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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society



By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 18 March 2015

Frank Coffield
At the end of a recent conference, we were invited to share what we’d learned and one student offered: “What I’ve learned today is that we should build co-construction together.”
Another conference opened with this remark from a specialist in education management: “The polity in general and educational governance in particular have recently undergone a paradigmatic shift.” Before he could utter another word, a school governor (a local industrialist), cut in to ask “I’ve heard of a morning shift, but what in heaven’s name is a ‘paradigmatic’ shift?” If academics continue in this vein, there will soon be calls for simultaneous translation into English.
We are being pressurised to maximise impact so perhaps it would be a good idea, when addressing teachers, to omit the technical jargon, the tired (if not completely expired) metaphors and the comforting euphemisms. Recently I’ve read in publications aimed at teachers: “tariff-point intake criteria”, “Foucaultian analytics of power”, “transgressive holism” and “the reponsibilization of pupils”. These are not isolated examples, as are phrases like: “toolkits for teachers”, “thinking outside that” (ubiquitous) “box” and that (apparently inescapable) “bottom line”.
Euphemisms that serve to prettify the unacceptable also need to be exposed. Dennis Potter called them “sugared lies”. Two examples. When students swear at tutors or draw male or female genitalia on the smart board, their behaviour is called “challenging” by researchers and managers, a challenge they avoid themselves by not teaching. Secondly, we are asked to believe that “quality is assured” by grading lesson observations from “outstanding” to “inadequate”. The scoring system doesn’t assure quality, it’s a management tool to control teachers. It shapes the very behaviour it claims to measure so that teachers retreat into safe modes of transmitting knowledge, without innovation or risk.
In too many educational publications, straightforward arguments are becoming unintelligibly complicated, because alternative interpretations, abstruse references, and obscure digressions – or, (this how to do it), enriching elaborations, erudite comparisons and fine distinctions – are added in brackets, subordinate and relative clauses. The resulting tangle of ideas is then peppered with inverted commas to distance the writer from any naïve interpretation. The process reminds me of how soup can be thickened by adding dollops of cornflower, which then float in indigestible and glutinous lumps on the surface. The thicker and less palatable the resulting mixture, the more some academics rave about the dense nature and the multiple layers of meaning in the text. To change the metaphor, the complexities begin to turn in on themselves like ingrowing toenails and are no less painful.
I’m not asking for discomfiting findings to be watered down or for difficult ideas to be simplified or distorted. I’m asking for them to be made as widely accessible as possible. The interactions between teaching, learning and assessment can be explained in all their rich complexities without resorting to technicalities. Each discipline has its own technical jargon, but it should remain an internal language. Steven Pinker points to the physicist Brian Greene who who “can explain an esoteric idea in plain language without patronizing his audience.”
Basil Bernstein once told me I’d get nowhere in academia if I persisted in writing in clear English: “You’ll have to invent some neologisms.” I wish I’d thought to ask him if I’d get by with some new words. Basil is at one end of a continuum where original and powerful ideas are explored in depth, calling for effort to understand them; at the other end, are pretentious imitators who use long-winded terms in the hope of turning banal observations into enduring profundities.
Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the archaeologist and TV star of the 1950s, was once accused of vulgarity for trying to bring his findings to a broader public. He was challenged by a venerable don who boasted that he wrote his papers with only five experts in mind. “Having read your articles, Professor,” Sir Mortimer replied, “I’m surprised at your ambition.” 
Frank Coffield is emeritus professor at the IOE. His most recent book is Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving Teaching in Further Education, Institute of Education Press

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  • 1
    Dr Andrew Boocock wrote on 21 March 2015:

    A technical or academic term may be natural to an academic but confusing to a non-academic. The word ‘paradigm’ has a meaning and should be understood by most teachers. I don’t think academics should stop using the language of their academic discipline. The key thing is to explain what the words mean: to teach the teachers, policy makers or managers. Foucaultian analytics of power should be taught to all involved in education i.e. regimes of power and apparatus of control. It is used by Matt O’leary in his analysis of the OTL process.
    Words and concepts that are not generally used in society – e.g. performativity, student commodification, impression management, auditable commodity etc etc – are not immediately understandable but have meaning. We can’t abandon them. They are not meaningless

  • 2
    Frank Coffield wrote on 19 April 2015:

    Dear Andrew,
    First please accept my apologies for taking so long to reply to you but I have been preoccupied with other deadlines. I do not think there is a great difference between out two positions. I did not suggest that we abandon technical terms. Rather I argued that they should remain an internal language among experts. I said so explicitly in the blog.
    Let me take an example which may help to tease out any difference between us. I do not need to be convinced that teachers should be involved in discussions about regimes of power and control, but I would need some convincing that the way to attract teachers to read about these crucial ideas is to mention “Foucaultian analytics of power.” That phrase is more likely to dissuade teachers from reading Foucault than encourage them to open one of his books. And I do want teachers to read his work.
    Best wishes.