Navigating the AI revolution in education What do schools need to consider?

The text below is a transcript of the video, above. I hope you find it useful ☺️

Today, we’re looking at how teaching machines to learn could have an enormous impact on how we humans teach and learn. Let’s take a closer look at the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in education. Is AI the future of education? Or is it another teaching fad? Let’s find out.

As the great Douglas Adams once wrote about technology adoption:

“Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

And so, there are indeed plenty who, as Adams put it, are making a career in it. The past few months have seen an explosion in the number of posts, videos, tedtalks and all sorts of other content on the pros and cons of using AI in schools, as well as the tools and strategies that teachers and students can use to adopt AI effectively and in a manner that supports both teaching on the one hand, and learning, on the other. And that is great. We do need that.

But there are also those who view the adoption of AI, often of any technology, with more scepticism. And that is quite healthy too. Mustafa Suleyman, the founder of Deepmind and more recently, Inflection AI, the creators of the really quite amazing chatbot PI, says that “if you don’t start from a position of fear, you’re probably not paying attention”. Over time, and with experience, I’ve learnt to listen to pessimists, as they keep us grounded, after all they are the ones who insist on putting seatbelts in cars.

At a practical level, it is reasonable to be concerned with the what of AI (here’s what you can do with AI, have you seen this new fancy AI tool?). On the one hand AI does promise to make learning dynamic, interactive and personalised (think Duolingo), but on the other hand some fear it could be used to replace teachers and many worry about cheating and about the reliability of the content that language models such as ChatGTP produces.

Others might be concerned with the how of AI (here’s how you can use AI to lighten your workload, here’s how AI can help you analyse data…). It is important to recognise that AI can help teachers assess student performance and in so doing help with, for example, the planning of lessons or the giving of feedback (if you’re interested in finding out more about how to give better feedback, watch my video on making feedback effective)

But for me the most important and perhaps first question we should ask about the adoption of AI is not the what or the how, it’s the why. Why would we want to use AI in education? After all, we have managed pretty well thus far without it?

For me the principal reason is knowledge. Professor Daniel Willingham says “you can only think deeply and critically about what you know well”. In other words: deep and critical thinking is based on deep knowledge.

If we want students to become skilful and knowledgeable users and developers of technology; if we want them to think critically and creatively about the advantages and disadvantages of using AI and technology more generally, it behoves us then to teach them not just about the foundational knowledge related to AI (what it is, how it works), but also the ethical, economic, and societal considerations and implications.

And the urgency is there because AI is already woven into most parts of our lives. When we use voice assistants, when we shop online, when we stream films, when we use social media, when we plan car journeys… From this perspective, we should teach our students about AI not because it prepares them for the future, but because it prepares them for the present.

However, we would be wise to proceed with caution, not because AI might take over the world and eliminate all humans, that’s not on the cards – well, not yet anyway – but because we’ve been here before.

What do I mean by that? Well, I’m old enough to remember when social media was going to bring communities together and when making the sum of all human knowledge available online to everyone was going to democratise access to information and make us all cleverer and better informed. Not sure that worked out just how the optimists had hoped, myself included. .

Sure, there have been numerous advantages – for example enhanced interactivity and collaboration, and the ease of access to information is real – but in hindsight it might have been better to ensure the social web, as it became, were better regulated so as to mitigate some of the disadvantages – disinformation, access to harmful content, issues with personal data….

There clearly needs to be a balance between regulation and innovation, let’s take that as a given. I’m just not sure we ever struck that balance with social media companies, and, to a not insignificant extent, we are living with the consequences of that today. As professor Rose Luckin puts it “we must ensure that AI serves us, not the other way round. This will mean confronting the profit-driven imperatives of big tech companies.”

Better, more effective regulation then seems to me to be part of the solution to the problem caused by indiscriminate, unthinking and, I suppose, unintelligent use of AI, where consequences be damned. Yes, AI could potentially help us find a cure for cancer or solve our energy issues, but it could also conceivably help unscrupulous interests develop bioweapons or start the next war.

As educators we should be interested in the advantages that using AI could bring to teaching and learning, while remaining mindful of the potential disadvantages. AI is already being used and abused in ways that many of us would not have foreseen just a few months ago. .

Let’s recap briefly how a school’s digital strategy should adapt to the routine use of AI:

  • A strategy document or policy should define the scope. WHAT is the definition of AI and WHAT does it cover? The strategy or policy should identify WHAT is good and WHAT is bad about AI.
  • It should tell us HOW AI can be used but also HOW it can be abused. HOW are we encouraging appropriate use and HOW do we propose to mitigate when it’s potentially misused.
  • Most importantly, it should make the reasons WHY we are adopting AI clear. The reason WHY we teach about AI is not because it does clever or gimmicky things. The reason WHY is because we recognise its value as an important, and maybe even necessary component of a holistic education.

If I were foolish enough to make a prediction, I’d probably suggest that artificial intelligence will be even more embedded into our lives than it is now, in both good and bad ways. In education I can see AI helping pupils routinely to navigate through personalised curricula, probably still in support of old-fashioned timetabled lessons, while assisting still very human teachers in curating and selecting resources, as well as in marking and assessing. In this future I imagine, classrooms remain reassuringly familiar, where technological possibilities don’t get in the way of educational necessities.

And it could be that in that future, just like in the present, the wholesale application of technology to every aspect of teaching and learning though theoretically possible, just wouldn’t be preferable.

But who am I to make predictions, as physicist Niels Bohr is reputed to have said “making predictions is hard, especially about the future”.

How to give effective feedback Five ways to make your feedback a roadmap to sucess

The text below is a transcript of the video, above. I hope you find it useful ☺️

Today, we’re diving into the world of giving feedback. Imagine feedback as a map guiding us through the landscape of learning. I first came across this navigation analogy while listening to Dylan Wiliam. His speech is available online.

According to Professor Wiliam, effective teaching has three key principles at its core: “finding out where learners are in their learning, finding out where they are going, and finding out how to get there”.

Professor John Hattie agrees. According to Hattie, feedback refers to “the process of securing information enabling change through adjustment or calibration of efforts in order to bring a person closer to a well-defined goal.” I know. A bit of a mouthful, but essentially a perfect description of feedback.

Not many teachers would dispute the essential role that these adjustments, calibrations and course corrections play in successful learning, yet teachers habitually view giving feedback as an onerous and often thankless task, particularly if teachers are made to follow feedback policies that focus on the gathering of evidence of feedback rather than on the quality of the feedback.

Ok, so what do you need to make feedback effective? Well, five things really.

Number one: Make your learning intentions and criteria for success very clear

Never assume that your idea of what success looks like is shared by your students. As novices, it is likely that they only have a rudimentary, low-resolution grasp of where they are going whereas you as an expert in your subject you can see it in high definition thanks to your knowledge and experience.

This means that you need to articulate your outcomes really well so that your students can visualise the destination and begin to make those course adjustments. This gives your students a X on the map clearly signposting the direction of travel.

Having painted a vivid picture of what success looks like, we then need to refer back to it frequently in our teaching. Remember that your feedback is only effective if your students know where they need to go, otherwise your directions lack the most crucial point of reference: the destination.

Number two: Deliver feedback regularly throughout the learning, not after it

It sounds obvious, but often we save the bulk of the feedback for after an exam or the completion of a task or a project. And that’s often just too late.

Effective feedback is all about guiding learning along the way, not after the fact. That’s why a satnav alerts you when you’ve taken a wrong turn, and that’s also why a good driving instructor gives you guidance in real-time to steer your progress.

So don’t wait to give detailed feedback after a summative end of unit test or end of year exam, as there is little the learner can do to alter the result at that stage.

It makes much more sense to give feedback regularly during the learning process, so as to modify teaching and learning activities, then we have a better shot at improving student attainment. After all, feedback is formative assessment, and formative assessment is only formative if it happens during the learning, not after it.

Number three: Focus on how feedback is received, rather than how it is given

Research suggests that the belief that improving student motivation through praise will automatically lead to higher achievement is flawed. In fact, the opposite is true: achievement has a much larger effect on student motivation than praise.

Professor Hattie, who I mentioned earlier, writes that students tend to be future focused, and that they can find critique “unnecessary, lengthy, personal, and hurtful”.

Students are sensitive to the climate in which criticism is given, so teachers need to focus on delivering feedback that does not dwell on negatives and focuses on the positive. Another way to think about this is that we would be better off by establishing a positive and friendly climate in which the feedback is received, rather than attempting to engender such a climate through excessively congratulatory feedback.

Number four: Tailor your feedback

School teachers often feel they need to, or sometimes are expected to provide extensive, individualised feedback after every task. In reality, the feedback you provide will need to vary depending on the stage of learning and on the task.

So tailor your feedback based on what your students truly need. For beginners, simple corrections are often best, and, as they grow and make progress, you can shift to deeper, more strategic insights that support their learning journey.

While personalisation may seem a laudable aim, the truth is that students are more alike than they are different. So, consider for example dedicating some lesson time after a task to provide general feedback — this may be as effective or more effective than attempting to leave individual feedback in writing for everyone in your class.

This shift can ease your workload and counterintuitively give you the time to provide targeted intervention where it’s most beneficial.

Number five: Make sure feedback is a two-way process

Professor Wiliam suggests, “feedback should cause thinking” and it should generate “more work for the recipient than the donor” . With these two principles in mind, we ought to focus our efforts on providing feedback that engages the learner just above their current level of attainment by setting achievable challenges.

If they are not achievable, stop what you’re doing and sort that out. You may need to, for example, reteach a topic

And we should not be afraid to stimulate a degree of cognitive dissonance between where the student self-assesses herself to be and where we would like her to be. Providing this cognitive dissonance is not too large (or too small), it should motivate the student to strive to make the leap to the next step in her path to achievement.

Teachers should think of feedback as an integral part of a sequence of lessons, not as a remedial addition.

Informal feedback should also happen continuously and should be woven seamlessly into our teaching. On the other hand, formal feedback should be given regularly to cause students to act and think about their own learning.

Giving feedback and teaching should therefore not be considered as two distinct activities, but rather as one and the same.

To finish up, let’s think about these key questions :

  • Are you making your learning intentions and criteria for success very clear?
  • Are you delivering feedback regularly?
  • Is the climate in which you are giving feedback positive and friendly?
  • Are you tailoring your feedback according to the learners’ needs?
  • Are learners acting on your feedback?

I hope you have found this useful and helpful. Remember feedback is not about leaving a trail of evidence; it’s about mapping out your intentions, and timing your feedback wisely. Most importantly, keep in mind that feedback shouldn’t be a postcard we get at the end of the journey; it should be the compass that guides us to our destination.

If there is anything you would like to contribute or, if you have any feedback for me, please leave a comment below, and consider liking the video and subscribing to the channel if you found this content useful.

A space for learning What can remote learning teach us about the future of teaching?

During a school holiday not too long ago, I visited a museum that featured a meticulous recreation of a Victorian classroom. Chalk and caning aside, I was struck by the similarities with classrooms today, well over one hundred years later: a dais, a board, desks and exercise books all seemed reassuringly familiar.

Sure, educational philosophies have pendulated between traditionalism and progressivism various times, and pedagogy has matured to take into account what science and research have ascertained about how best to teach and learn since those desks were last occupied by school children who weren’t dressing up.

This got me thinking about the future. But not in the way that you might imagine: my thinking was not an abstraction about the ways in which society will be transformed by technologies that haven’t been invented yet or about preparing children for jobs that we haven’t yet imagined. You see, I prefer to think about the future as something that you build, not something that you simply enter without agency. And the best way to build the future is to lay strong foundations in the present.

For all their ills, the past few months have given us an opportunity to evaluate what a different kind of teaching and learning might look like. And the conclusion is perhaps not what one might expect. Technology has undeniably helped to keep the heart of the school beating. Lessons have continued without interruption, schoolwork has continued to flow and we have continued to work together, separated only by distance.

While accentuating our distinctively human ability to overcome difficulty through the judicious application of technology and innovation, as time went on a connection exclusively reliant on ethernet cables and wireless access points also proved to be very much second best to being in the physical company of other folk. Offshoring the school system to the internet turns out to be possible, it’s just not preferable.

There remains of course a place for the sort of informal online learning that works well for the self-directed, the inquisitive and the knowledge-thirsty. We have all resorted to YouTube to find out how to change the oven clock or to Wikipedia to discover with surprise that we were never taught about the English Armada. On the other hand, formal online learning of the sort sometimes offered by universities and other specialist outfits has remained on the fringes of the educational landscape because, quite bluntly, given the choice, people prefer people.

Strangely this description of the present may offer the clearest glimpse of the future yet. Despite enjoying the use of technology that was firmly in the realm of science fiction in the living memory of many, classrooms remain identifiable through generations. Whatever new technologies arise, they will do what technology does best: they will become invisible for us to rely on inadvertently, assisting people in the indispensable endeavour of learning from those who came before us, so that those living in the present can become the agents of their own future.

If I were foolish enough to predict the future, I’d probably advance that artificial intelligence will help pupils routinely to navigate through personalised curricula in support of old-fashioned timetabled lessons, while assisting still very human teachers in curating and selecting resources, as well as in marking and assessing. But I wager that in another 30 years, by the mid 2050s, we’ll still find classrooms reassuringly familiar. This is the future I would like to build. But I don’t really know. And neither do you. All we really know for sure is that making predictions is difficult, especially about the future.

This article was first published in The Gryphon, Embley’s termly chapbook.

Changing education for the better What one thing would you do to improve education?

Last year I had the privilege to interview some of the people I admire the most in education for the Shooting Azimuths podcast. Each episode always ended with the same question: what one thing would you change to make education better? Answers ranged fairly widely from the practical to the philosophical and are transcribed below.

Dominic Norrish – Chief Operations Officer, United Learning

It’s a bit weird and counterproductive for this country and, I think, the world to view education as something to be crammed into the first fifth of someone’s life. We let them do nothing else pretty much between the ages of 4 and 18, and then there’s this sense of that that is probably enough, that you have proven yourself, and that you can get a job and not have to worry about learning anymore. Obviously some will continue learning at University and beyond, but there’s not really much of a culture of having to. And we don’t have a culture where it’s expected that when you’re, say, age 50, it would be time to go and pursue the next stage of your education, which might be a PhD. Instead it seems to be very much “let’s get education out of the way, and then get on with doing stuff”.

If you think back to when we were going to university, when Google and Facebook didn’t exist – two institutions that in just in the last two and a half decades have completely changed the world’s economy, politics, and freedoms. Now we have elections have have spun upon things that didn’t even exist 25 years ago, and may not exist in 25 years. The world is changing incredibly quickly, and the idea that you can find out everything you need to know by age 21, and then just kind of sit back and do a job for 40 years, is insane. So I would like to see ongoing education a bit more mandated, and lifelong education to become the expectation.

Listen to Dom’s full podcast here.

Andy Buck – Author, school leadership expert, and former headteacher.

Well, I think I’m going to take a leaf out of Simon Sinek’s book and start with Why. And my Why is the data that has come out recently about teacher retention. As is the case, and has always been the case, we’re losing about a third of our teachers within the first five years of them being in the profession. And that seems to be a constant message. It goes up and down a little bit every year. But broadly speaking, that’s the figure. We don’t have a teacher recruitment crisis in this country, we have a teacher retention crisis. So if that’s the Why, then you have to ask yourself, well, how is that happened? And I guess it’s because of workload that that sense of fun that was in the profession is harder to create now than it was. And because of all of the accountability pressures that exist for teachers. And why is that happened? Well, because leaders are feeling that from the system. And inevitably, that gets transmitted down the system.

And so for me, if there was one thing I would change, it would be the way that the accountability system in this country is balanced. I’m not for one minute suggesting that we don’t need to have accountability. We absolutely do. We spend a huge amount of our gross domestic product as a country and our taxes on the education system. So, of course, there needs to be accountability. But if the if the accountability balance isn’t right, you’re creating a toxicity in the system that ultimately leads to you ending up with that retention issue that I’ve just described. There are some quite simple quick wins, I think, that could be put in place that would really ameliorate some of some of these challenges.

Listen to Andy’s full podcast here.

Dr Jill Berry – Author and former headteacher

I would want to do something about the workload challenge. I think that, for a combination of reasons, we are losing good people from the profession who feel ground down by not just the amount of work that that teaching and leadership at all levels involves, but the fact that it doesn’t always seem meaningful and productive work. I think we need to ask some tough questions about what we’re spending our time on, and about what’s worthwhile. And if it doesn’t lead to the development of our learners, we’ve really got to ask ourselves whether we are using our time wisely.

I think teaching is a wonderful job. I think leadership is wonderful. But it is a job. It’s an important job, but it’s a job. And if people feel that they cannot do this job well and still have a life, it’s not that there’s something wrong not with them, there’s something wrong with it with the nature of the job. So I would really like us to tackle what are we spending our time on.

When I look back, I think I have wasted years of my life in unproductive marking, making marks on paper that students haven’t even read, let alone take take note of. I would do feedback very differently if I had my time again. And I think, in the bad old days, teachers were expected to spend a lot of time marking and on detailed planning documents, because other people were checking up on them that they were working hard enough – as in big brother – just making sure that you’re not cutting corners, rather than asking: is this marking really helping the students? Is this planning really helping the quality of the lessons? And if not, then let’s do it differently.

And I’m hoping that the current challenge and what we’ve been through in the past few months as we negotiate the Coronavirus is helpful here, because we’ve had to think very carefully about what we’re spending time on and what is helpful in terms of pedagogy, support and pastoral care. I’m hoping we won’t just go back to old habits, but that we’ll be questioning more. And using our time wisely that that’s the big thing that I would want to address in the profession.

Listen to Jill’s full podcast here.

Daniel Sabato – Deputy Head (Academic), Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls

One of my bug bears with with education is the conveyor belt approach to education: once you start education you’re then on a conveyor belt that gets you GCSEs, then A Levels, and then it’s off to university and you get your degree. I think it’s important that as a sector, we start talking more widely about what the point of learning is and about what we in schools are to do.

I think our students’ love of learning peaks really early on. When they come to us in Year 7 they are fresh, they’re desperate to just soak up secondary school and experience their new subjects and make new friends. They’re fresh and keen to get going and then that dissipates. GCSEs then suck the life out of our students, and then they come back to you in the sixth form, and you have to relearn some of the skills – certainly in History, the subject I teach – to make them better historians because GCSE really wasn’t that beneficial.

What opportunities do we create for the for our students to immerse themselves in their love of learning and the love of subjects that they’ve chosen to study in key stage four and key stage five? We need to move away from that culture of, well, if it’s not on the mark scheme, then I’m not really interested in learning about it. And that’s a real challenge.

Listen to Daniel’s full podcast here.

Professor Daniel Muijs – Dean of the School of Education and Society, Academic University of Applied Sciences

So it would be to make sure that every teacher in the country has access to the best possible initial teacher education and professional development so that every child gets taught by people who are up to date and who have the subject knowledge and pedagogical knowledge to support them as best they can.

Listen to Daniel’s full podcast here.

Oliver Caviglioli – Designer, expert in visual teaching strategies, and former headteacher

Teachers nowadays complain, quite rightly, that the thing they are shortest of is time. And when you look at the teaching professions in other countries, they not only have time, but they organise it so that the planning is collaborative, and they bring in experts to help you. So when we look at observation of teachers, it is no longer so heavily focused on the personal performance, and therefore accountability of the individual teacher,  but rather it becomes an appraisal of the planning and its probable execution.

So it’s far more responsible, and it’s more mature in a way that it looks at it as a design issue. Then, of course, there’s the execution. But, most of the time, whether it is successful or not will depend on the design. And that becomes a collaborative venture because we all have different points of view and different levels of experience. And when that happens, teachers become more knowledgeable rapidly.

For example, if I went back to my language teaching, and I was co-planning a lesson with you, boy, even before I went in a classroom, I would have learned so much, and then my lesson would be far more successful because I’d be following your experience and guidelines and expertise. And then it’ll be satisfying. And I’d want to stay in the profession. And I’d be looking forward to the next planning session with you.

Listen to Oliver’s full podcast here.

Clemmie Stewart – Senior Head of Prep Schools, Surbiton High School

For me, it’s about equality of outcome, in terms of how the outcomes perceived by others. And what I mean by that we can very quickly fall into the rabbit hole of thinking everyone should be aiming for a top 10 university or a Russell Group university or Oxbridge. And I think those are really incredibly impressive outcomes for certain children. But I also think that all outcomes should be tailored for each child.

There are children who will absolutely flourish in an apprenticeship, there are children who will flourish during BTECs, ones that will flourish doing a foundation in art or drama. And I think that, as an education system, we should be placing equal value on all of those outcomes, recognising that every outcome will be different for every child. And I think, as soon as that’s done, you don’t then have this hierarchy of pride, of pay, of those sorts of things. Actually, you have a system where, if we’ve done our job right, every child has every door open to them, for them to go out and achieve what they deserve to achieve. But those achievements should be recognised equally, I think.

Listen to Clemmie’s full podcast here.

Professor Dame Alison Peacock – Chief Executive, Chartered College of Teaching

I would remove the current Ofsted system and I would replace it with a peer review system. I would retain Ofsted just for those schools that are in tremendous difficulty where, for example, there may be safeguarding issues.

I would scale back that workforce and I would make sure that the people who worked there were real experts. But I would prefer a peer review system within schools because the vast majority of our schools are already good or better.

Listen to Alison’s full podcast here.


What one thing would you change to make education better?

Thanks for reading and please consider subscribing to the Shooting Azimuths podcast, which is available on all major platforms or via this link.

In conversation with Alison Peacock Shooting Azimuths – Episode 8

Shooting Azimuths is a podcast in which it is my privilege to chat with the people I admire the most in education.

In this episode I talk with Professor Dame Alison Peacock, who is Chief Executive of the Chartered College of Teaching. Alison explains why it is important to raise the status of teaching as a profession; highlights the role of the Charted college in achieving this; advocates for a teaching philosophy that ensure that learning is without limits and in which children thrive with appropriate challenge; regrets unreasonable accountability in schools; and proposes a system of peer review that eliminates the need for Ofsted as we know it.

This podcast is available in all major podcasting platforms. Please subscribe to keep up with new content.

In conversation with Clemmie Stewart Shooting Azimuths – Episode 7

Shooting Azimuths is a podcast in which I get to chat with the people I admire the most in education.

In this episode I talk with Clemmie Stewart, who is Senior Head of Prep Schools at Surbiton High School. Clemmie advises aspiring leaders on leadership behaviours; discusses the role of social media and podcasting (Clemmie hosts her own podcast with Dr Emma Kell) in developing the profession; refers to her TEDx talk to explain the difference between snowplough parenting and trampoline parenting; celebrates pupils’ grit and resilience during the coronavirus emergency; explains the importance of children retuning to school after lockdown; and finally reflects on the importance of giving children the chance to succeed in whatever they are good at.

This podcast is available in all major podcasting platforms. Please subscribe to keep up with new content.

In conversation with Oliver Caviglioli Shooting Azimuths – Episode 6

Shooting Azimuths is a podcast in which I get to chat with the people I admire the most in education.

Oliver Caviglioli is is a former headteacher, author, designer and expert in visual teaching strategies. In this episode, Oliver explains dual coding and the benefits it brings to lesson design; discusses how visual teaching strategies help the learning process; talks about Walkthrus, his collaboration with Tom Sherrington; and highlights the importance of allowing teachers time to work collaboratively to design lessons.

This podcast is available in all major podcasting platforms. Please subscribe to keep up with new content.

In conversation with Daniel Muijs Shooting Azimuths – Episode 5

Shooting Azimuths is a podcast in which I get to chat with the people I admire the most in education.

Daniel Muijs is Deputy Director (Research and Evaluation) at Ofsted. In this episode, Daniel and I discuss why schools get inspected and what schools can expect from Ofsted in the context of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic; Daniel also provides guidance for schools, leaders and teachers generally on why and how to become evidence-informed. Daniel and I go on to discuss the value of basing educational decisions on research; and the importance of good quality initial teacher training and continuing professional development.

This podcast is available in all major podcasting platforms. Please subscribe to keep up with new content.

In conversation with Daniel Sabato Shooting Azimuths – Episode 4

Shooting Azimuths is a podcast in which I get to chat with the people I admire the most in education.

Daniel Sabato is Deputy Head (Academic) at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls. In this episode, Daniel and I discuss what schools can expect from exam results this year; the pros and cons of organising a teaching and learning conference; the importance of becoming evidence-informed; whether the genie is out of the bottle now that schools have been forced to contemplate alternative means of provision and conducting their business; and the “conveyor belt” style of education.

This podcast is available in all major podcasting platforms. Please subscribe to keep up with new content.

Tongue-tied Languages after Brexit

Hundreds of thousands of years ago early humans stumbled upon an elegant way to transplant their thoughts and ideas, which would otherwise have remained hopelessly trapped in their own minds, into other people’s heads, and all without the need for scalpel and stitches. You may not be able to read my mind, but you can listen to it.

However, whereas I might listen to and delight in the enchanting cadence and witty sagacity of a Quevedo sonnet in its original Spanish, others who don’t know how Spanish is encoded would only hear a string of apparently random sounds. In order to ascribe the correct meaning to these sounds, they would need the key to the end-to-end encryption: they would need to know the language.

As the old adage goes, understanding another language is to open another window on to the world. It is as difficult to explain as it is easy to underestimate the richness in knowledge and understanding that multilingualism brings to those fortunate to be able to peer onto a world that has acquired wider horizons and deeper perspectives.

Yet, despite the advantages that speaking other languages bestow, language learning remains a declining trend in the United Kingdom. To get a sense of why this might be, we turn to former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, who, in defending compulsion for foreign language learning in primary schools, observed that some people even take “a perverse pride in the fact that we do not speak foreign languages, and we just need to speak louder in English”.

There is more to it than the exceptionalism to which all former colonial powers are prone, though. Language learning is often looked on from an absurdly utilitarian perspective that learning a foreign language is only relevant if you holiday in Spain, own a house in France or import car parts from Germany. Yes, of course there is some utility in being able to order dos cervezas or say bonjour to your village baker, but this is not looking at the world through a bright new window; it is more like looking at the world through a pinhole.

The path that the United Kingdom has chosen for itself after Brexit is often described as “Global Britain”. But will Britain ever be truly global by continuing to shout louder in English? Those who love, learn, study, work and trade with us in English will be the ones reaching out globally, while we remain tongue-tied, monolingual and under our insular delusion that what we can see through our pinhole faithfully represents the confines of our globe.

This article appeared originally in The Gryphon, Embley‘s termly chapbook.