Teaching, learning and language

First day of school. Photo: Mick 2000

First day of school. Photo: Mick 2000

A different language is a different vision of life.  Frederico Felini

Language determines how we see the world. Language – its shapes, its sounds, its structures, its words shape our concepts and the filters we use. And would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Coincidentally, the word for rose is identical in both Danish and English, though pronunciation is slightly different, so perhaps the smell is exactly the same?

The concept of education is a good example. The English word ‘Education’ comes from Latin ‘Educatio’ from ‘ex’ – out, and ‘ducere’ – to lead. The etymological roots lead to a sense of someone else teaching to ‘lead out’ what is inside a person and develop the person’s skills and competencies. According to Ken Robinson’s excellent TEDx talk, schools were established to deliver skills to power to industrial revolution.

In Danish ‘education’ is ‘uddannelse’. The etymology of the word is quite different. ‘Dannelse’ comes from the old Norse ‘don’ or the equivalent English ‘to do’. Literally ‘dannelse’ is translated to formation. ‘Uddannelse’ is linked to the Enlightenment idea that a person is not fully formed until cultivated beyond their natural state to a civilised state. ‘Uddannelse’ is about providing experiences that evolve and change the individual to become something they were not before. So after birth and physiological development, work still needs to be done to develop the character to be a whole person. This character or ‘spirit’ involves the ability to think critically about the facts, issues and views that are presented – otherwise the transformation is akin to indoctrination, the friend of totalitarian systems. In the Danish tradition ‘uddannelse’ becomes the defence against callousness and crudity.

Another crucial language difference lies in the word ‘teacher’. The etymology of ‘teacher’ takes us to the old English ‘tæcan’ – to show, point out, declare, demonstrate, instruct or persuade. The English teacher dictates the child’s learning – the word denotes an outside process that adds knowledge and skills to the empty vessel that is the child. The Danish word, ‘lærer’, comes from the idea of learning, rather than teaching. ‘Lærer’ is not a learner, but someone who facilitates the learning of another. This places the child in the centre, rather than the person who demonstrates or instructs.

Proud to be in school uniforms at 8 and 6 years of age. But why must uniformisation continue of young people to the age of 17 or 18? Photo: Mick, 2002.

Proud to be in school uniforms at 8 and 6 years of age. But why must uniformisation of young people continue to the age of 17 or 18, when we are expecting them to be ready as discerning, functioning members of society? Photo: Mick, 2002.

Clearly, contemporary teaching and learning philosophies in Danish and Anglo cultures do not reflect these subtle differences. Yet throughout my boys’ schooling in Australia, I experienced very few teachers with a child-centred philosophy. I found the approach overly authoritarian, quasi-religious and strangely disciplinarian, focusing on externalities like uniforms and behaviour on the way to school.

My point is that the language we use determine how we see the world. The language around education, teaching and learning in the two languages reflect the attitudes to children in the cultures and determines how we see children slightly differently in the two cultures.

Perhaps this difference can be traced to the establishment of universal schooling in Denmark 200 years ago. It followed 25 years of deliberation by a School Commission, influenced by rising nationalism, desire to preserve Danish culture and the Danish mother tongue in a turbulent world. Rousseau’s philosophies about education and childhood – the idea of education of the whole child as a citizen – were also influential. This may be where the English diverged – Rousseau was a Frenchman after all and had very derogatory things to say about the English.

As I am reading about the laws introduced in 1814, I am surprised to discover the discipline provision in section 27 of its supplement. While the last subsection allows the teacher to use a ‘lidet Riis’ – a small collection of twigs – to punish children under 10 years old, and with a thin rope end without knots for older children, section 27 is at pains to ensure punishment is not undue or dishonours the child and warns against punishments that could result in hardening, rather than improving the child. The teacher must not hit children with their hand, push or pinch them or swear at them. Rather, as punishment the naughty child could be excluded from the more pleasurable lessons involving play.

I am sure the very humanistic approach to punishment of children was frequently ignored in the 19th and even 20th century and potentially even after 1967, when corporal punishment was abolished in Denmark. However, the provision reflects a child-centred view seeking to support the child transforming to become able to function in civilised society. Certainly, the philosophy is a far cry from the mantra I still hear today when intermittently the Australian public debate turns to corporal punishment of children: Spare the rod and spoil the child! It was not until 1995 – the year after my older son’s birth – the Queensland corporal punishment provisions were abolished, though the defence for teachers assaulting children for correction and discipline still exists.

Homework in my father's office. Photo: Lars 1975.

Grade 2 homework with my best friend in my father’s office. Photo: Lars 1975.

When I reflect on the difference between my own experience of education in Denmark in the 1970s and 1980s and my children’s experience in Australia in the 2000s it seems the difference reflects the language. No doubt the time difference also plays a part, but my sense is that the position of children in Australia is one in the background, seen not heard, to be educated to be useful to society, whereas Danish children are much more in the centre, valuable in and of themselves, not for what they may contribute in the future.

The language creates different versions of children – a different vision of children’s place and value. It may be the language that have shaped this philosophy, and perhaps the philosophy has also shaped the language?


2 thoughts on “Teaching, learning and language

  1. Susan

    My partner still bears a scar from the strap he was hit with by a teacher who welded it with all of her might – in seventies Australia. It seems we still have a way to go before public schooling here becomes less about compliance (hence the uniform emphasis) and more about enabling children to grow into themselves/what they need and want to be. I wish could have more faith – I want the public system to be good – as I see my son struggle with his ugly uniform socks that have to be pulled up to knee high – but at least he won’t be strapped. Thank you Lone for another thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person


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