Brilliant article on Google, plus an English teaching thing

Did you see Tim Adams on Google and the future of search: Amit Singhal and the Knowledge Graph? It appeared online on 19 January, but I only caught up with it via the ink-and-paper Guardian Weekly on Friday. It is a major must-read.

Thinking about Google over the last week, I have fallen into the typically procrastinatory habit of every so often typing the words "what is" or "what" or "wha" into the Google search box at the top right of my computer screen. Those prompts are all the omnipotent engine needs to inform me of the current instant top 10 of the virtual world’s most urgent desires. At the time of typing, this list reads, in descending order:

What is the fiscal cliff
What is my ip
What is obamacare
What is love
What is gluten
What is instagram
What does yolo mean
What is the illuminati
What is a good credit score
What is lupus

It is a list that indicates anxieties, not least the ways in which we are restlessly fixated with our money, our bodies and our technology – and paranoid and confused in just about equal measure. A Prince Charles-like desire for the definition of love, in my repetitive experience of the last few days, always seems to come in at No 4 on this list of priorities, though the preoccupations above it and below it tend to shift slightly with the news.

The list also supports another truism: that we – the billion components of the collective questioning mind – have got used to asking Google pretty much anything and expecting it to point us to some kind of satisfactory answer. It’s long since become the place most of us go for knowledge, possibly even, desperately, for wisdom. And it is already almost inconceivable to imagine how we might have gone about finding the answer to some of these questions only 15 years ago without it – a visit to the library? To a doctor? To Citizens Advice? To a shrink?

That was the time, in the prehistory of about 1995, when our ideas of "search" still carried the sense of the word’s Latin roots – a search was a kind of "arduous quest" that invariably involved "wandering" and "seeking" and "traversing". Not any longer. For those who are growing up to search in this millennium, it implies nothing more taxing than typing two words into a box – or, increasingly, mumbling them into a phone – and waiting less than an instant for a comprehensive answer, generally involving texts and images and films and books and maps. Search’s sense of questing purpose has already gone the way of other pre-Google concepts, such as "getting lost".

That rate of change – of how we gather information, how we make connections and think – has been so rapid that it invites a further urgent Google question. Where will search go next?…

Now the bits on education.

e0578fec1b858a174a99dacbb9b5d750a3556b90Ages ago I moaned about our pollies, Julia Gillard and/or Kevin Rudd specifically at the time, were looking in some of the wrongest places for policy ideas. See for example Memo to Julie Gillard and Kevin RuddThe real education revolution…, Education: wrong path, Ms Gillard?, The promised education post and in 2012 A must read: Schools We Can Envy by Diane Ravitch.   Now via Smashwords I have a freebie eBook which promises much: Mark Wilson, You Are An English Teacher! (2013).

A Guide To The True Basics – for Parents, Pupils, Pedagogues, Politicians…Presidents and probably even Prime Ministers. A trip through the learning of English as a mother tongue from minute one onwards. The resurrection of common sense, intuition, and the syllabus that’s always been here.

Mark Wilson sounds like an interesting person, and I am sure he was a good English teacher (in the UK). I have been reading this book with some pleasure, as much of it is refreshingly sensible. On the other hand from an ESL perspective his thesis leaves much still to account for. His assumption seems to be a monolingual childhood. Now in the UK that is most people, even today.

Polish is now the main language spoken in England and Wales after English and Welsh, according to 2011 census data released by the Office of National Statistics.

The language-speaking figures recorded for the first time from a survey of 56.1 million residents of England and Wales show 546,000 speak Polish. It is now the second main language in England. There are still slightly more Welsh speakers in Wales at 562,000.

The next biggest main languages are the south Asian languages of Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and Gujarati, followed by Arabic, French, Chinese and Portuguese. The statisticians said they recorded over 100 different languages and 49 main languages with more than 15,000 users…

Some of the languages are in a tiny minority. For example, there was only one person in Barnet who said they spoke Caribbean creole and one person in Bexley.

58 people speak Scottish Gaelic, 33 speak Manx Gaelic and 629 speak Romany…

One million households have no residents with English as a main language, although most had some proficiency in English, the ONS said.

Only 138,000 people could not speak English at all.

"The West Midlands is the region with the lowest percentage of people that can speak English very well or well at 72%" said Roma Chappell, census director. It was the region that also had the highest number of people who can’t speak English at all.

Compare:

In Australia 76.8% of people only spoke English at home. Other languages spoken at home included Mandarin 1.6%, Italian 1.4%, Arabic 1.3%, Cantonese 1.2% and Greek 1.2%.  20.4% of Australians live in households where two or more languages are spoken. Only 53.7% of Australians have both parents born in Australia.

Even so, while as an ESL teacher I have some reservations, I still commend Mark Wilson’s book. An extract:

William Blake said if others had not been foolish, we should be so. I think that’s a pretty good definition of progress.

When the feeling that something was wrong, not with children but with the school system itself, stirred once more within the country about twenty years ago, because businesses and universities were complaining that children were leaving school unable to spell, write essays, needed ‘the basics’ and so on; a popular question with regard to English was: “How much should we teach children about language?”

This always sounded strangely proprietorial to me, as if the people who were saying it thought they actually owned language. Anyway, it merely signalled the next bitter battle in the political wars which are fought on the battleground of education.

But, for reasons I hope I’ve made clear, my answer then, as now, is this: What we really know about language is surprisingly little, but of excellent quality. Our real, shared, knowledge of language, amounts to the true conventions of English and the many ways people have used them effectively down through the years. I think we should teach children all that we really know about language, and study lots of famous writers and speakers. The earlier we provide an environment which allows them to use and develop these conventions within their own psyches, the better. There can be no doubt that families are intended to be a child’s first language teachers….

In the meantime, though, individuals have the opportunity to improve matters for themselves and for their children right away. If we are to avoid the mere repetition of the past fifty years or so, we must look for something beyond the old arguments between grammarians and their anti antagonists; which is what I have done here. And there is nothing at all to stop us from teaching communication through language intensively to deprived children, in schools, right now.

When I started planning this book, I was determined that it should be a very slim volume, easy on the eye, and yet it should be an adequate alternative to the growing mountain of, for me, unreadable academic publications. But this book is also intended to serve, in future times, as an alternative to the gross irresponsibility which will surely follow when the fashion pendulum swings back again.

But, ideally, the reader may simply look at children and see that the teaching of a language is an activity which is more important, and a lot less complicated, than any particular political ideology. Nevertheless, ‘developments’ in education during the twenty years of my career have seemed to be attempts to make my classroom feel less a lively and welcoming place for learning, than a sanctuary threatened by the hostile encroachment of a nearby factory. For all the money spent, the shouting, the initiatives, and the targets, I go into schools while I write this book and things look much the same in the teaching and learning of English. There has always been brilliance, and there has always been deprivation, but now there is a lot more stress and bother.

Some children do as well as the current system allows them to in English. But there are many others in mainstream classes who still cannot read or write properly. Yet they are set tasks which require them to do just that, and when this happens they are frustrated and badly behaved, as you might expect. At the beginning of this book I suggested that we need to work towards a definitive and durable syllabus for the teaching of the subject we all know and love as ‘English’? Do I think there really could be such a thing?

There always has been.

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