has been relatively easier to specify the knowledge and skills that must be acquired by all children at specific grade levels and to develop high quality tests to measure children’s achievement, it has been exceedingly hard to control the characteristics of the students.

 The public schools teachers appear as better paid, better trained, and a lot more experienced than those of the private schools. Yet, the learning, as measured by the standardised tests, produced by the public schools is less.

Thus measuring the effects of schools, particularly of teachers, on students’ learning has not been as straightforward as measuring the productivity of a production unit producing android tablets. While researchers have been devising and refining value-added measures of teachers’ effectiveness, estimation of the independent effects of teachers on the growth in students’ learning remains an unsettled problem. But these challenges have not prevented the naturalisation of a new way of talking about schools and their work.

And we should be mindful of the aspects of the reality of schools that this new way of talking about schools is removing us from our view.

When we are dealing with outcomes-based measures of performance, we are less concerned with the practices of teaching. The categories mentioned above cannot be used to talk about the dilemmas faced by teachers in their day-to-day practice. We lose our focus on ‘good teaching’ and replace it with ‘good learning outcomes’. We assume that latter are a proxy of the former, which is not always the case.

The questions that do not directly relate to learning outcomes become unthinkable in the new discourse. What we can say about education gets circumscribed by a discourse in which we cannot but talk about the work of schools in terms of production of learning, efficiency of schools as production units, and teaching as productive labour. I should caution my readers again that I am not acting like language police here but simply pointing out the affordances and limitations of a particular way of talking about education. We must be attentive to how our language about things ends up constituting their nature.

What does a good teacher look like in this discourse? A good teacher is always one, who, everything else being equal, produces more learning in students as measured by the standardised tests. There is no other way of looking at good teaching but through the lens of test scores. For absolutely good theoretical reasons, the researcher does not feel the need to observe what happens in the classrooms and what the chore of teaching actually looks like.

The value teachers add to the life of students beyond immediate learning outcomes is also increasingly being seen in monetised terms. For instance, the research can study the effect of the quality of teachers, so determined by using the value-added measures of quality, on the future incomes of the students (see,, P.25).

Yet, if you look back at your own experiences with good and bad teachers, you will not fail to recall the difference they made in your life, which cannot always be determined in terms of cognitive measures. Teachers contribute to the development of their students in a variety of ways that go way beyond learning science and mathematics. However, ways in which they contribute to such things, as building of character, confidence, and other individual attributes cannot enter a conversation dominated by concerns about relative efficiency and narrowly defined ideas about teacher effectiveness.

Many of these non-cognitive attributes may contribute to increasing people’s financial worth but they are not the ones, which are measured through the value-added measures currently in use. They are more worthwhile outcomes of a decent education in and of themselves, regardless of whether and how they contribute to a person’s financial worth.

Let us also take a look at the focus on comparative productive efficiency of private and public schools, which is also stated in the terms described above. When education scientists conduct comparisons of schools in these terms they find the cost of a unit of learning produced by the private schools as much less than that incurred by the public schools.

The public schools teachers appear as better paid, better trained, and a lot more experienced than those of the private schools. Yet, the learning, as measured by the standardised tests, produced by the public schools is less. Thus it is easy to see that private schools have more productive efficiency. The policy implications of these conclusions are straightforward: If private schools burden the society far less than the public schools, then the state must encourage the private entrepreneurs to establish and run private schools.

Since our focus is on relative outcomes and efficiency, we lose sight of what both public and private schools should be doing. We do not pay as much attention to the improvements in the quality of environment and opportunities provided in the public and low cost private schools to our children. We fail to look at non-cognitive aspects of children’s development. Take a look at the debates and reports about education and you will not fail to notice that we have ceased to talk about the potential contribution of schools [and its absence] to civic values and character-building of individual students in both public and private schools.

In the passing, I should also mention why the use of language to talk about education may work differently in mature liberal democracies as compared to Pakistan. Liberal democracy is a bi-polar [dis]order with liberalism and democracy as two of its essential poles.

In liberal democracies, the discourse on education is also bi-polar and keeps oscillating in a space defined by the polar opposites of liberalism and democracy. There are those who are inclined towards the liberal pole and push for market driven solutions for education. There are others who are more committed to democratic equality, and hence push more for using education to transform society and make it more equal and egalitarian.

The important aspect of these debates is that markets and politics, and their manifestations in educational discourse, remain in a state of balance in such societies. In Pakistan, however, we do not suffer from the same bi-polar condition. We pick up snippets of market driven discourses and become prone to using them as the only language to talk about education.

In the 1990s, as I recall, we had similarly picked up terms such as learner-centred pedagogy which were more current then but were grounded in the democratic aspect of educational discourse in the western democracies.

We must recognise that our way of talking about social reality ends up constructing it for us. That is to say, the categories we use to talk about something also constitute it as a social and political reality. Therefore, we must decide what values in education are important to us, and whether the language we use to talk about success and failure in education conserves those values.

Education reforms lost in the language