The Drawbacks of a World-Class Education
For those in the know, excellent communication skills—especially in English—are essential to success in today’s global labour market and society. But how are education systems responding to globalisation and to the increasing prevalence of the English language, and what does this mean for marginalised learners?
The ability to communicate well in English, or in any language, can be defined as “expressing and conveying an idea through a set of signs.” Recent evidence suggests that we develop 80 per cent of our brain capacity within the first three years of life. This means that by the time most children hit school age, they have already passed some of the most important years in terms of learning, in whatever language their environment allowed. It might seem strange, then, to realise that 221 million children will begin school in a language different from that of their home environment.
A global language
This new school language may be the national tongue, e.g. Hindi, or Russian. Alternatively, or additionally, pupils are often expected to learn English as well. English is increasingly being incorporated into school curricula across the globe at both primary and secondary levels. Indeed English is seen less and less as a foreign language’ subject and more as the global language. It is the most widely used language in international business, communications and social events. It is also the medium for more than 80 per cent of the information stored in the world’s computers.
In contrast, at the turn of the 19th century, only around five per cent of primary schools offered this subject around the world. In the post-war period, however, there was a dramatic rise in the number of primary schools that taught English, from a global average of around 30 per cent in 1945 to 70 per cent in 2005. Similarly, in secondary and higher education, more and more courses and publications are being taught and produced in English.
Challenges of a new language
The impact of introducing any new language before learners have mastered basic skills in their mother tongue has been shown to be extremely detrimental and one of the key reasons for drop-out, according to a UNESCO commissioned study across 26 countries. This seems to be especially the case for young learners, which is contrary to previous thinking that the younger the child, the more efficient a second-language learner he or she could be.
The challenge of having to master a new language is all the more difficult when combined with a low-quality education system and poor learning conditions, such as poverty and hunger. As learners advance through their education, it is not guaranteed that their English level is adequate for learning other subjects in English, but this may well be required at later levels. In other words, language risks creating an augmenting educational barrier for children and young people, which can disadvantage them permanently. Through what process, then, did English become a part of the legitimate, even imperative, educational knowledge base in primary, secondary and higher education around the world?
Processes of change
More and more middle-class parents in the world see English as a prestigious language which empowers learners to have a better
life in social and economic terms. Governments too, are motivated by social and economic reasons: English may create a shared identity, smooth out ethnic or social differences and inequities across multi-lingual areas. Meanwhile, close economic, political and cultural ties have flourished across countries through the medium of English. This trend has been supported by the political and cultural dominance of the US in recent decades, and also by the increasing need for a common language across the EU amongst non-Anglophone countries. In many developing countries, the inheritance of a former colonial education system, without the resources for renewal, has also contributed to this trend.
Prominent academics in the field of educational sociology have suggested, however, that such national characteristics play only a small role in the expansion of English and point the discussion to larger, more institutional trends in an increasingly consolidated international community. As a result, both parents and governments have started to see English as a means to improve an individual and a country’s chances to compete in globalised “knowledge based societies.” According to this line of argument, the worldwide expansion of English instruction essentially reflects the nature of a modern international system with its actual and perceived political, cultural and economic interdependence.
The “world model” and its limitations
From this perspective, current school curricula reflect worldwide educational norms, conventions and mentalities rather than local needs. What parents or governments, or indeed any stakeholders in education systems around the world should consider, however, is that these motivations are based on a series of assumptions that should be questioned.
John Meyer, an esteemed educational sociologist from Stanford University, suggests that the worldwide educational norm is to assume that schools should broadly aim to develop and empower the individual student for the benefit of a global knowledge-based society. It assumes that the student has unconstrained capacities for growth and development and fulfilling these will benefit social and economic progress. In effect, it assumes that the world is a fair place which permits universal individual and social progress for all through education.
Consequently, certain skills have become increasingly valued in education systems throughout the world, including the teaching of English as the global language. As a result, humanities have started to suffer in many, if not most, educational systems, while the sciences have become dominant, based on the belief that a knowledge-based society relies primarily on the application of technology. This trend of “globally objective knowledge and skills” is also reflected in programs for international student assessment.
Developing countries that are particularly susceptible to this “world model” of education are less likely to be able to protect themselves from the institutional pressure of donor agencies and from demands to integrate global norms and priorities, such as English communication skills, into national learning and teaching practices. Linguist Robert Philippson has suggested that encouraging such a trend is a deliberate policy of certain countries (through donor agencies) to maintain cultural and ideological control and to support private sector industry related to international education provision. Even if not premeditated, it is inevitable that foreign assistance projects, scholarship programs, the provision of textbooks and foreign experts for technical assistance will carry a certain linguistic inheritance.
In most countries, the main objective is to improve the overall quality of education. World models, however, may not be supporting this move toward better quality in education based on the student’s personal development and risk wasting valuable financial and human resources. Implementing western educational blueprints may well be inappropriate in the context of developing countries and for many of their learners. Destined to work in the factories or the farms, these learners might not immediately gain
from English as much as they would from learning agricultural or technical skills.
In line with this, Save the Children has suggested that governments’ priorities should rather center on responding to basic learners’ needs through mother tongue instruction from trained teachers, with a focus on skills relevant to their lives and work. Others have suggested that there also needs to be public awareness-raising, community liaison and monitoring programs in place at the local level to support this reform. English may be introduced as a foreign language later on, but even then, teachers need to be trained to speak and teach English effectively. Education systems should do their utmost to first secure the quality of basic curricula.
These findings actually build upon many national linguistic experiments that have taken place in relation to English: In Malaysia, the policy of teaching science and math in English was reversed as soon as they realised that teacher proficiency was not sufficiently high. In India, while higher and private education is mainly provided in English to the elite, English at the mass level remains a casualty of wider problems in the education system. In some African countries, early bilingual instruction was introduced into primary schools but then removed as it appeared to lead to an increased drop-out rate.
Dangers and suggestions
What are the dangers of relying too much on this ‘world model’ in education? According to prominent scholars in the field, the assumptions upon which this model is founded do not sufficiently reflect reality: The world today consists of deep inequalities, conflicts and competitive interests against which the individual may be powerless. Linguistic experts have also pointed to the fact that the international community is much more culturally and linguistically diverse than the globalisation paradigm implies. After all, an estimated 6,800 languages are still spoken around the world. Indeed the danger of an excessively global focus lies in the success of the few being naturalised as the norm for all. As a result, many school-leavers find themselves without the right skills for their work and life, stuck and losing touch with the cultural and linguistic heritage which connects them to their home environments. This could not only delay economic growth, but create inter-ethnic conflict and influence societal responsiveness to threats such as climate change.
Some scholars have proposed better recognition, monitoring and enforcement of linguistic rights as remedies for this problem, especially for those that are most vulnerable. But this might not be enough: We, the international community, need to consider and analyse the impact of globalisation on education systems more closely, and be aware of the essential need to inclusively respond to the diversity of all members. Indeed Glyn Hughes, an English language lecturer, reminds us that there is no consensus on how internationalisation will take place, how long the process will last or what an internationalised society will look like once the process is complete.
Striking the balance
This does not necessarily boil down to a question of English versus indigenous languages. We may well be able to respect diversity and at the same time encourage international interdependence in a balanced way. However, at present, there is only a rough linkage between school curricula and immediate national concerns and too much emphasis on producing standardised progress measured against international benchmarks.
We need to be aware of the fact that globalisation, as it affects social and educational ideologies, is gradually pushing students to compete or participate in a bigger and more competitive world, which risks leaving many students behind. The World Bank tells us that a knowledge-based global society “relies primarily on the use of ideas.” It is essential, therefore, that the global community allows everyone to express their ideas effectively. Our education systems must be inclusive, celebrating each individual, while offering global opportunities. It should be about more than just learning to greet your boss from abroad.
By Jayne Brady