The language of dissent

Language matters to Lea Rosenberg.

The former English teacher and high school principal who is now Deputy Director General of International Relations and UNESCO at Israel’s Ministry of Education recently made an impassioned appeal to fellow education policy makers that they, essentially, watch their language when talking about education. Using the terminology of other disciplines to discuss education policy, Rosenberg argues, does a disservice to education. Rosenberg was speaking at a high-level meeting of representatives of education ministries held at the OECD’s Paris headquarters in mid-October.
Marilyn Achiron, Editor at the OECD’s Directorate for Education, spoke with her after the meeting.

Lea Rosenberg: Throughout the years, when different paradigms from different worlds were introduced into the world of education, people were fascinated by the opportunities that these paradigms gave to education. They enabled larger and deeper views into what education is all about. At the same time, the status of education, compared to other professions, is usually low. So take these two things together and you arrive at where we are now.

We have talked about education through the sociological paradigm, where students are not people, but parts of populations. Of course, teachers should take note of the populations to which students belong and understand them, but that should not be the leading language of education. It is a “foreign language”. Understanding how students and teachers function is fine, but when we used the paradigm of psychology to discuss education – another “foreign language” – teachers started understanding students better, but they lost the notion of demanding something from students. If you don’t demand something from students, you cripple them; you treat them as though they are incapable.

Now we are using management language – talking of “inputs” and “outputs” – and we’re disappointed that the results are not what we expect. Principals and teachers should know and understand this language, but it is not education’s work. The same is true with the language of economics. We depend on economics: it is crucial, elementary to our existence. But this is not the language that should lead the world of education. For example, the word “accountability”: it deals with accounts. I would prefer that our teachers are “responsible” and not only “accountable”. Responsibility covers the range of human emotions, behaviours and activities – elements, such as caring, that are not covered by “accountability”. Students might do well in mathematics, but their morals and values might be terrible.

That is what we should be concerned about: What kind of person comes out of our education systems? The language of education focuses on being responsible for students as whole beings. Of course achievement is important, but students are human beings. The language of education is one of helping students overcome difficulties, taking differences into account, steering students through their mistakes so that they learn something and can then move on. Terminology affects the way we see the world. It affects the way we see students and the way we act towards them. This is especially true in education, where language is the only tool we have.

Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding
Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century – Lessons from around the world
Photo credit: Dictionary entry for “education”/Shutterstock

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