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The limitations of bricolage: Ofsted’s Curriculum Research Review for Languages

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 April 2022

JESHOOTS-com / Pixabay

Norbert Pachler and Elspeth Broady.

During 2021 and 2022, OFSTED has published a number of curriculum research reviews seemingly with the aim of identifying factors contributing to high quality school curricula and how subjects can best be taught with the help of research findings.

Whilst attempts to leverage research findings to underpin, inform and improve subject pedagogy must be viewed as laudable and desirable, the curriculum research reviews raise a number of important questions and issues, certainly if the recent furore over the maths review is anything to go by (see e.g. Schools Week but see also the journal Routes for a discussion of the review for geography). While controversy is seemingly more intense in some subjects than others, common problematic features emerge from the reviews in general:

  1. one pertains to the appropriateness of a regulatory body engaging in research synthesis for arguably political and/or ideological ends;
  2. another is about the (methodological) rigour with which the selection of the research was undertaken, the systematicity of the analysis of the research selected and the veracity of the conclusions drawn;
  3. then there is the question of the backwash effect on school inspection; and
  4. a fourth issue concerning the impact on the role of teachers as pedagogical agents and the importance of local, contextual knowledge in making choices about the appropriacy of curricular and pedagogical choices.

Given these concerns, as editors of The Language Learning Journal, an academic, peer-reviewed journal of the Association for Language Learning published by Routledge, we felt compelled to commission a Special Issue of the journal. The Special Issue published in March 2022 50(2) is available Open Access until May 2022. We invited key researchers in the field of language education, whose work has been drawn on by  OFSTED as well as some lead practitioners, to respond to the OFSTED conclusions,  the interpretation of the findings that they offer and the recommendations made. The contributions to the Special Issue from the very researchers the OFSTED Curriculum Review draws on testify to the partiality of the reading of the language research presented and underscore just how inattentive it appears to be to key contextual factors such as local visions of language education or structural and organisational features of provision.

In our editorial we problematise some of the common features above, for example by critically discussing the ‘what works’ policy agenda underpinning the approach. We regret the ideological influence seemingly underpinning the choice of studies, their thematic focus (e.g. cognitive science, phonics etc) and the research paradigm underpinning them (i.e. randomized control trials) as well as the relative absence of practitioner knowledge.

In a blog post on the NEU website Warwick Mansell explores one of the contentious dimensions underpinning the curriculum reviews, namely the unequivocal assertion – based apparently on cognitive load theory and a cognitive science view of education – that learning be defined as ‘an alteration in long-term memory’ and that ‘progress means knowing more and remembering more’. This aligns with the former Minister for Schools’s convictions around the centrality of subject-based content and a knowledge-rich curriculum which, he argued vociferously, would lead to the creation of a more inclusive and cohesive society by giving pupils more prior knowledge and the opportunity to learn more.

In the OFSTED Curriculum Review for languages, this thinking translates into a narrowing of the curriculum focus onto linguistic ‘building blocks first’ with a view of explicitly taught and consciously learned bits of language being automatised. ‘High-quality’ language education, the review asserts, should focus primarily on the three ‘pillars’ of phonics, vocabulary and grammar – at the expense of important dimensions of language learning such as the learner’s sense of identity or an exploration of how languages are relevant to them. This reductive approach, we would argue, is not supported by wider research on language teaching and learning. Other important dimensions that are backgrounded by the review are the centrality of communicative interaction and exposure to authentic target language as these are judged likely to ‘demotivate’ learners. As regards vocabulary learning, the review – erroneously in our view – promotes a focus on a limited number of high-frequency words at the expense of encouraging an adequate size of vocabulary to support meaningful language learning.

As Steve Smith rightly points out in his blog post about the review for languages, it is highly selective and there is a clear political aspect to it as there was to the Teaching Schools Council Review in 2016 on which it builds. The author of that document is now the permanent chair of Ofqual. Smith continues: “it’s also hard to say that the guidance will lead to improved outcomes. We’ve done pronunciation, vocab and grammar for years. Is it the case that we just haven’t done it well enough? Are there that many schools just relying on pupils ‘picking up’ the language?”

We want to conclude this blog post the way we concluded our editorial, namely by questioning the validity of a research review being undertaken by a body responsible or school inspections with the objective of articulating a ‘shared’ vision of ‘high-quality’ language education. What scope is there for critical voices and professional pedagogical judgement in such a thinly veiled politicization of (language) teaching?



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