Language, ‘learnerfication’ and music education

jackie schneider @jackieschneider · Dec 18
Why do schools persist in saying “engage with parents”? What does it actually mean? Sounds like patronising jargon to me.
0 replies 2 retweets 3 favorites

Yes,‘what does it actually mean?’

I think it may mean that ‘engaging with parents’ is a strategy through which gains are to be made, there will be outcomes to measure. I think it may mean that this is more about a transaction than a relationship.

Does any of this matter? Well, yes it does, because language and the way it is used shapes the way we think, limits or expands the way we think, manages and controls the way we think and above all infects the values we hold. The expression ‘engage with parents’ is one that has formed only recently. The expression has only recently been thinkable and thus an indicator of social change and a move towards education being thought of in managerial terms. [1]

Jackie’s example leads me to think more generally (and I hope she wont mind me doing this) about the language of education and in particular the language of learning that currently dominates educational discourse.

Have you noticed how the language of learning grows by the week? You may know about ‘learning walks’, ‘learning behaviour’, ‘learning mentors’, ‘the learner’ and there is ‘life-long learning’ spoken about as if we have no choice in the matter. Language does political work.

In all this there is loss of attention to the idea of education.

For some time this has been the concern to Gert Biesta, who argues that the concept of education is in danger of being reduced to learning and learning in danger of being reduced to a matter of inputs and outputs. In this the teacher’s responsibility to exercise judgement is diminished. [2]

This ‘learnification’ [3] of educational discourse gives nurture to the idea that there is a ‘what works’ out there waiting to be universally adopted in order to maximise outputs. ‘Learnification’ is there to do political work.

‘Learnification’ encourages certainty, induces the avoidance of risk. Yet Biesta maintains that the wonder of education lies in its uncertainty, its invitation to take risks and the possibility of the teacher experiencing virtuosity.

The question is sometimes asked: what are the ideal outcomes of a music education? Outcomes-outputs!

Would we ask: what are the ideal outcomes of a holiday, of learning to play an instrument, of attending a concert, or listening to a piece of music? Perhaps, but this is the wrong question. [4]

What if the question were: what are the purposes of education and in tandem the question: what are the purposes of music education? Or better still: what is education for-what is music education for?

Biesta sets out three overlapping areas in which educational purposes function. Below I translate these into the case of music.

1. Qualification: the ways in which music education qualifies people to do things-equipping them with knowledge, skills and dispositions to make music well and to think about it critically.

2. Socialisation: the induction of newcomers into existing practices, into the cultures of making-music.

3. Subjectification: the person becoming a unique individual, subjectively enriched and able to feel a sense of personal freedom, even emancipation through music. [5]

Now learning has been put in its place with the teacher exercising responsibility; for 1, 2 and 3 call for the exploration of values so that action has an ethical basis.

jackie schneider @jackieschneider · Dec 18
Why do schools persist in saying “engage with parents”? What does it actually mean? Sounds like patronising jargon to me.
0 replies 2 retweets 3 favorites

Yes, Jackie is right. What does it mean? Why not ‘work with parents’, ‘work alongside parents’?

What might have been a relationship has become a transaction in the cause of securing particular outcomes-outputs.

Without attention to the concept of education and its purposes ‘learnification’ and its narrow vocabulary of key words, with ‘engagement’ to the fore, will continue to grow in influence shaping how we think, what we think, what we say, what we do and ultimately infect the values we hold.

‘Musical learning’ – there’s one to watch!

And of course ‘engagement’ can be the most beautiful of words. [6]


[1] See Fairclough, N. (2011) ‘Discourse and Social Change’, Polity: Cambridge.
[2] Biesta, G. (2013) ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education.’ Paradigm Publishers: London. (See also Biesta’s ‘Good Education in the Age of Measurement.’ Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.)
[3] Biesta regrets introducing such an ugly word. However, it makes the point.
[4] I first met ‘learning outcomes’ when attending an introduction to the Key Stage 3 Strategy. Outcomes were distinguished from objectives. I asked how they differed. I received an answer of technocratic complexity that left me none the wiser.
[5] Biesta, following Ranciere (see ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in intellectual emancipation’, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1991) offers a fresh way of thinking about emancipation.
[6] In drafting and re-drafting this blog I have found myself using language thoughtlessly. Alot more could be said about the use of language. Ok, here is a little more.

In January’s Music Teacher Magazine David Ashworth criticises academics for their use of jargon. David gives the example of ‘cognitive dissonance’, ‘existentialist’, ‘pedagogical’ and ‘meta’. However, these words relate to rich and valuable concepts and as such aid thought, analysis and understanding. What is important is that in using such words writers consider their audience. If the audience is broad and inclusive then don’t use them or use them with qualification and within a generous context so that they can be understood. Otherwise there will be alienation. I wince when I see academics parade esoteric knowledge in a manner that feels like an expression of power. Cognitive dissonance by the way is when I bought a car, thought my choice was fully justified only for my daughter to progressively point out the car’s faults. I stood my ground at the cost of experiencing cognitive dissonance. It wasn’t painful. See – Eventually I changed car.


3 thoughts on “Language, ‘learnerfication’ and music education

  1. LJ's new name

    It would be good to acknowledge the way bits of language have a rise (when they are fresh and useful), zenith (when they are useful but starting to be used in more diffuse ways) and fall (when they are degraded and mostly used to maintain power). Overuse and abuse of language begin at different times in different places. There are, believe it or not, many ordinary people still watching Ken Robinson online and finding the use of the term “Learning” fresh and invigorating. But for those steeped in thinking about music education,”Learning” is already, perhaps, reaching the end of its useful life.

    I am still at the zenith stage with “Learning”. I still find it a helpful way of distinguishing the school’s purported function (adults and children learning things) from the other things that happen amongst large groups of people in hierarchies (fighting one’s corner, achieving power and influence, avoiding humiliation, etc). But “Learning” clearly enjoys no immunity. I’ve seen the references in the staff briefing to “Learning Walks”, the context of which is enough to reassure me that this is a term to do with euphemistic references to power, and not something I need to look up (and so I have not tried to find out what it means).

    Thus “engage with parents” may be bullshit or may be very helpful, depending on who says it to whom and why. Perhaps even “outcomes” and “objectives” – which I simply ignore and have never felt a need to ask about – have been fresh for some people sometimes.

    We must watch out lest flourishing becomes the next buzzword.

  2. Thank you LJ. It is good to have a response and some fresh thought. All that you say makes good sense.

    I am currently re-reading the Biesta in order to understand better his argument and his central concepts lest I too easily appropriate them and lose their richness.

    In Biesta’s book he shows how the language of learning does political work. He is meaning policy work rather than the small ‘p’ political work of every day interaction.

    Yes, so depends on who is saying what to whom and why as you say.

  3. But of course in small ‘p’ work ‘the discourse’ is being embedded.

    Interesting that ‘teaching and learning’ started its rise to its current zenith in the late 1990s while its likely source was in Bruner’s work in the 60s and 70s.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s