To London for a course, ‘Leading MFL to Outstanding’, because at Dunhurst we’re always interested in how to move forward. But I arrive at the course and spend the first half hour wondering what I’m doing there. The other teachers speak in acronyms I struggle to decode, and their talk is peppered with references to the markers of their daily pressure; Targets, Levels, Controlled Assessments, Marking Policy, Listening Assessments, Written Assessments, Assessments, Assessments, Assessments. Some are in ‘Failing Schools’ and ‘Special Measures’. Some are Good With Some Excellent Features. The teachers themselves are coded by numbers; they are a 2 or a 3 or maybe they are a 1 within a Good Department in a Failing School. It is bewildering, because on paper – as heads of school language departments – we all do the same job. But here nobody is talking about love of language, or creativity, or experimental ideas in teaching. Nobody talks about the children.
We are invited to share typical errors made in our subject, which the speaker demonstrates how to teach better. More acronyms feature, and memory tricks. No consideration is made that through making mistakes, pupils learn to find the right answers for themselves, because in this world of teaching languages there is simply no time for such indulgences as exploration or trial and error. Over the next couple of hours we are strongly advised to embed good language learning habits in our pupils, and I begin to see why the approach these teachers take is necessarily different from mine. Everything is geared towards achieving marks at GCSE. Stock phrases are memorised and then inserted into paragraphs to score points in some kind of Language by Numbers. Numbered posters on classroom walls provide a cunning shortcut in communication between teacher and pupil.
Pupil: ‘How do I say…..?’
Teacher: ‘Poster 3, Line 4!’
Learning language sound-bites might teach you how to pass an exam, but it won’t teach you how to speak a language. In the artificial language-learning environment of a classroom, repetition does feed into remembering, but outside the world of exams, repetition means revisiting the same thing many different ways, and remembering is not the same as memorising.
‘Who here still teaches entire verb paradigms?’ the speaker asks us. ‘I don’t! If you do, that’s up to you. Why don’t I teach whole verb paradigms? Because pupils don’t need them!’
At Dunhurst, we teach verb paradigms because when you know the verbs, you can be creative. You can talk about anyone doing anything. If you know the whole verb, you can see how other parts of speech fit into the language too, and then you can really communicate. But we’re lucky. Here, we teach children aged 8–13 who are not bound by public exams. We don’t do Common Entrance either. What we teach is a love of language learning, and that language is about communication. Body language and facial expression, the tone of your voice and your desire to make yourself understood, all contribute to your ability to communicate. We teach French as part of a wide, varied and interconnected school curriculum, where, for example, our topic on Victor Hugo and Les Misérables crosses over with history, music and art. We write tests on edible paper with edible pens, then mark them and eat them, because the process of learning is more important than the assessment. We write letters in Spanish to children in Nicaragua, and we invent new Mr. Men characters to explore descriptions in French. We watch French films and listen out for key words. We don’t need shortcuts because education is not a sped-up system that we need to try and cheat, but a long, luxurious soaking in of information, of deep learning.
How did languages in schools become so distilled that for GCSE we have ended up with a potted version, a minimum requirement, a ‘Greatest Hits’? What if MFL at GCSE borrowed something from the Dunhurst way, and was restructured, to accommodate a wider style of learning? Where culture can be explored alongside language or where different languages can be compared. Where students can invent dialogues to explore the intellectual and creative exercise of saying what they want to say, instead of assembling Lego bricks of language in a prescribed order? Until we ask the question, ‘What are the extended benefits of learning a foreign language?’ and with that in mind, ‘How can children best learn languages in school?’ pupils will never have the chance to explore language widely; the many, different ways of saying something in a new language, or which non-European countries share European languages, or find out about those countries’ art or literature or music. And we will be forever stuck with the maxim I heard from a teacher on the course, hoping to achieve Outstanding for her department; ‘The pupils don’t need to understand it, they just need to learn it!’ while those around her nodded in agreement at her words of wisdom.
When achieving Outstanding in MFL means that pupils can really try to communicate in a foreign language, then it will be worth exploring. In the meantime it is just another memory test, in an education system lacking in enquiry and enrichment. And when I look at what was on my desk when I came into school this morning, I know which I prefer, mistakes and all.
By Olivia Burnett-Armstrong, Head of MFL, Bedales Prep Dunhurst