Can sin a-rithist?

Failte gu Fluffy Sciences! Is mise Jill NicAoidh. Tha aon cat agam. Seo Athena. 

In late 2019, Duolingo launched the Scottish Gaelic version of its app. My dad and sister have been learning Gaelic for some time, and I’ve been trying to pick up a few phrases here and there. I’ve been doing this mostly through Speaking Our Language, a brilliant BBC Scotland series that I think is supposed to take place in a post SNP victory Scotland where English has been outlawed and people wander around Glasgow stumbling through broken Gaelic with frightened faces. Its wonderful and I love it and you should watch it:

At school, I didn’t find languages easy, and therefore I considered them hard. Like many perfectionist people I would then announce I was terrible at languages. After a few weeks of playing around on Duolingo, I can confidently say I speak more Gaelic than German, which I learned at school for many years. I’m trying to avoid ‘classifying’ my language abilities these days as part thinking about how assessment and learning intertwine. 

In education conferences, particularly whenever gamification is mentioned, Duolingo is the Ur Example people use to illustrate how points, leaderboards, and rewards can be used to motivate learners. Both myself and my partner have taken the app up this month, he’s learning Spanish, I’m learning Gaelic, and I have some thoughts on how gamification and motivation tie in. 

I am very motivated to learn Gaelic. My little sister is currently shaming me, which is a big one, but there’s something beautiful about reviving a language that I see on signs every day, but is spoken by very few people. I recently learned that my grandparents used to speak Gaelic in the home, and my teuchter family must have done for many generations. It’s strange to think how quickly a language can disappear. 

There are lots of benefits to learning a language. There’s reasonable evidence that being bilingual slows the onset of Alzheimers, and learning new skills as an adult (and educator) can help you think more about learning. There is also, for me, a huge benefit in being able to read the street signs in my country. 

When you drive from England to Scotland you pass beautiful blue signs that read Failte gu Alba! I’ve had that said to me several times, but in my head I always read it as ‘Fail-ta goo Alba’. Now I read it, naturally, as ‘Fael-Cha gu Alaba”. Many people in Scotland use odd turns of phrase or strange grammar. The Scots dialect would say “It’s wanting cleaned”, and I see echoes of that in the way Gaelic constructs sentences, tha mi ag irraidh ti. I’ve no idea if these parallels are true, but I feel as though I’m recovering something precious. If it’s something I can do to roll back ‘Scottish Cringe’ I’m all for it. In primary school we were simultaneously taught to recite Scottish poetry but penalised for writing ‘yous’ and ‘wur’, and there’s a lot that’s needed to undo that damage. 

Learning on Duolingo is interesting though. I’m fascinated by silos in learning from a curriculum design point of view. There’s a phenomenon where if you learn something in one context you aren’t able to generalise it to another context. I feel like I’ve been fighting learning silos for my entire teaching career, and it frustrates me no end to find my own Gaelic abilities vanishing the moment I close the Duolingo app. I’ve peppered some Gaelic throughout this blog, all phrases I can reliably type into the app, and all of them I had to google in front of my word document. Duolingo does suggest you should write down as many phrases as you can remember after a lesson, but is that enough? When you scaffold ‘extra’ learning outside of class time, is that really divorced enough from the course context to break down these walls?

Both my partner and I have observed that our language skills aren’t persisting outside of the app’s ‘classroom’, even though we’re both motivated to learn. I have no answers for this problem, yet, but it’s been an interesting experience to have first hand. 

Tha mi a’ bruidhinn Gaidhlig, tha mi cho toilichte.  

Jill Goes Back to the Chalet School

It was my birthday recently, and one of my friends gave me an old copy of The Chalet School. It’s one of the best presents I’ve ever been given. I’ve been hunting for the Chalet School books for years, but they’re very difficult to find and seem to be out of print at the moment.

For the uninitiated, the Chalet School series was written by Elinor M Brent-Dyer in the 1920s. It is probably a trope codifier for the ‘boarding school’ genre in English fiction. There are 58 books in the series and I reckon in my childhood I read a good 50 of them. The books serve as morality tales, preaching obedience and diligence to the girls, while recognising that the most fun girls still have character flaws. Jo, one of the great heroes, frequently is described as dishevelled and romantically dreaming of Napoleon’s conquests.

When I was little, I could devour two or three of these books in a week, so I imagine there was a period of about a year when I was obsessed with them. I remember constructing elaborate fantasies in my head about being sent to the Chalet School where I could somehow become Jo, and my two younger sisters would also be sent to the Chalet School and they would cause trouble and I would have to rescue them, while nearby a handsome Doctor would be waiting for me to turn of legal marriageable age. I also remember going through a period of putting brushes in peoples’ beds and being deeply disappointed by my mum’s utter lack of reaction (an excellent example of negative punishment).

I was aware that the Chalet School existed in another time. After all, it takes ten books to get to the second world war which lasts another five books in itself. But reading the book as an adult, there were a few things that jumped out to me. Firstly, I vividly remembered the odd feeling I had when Simone and Jo interacted and I recognise now that I identified their relationship as romantic long before I identified myself as bi. Secondly, the quality of the German in the book is appalling. Thirdly, the imperialistic tone of the book is really quite troubling at times even if you do try to remind yourself it was written in 1925, the same time as The Great Gatsby and Mein Kampf.

But the fourth thing . . . I think we could learn a little about curriculum design from the Chalet School. Re-reading the book, not just as an adult, but as an educator, was fascinating. I was never one to play ‘teacher’ as a kid (my fantasies were more about letting both my little sisters nearly drown in the ice-covered lakes of the Tyrol before deigning to rescue them in the nick of time so I could be lauded by a much older Doctor), so it’s interesting now to note how often the Chalet’s School’s curriculum is referenced. The girls are very much trained to be good wives, with needlework and mending forming a decent chunk of the timetable. They also must be fluent in three languages and possess good numeracy skills (which many of the heroes struggle with).

I’m not advocating a return to home-making skills in our higher curriculum, but in both the #UoELTConf18 and VetEd18 we had discussions about how much higher education should encourage community spirit and social responsibility. There was considerable debate in fact about to what extent it’s the responsibility of universities to do this. Many of my friends and family work in all stages of teaching and I happen to know that (in Scotland at least) there is a focus on community in early years education, so I’m not trying to pass this responsibility on.

In some ways, I wonder if we come at this from the wrong perspective. Perhaps what we’re really asking for is authentic assessment. In my elaborate self-insert fantasies where a handsome doctor was waiting in the wings for me to turn 18, I was being assessed on how good I’d be as a wife. That assessment is unique to each individual pairing, and has unique criteria. I really like Guliker’s et al (2004) framework for thinking about authentic assessment. They suggest that authenticity comes from:

  • Task
    • i.e. a problem which will occur in practice
  • Physical context
    • i.e. in a space that will be equivalent to the space that you’ll be in in practice
  • Social context
    • i.e. reflecting the social structure you will be in in practice
  • Assessment form
    • i.e. the output of the assessment has a relevance or parallel in the real world
  • Assessment criteria
    • i.e. the things you mark are relevant to how that task will be assessed in the real world.

 

If we stay with the Chalet School a little longer, the tall Doctor waiting in the wings will presumably want me to remain calm under pressure around patients (i.e. rescue my drowning hypothermic sisters), in an unsupervised environment (The Austrian mountains), while not pointing out any of my working class roots (jolly good), and provide continued life for my sisters while keeping up appearances the whole time.

I think that when we wring our hands over whether our students demonstrate social responsibility and community spirit, we’re actually bemoaning how our programme design and assessment don’t translate to what the real world values. Unlike the Chalet School, we don’t want to produce good spouses in higher education, but we do want to produce good citizens. And therefore we need to make space in our curriculum and our assessments to reflect that importance.

And if anyone spots any other Chalet School books int he charity shops . . . . do let me know.