Education & the language of change


Occasionally a blog post comes along in your field which you feel is seminal, a must-read. Think Scott's just share or Jim's glass bees post. Last week it was George's turn, and his post on the commercial pressures and interests around education is thought provoking and honest as he wrestles with the issues. If you haven't read it already, then please do so.

One element I wanted to expand upon was the language of change that is employed by many both within higher ed, and in companies with an interest in it. The common phrase now is to declare that education is broken. I commented on George's post that this is really beginning to irritate me. I don't deny that there are issues in education that need addressing, but by labelling it as broken, the response then becomes obvious "well let's fix it". And I'd be surprised if the person telling you that education was broken didn't just happen to have a fix in their back pocket.

Mike Caulfield sums it up in the comments better than I did, by talking about a rhetoric of crisis and a rhetoric of opportunity. Our responses to these different uses of language can be profound:

"The rhetoric of opportunity is better than the rhetoric of crisis for a number of reasons. In a rhetoric of opportunity, things which are improvements move forward, things which are not do not. A rhetoric of opportunity doesn’t denigrate the people who are doing wonderful things now, and it doesn’t pretend that what we have now is any worse than what we grew up with."

I am not advocating a linguistic determinism here, but the way we talk about a subject has implication for our actions. For instance, in this study Thibodeau & Boroditsky found that the metaphors used to frame a problem influenced the solution that subjects proposed, so if crime was couched in terms of a virus or a beast like metaphor, would shape how people thought it should be handled. And interestingly, when asked to justify their solution they do so by using data and reasons that back up the original metaphor, even if they are unaware of the metaphor in the original text.

A similar pattern is happening with education – the metaphors and language we use is influencing the manner in which we progress. 

Like George, I have nothing against entrepreneurs, I feel that their agility can complement the rather slow nature of higher education. But I do resent companies or individuals trying to frame the problem so it places them in the powerful position of the new gods. There is one phrase anyone with a solution to a problem fears more than any other: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". In order to justify a cure, you have to convince people of the brokenness of the current situation. And again, this is not to suggest education doesn't have issues, but I prefer Mike's notion of a rhetoric of opportunity.

I don't have an easy solution, indeed I would suggest you avoid anyone who does claim to have a simple solution to the multi-varied, messy domain of education. But I feel very strongly that education is doing lots of things right, and it isn't a problem waiting to be fixed. It's a set of challenges and opportunities, which both those inside and outside of the current system can address.

For now, join me in this pledge – if anyone says education is broken, I will walk out of the room.

[Update – almost as if they were trying to prove my point, David Kernohan pointed me at which is asking people to take a photo declaring "Education is broken. Someone should do something." That someone being them presumably with their shiny dot com]



  1. So I know this wasn’t the main point of either your or George’s posts, but as much as you all want to resist the “education is in crisis” framing, I want to resist the “I have nothing against entrepreneurs” framing too. It sounds so reasonable but is exactly the logic that chisels away, inch by inch, notions of “public” “society” and “commons” and leaves us measuring using a balance sheet devoid of meaningful value. So absolutely, reframe, but be careful in reframing that you don’t simply throw out one meta-narrative (humanism, progress) for another (economic growth). The “opportunity” we face is to model a radical re-localization in a globalized world, not simply becoming better engines of “growth.”

  2. Hi Scott, I think I’m operating at a more micro level – I don’t mind working with companies, for example small software companies can be very good at getting some development done, or others are good at taking research and doing something with it. Universities are often slow, excessively bureaucratic and ponderous about this kind of thing. So I think there are complementary skills and approaches. And in India I got the feeling that people were setting up companies in the education space because they wanted to achieve something and waiting for government machinery to work would take too long.
    But what I don’t believe is that the commercial mindset is the ‘right’ one and their way trumps all other approaches (I got annoyed about someone trying to ‘teach’ me this here:
    So, when it’s mutually beneficial my experience has been that it’s a good thing, but when it’s predatory, it usually ends badly for all involved.

  3. Good post Martin and also the one about reality instructors.
    It stimulated the following note from me that I have just published to our campus bulletin board. The wider context might take some time to explain but be assured that there is going on down here a strong promotion of the entrepreneurial model of HE as an alternative, which is not only slightly bizarre (it’s called the Teaching Hospital model) but naive on the part of our leaders (they have no history of business acumen). There is a big political row going in SE Wales about HE, hence the reference in my post to emailing MPs and AMs.
    Post follows:
    Thanks to Dominic for posting those links and reminding everyone to write to their MPs and AMs about the increasing mess and chaos surrounding reconfiguration in SE Wales.
    I do hope that when we write we do not continue to repeat the conspiracy theory that is being propagated in order to explain HEFCW’s latest move in this complicated game. The famous Carry On line “Infamy, infamy, they”ve all got it infamy”, should remind us that this explanation can make us look silly and weak.
    I hope too that, simultaneously, we all take care to be intelligently critical of the broadly based entrepreneurial model of HE that is being promoted across the region but in particular by Newport (e.g see here:
    I point you to the blog posts below by a respected OU colleague (who recently gave a talk in the Graduate School) perhaps to provoke a discussion about how it is that the ”entrepreneurs” in our society (including the financial sector, and of course hoteliers), who have broadly failed to manage or nurture our economy (indeed, who may even be blamed for the mess) are now claiming the high ground when it comes to redefining HE as part of the solution for our economic repair and salvation.
    Martin Weller: Education and the Language of Change (2012)
    Martin Weller: Who are the reality instructors now? (2009)
    Must go, just saw a white rabbit (or was it HEFCW) going down a hole … must follow it …

  4. Hi Martin
    Thanks for pointing me here – I did try to comment a while back but failed and lost my comments (my fault).
    As you know, I’m here based on the ‘Perhaps Education isn’t that broken’ post I wrote recently –
    To this end, I just wanted to pick up on the ‘if it aint’ broke dont fix it’ point of view….
    This is a problem when trying to implement learning technologies – many staff do just fine without it, and (I’m sure partly) due to the fact the reward mechanisms in HE are not particularly great for such things.
    But I don’t think the statement is actually relevant, let alone helpful. So the rhetoric of opportunity is interesting.
    In a sector where we focus on development and enhancement of students (or pupils depending on which age range you work with), and somewhere we focus on research and development ourselves, I wonder if there is such a state of ‘not broken’, or indeed, ‘fixed’. Again, the adage isn’t helpful.
    Regardless of how ‘good’ a lecturer/teacher is, there is always improvement; Applying research to practice.
    So the point I made in my blog post, was suggesting Education isn’t broken, but it could be improved. It will never be perfect. I wonder how damaging the ‘if it aint’ broken don’t fix it’ attitude is to not only individual students who perhaps struggle to engage with certain approaches, but to whole programmes of study, and consequently the sector as a whole.
    Furthermore, what type message does this attitude portray to our students and graduates. I fear their inspiration to be better (if at all) will be more driven from the view of ‘not wanting to end up like lecturer A’, rather than ‘wanting to be more like him’.
    As someone involved in HE for about 9 years (in various roles across different HEIs), regrettably I have seen too many people who live by the unhelpful adage. And my inspiration, whilst often is to do best by my students, is also sometimes to not end up like ‘them’. For some reason, the fell out of love with the job. The day I do, is the day I leave the profession.
    So Education isn’t broken at all. But some of the cogs could certainly do with a clean and an oil!
    Sorry for the waffling :-)

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