Tony Gurr

Do our schools speak LEARNing as a “first” or a “second” language?

In Our Schools, Our Universities, Technology, The Paradigm Debate on 16/10/2011 at 11:12 am

In essense, this is a question that goes all the way back to the seminal paper (now over 15 years old) penned by Barr and Taggstill one of my favourite articles – EVER! And it has links to some other critical questions:

Are our schools, colleges and universities LEARNing institutions or TEACHing institutions?

Do our schools, colleges and universities “teach” STUDENTS or “teach” COURSES?


As well as some other more heavy-duty questions:

We could push the boat out a little further and ask:

Do our institutions HAVE a perspective on TEACHing or do they TAKE a TEACHing perspective?

Do our institutions HAVE a perspective on LEARNing or do they TAKE a LEARNing perspective?

Obviously, these are “huge” questions (far smarter women than I have been trying to address these over the years) – and certainly questions that can not be answered in a single blog-post (however “non-lazy” it may be – this time around)…


My interest in whether schools (and teachers) “speak”:

LEARNing as a First Language (LFL), or

LEARNing as a Second Language (LSL)

…really started when I was asked to lead a discussion on the “digital divide” at a conference in Antalya (around 6 months ago).

In that presentation I used a C-NET video that was really popular at the time (you have to click n’ view – Clementine is so “sweet”). More recently, another YOU-tube video (go on – click n’ view) has surfaced – a video that suggests that I might have been right (but I really do not want to be “that guy” – you know, the guy that says “I told you so” – na, nah, na, na, nah…)


The point I was trying to make in the session I led was that there is more than a word of truth in the claims that today’s kids really do “speak”:

DIGITAL as a First Language (DFL)… 

…while there are many of us (not just in the world of teaching) that “speak”: 

DIGITAL as a Second Language (DSL)…

I did note that all the chatter about digital “natives” and immigrants” is perhaps a bit overstated (you have to read the great paper written by Zur and Zur on this).


However, when we really take a look at today’s digital natives – it not only that they speak DFL that is important…they have become “bilingual” and speak both DFL and LSL.

Of course, there are those around that might dispute this claimand say human beings have been doing this for yearswithout the “tech”.

TRUE – but the point is that this type of technology is everywhere, it is getting easier to use and it can help us learn more faster than ever before! And, more importantly, kids are using more of it at “home” than they are at “school”…

Would we really have seen a baby getting “frustrated” that the pictures in her mommy’s glossy magazine can’t be “flipped” last year?


This bi-lingual, digitally-enabled “army” is getting ready to take the playgrounds of our schools by stormsooner than we all think (in fact, in some countries the invasion is well under way).

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that we all have to mindlessly pull every bit of hardware we can get our hands on into our classrooms. I have said before…and I repeat:

It’s about the language, dummy!


The “grammar” and “lexis” used by those who speak LFL is very different to those who speak TEACHing as a First Language (TFL):


How many of our schools, colleges and universities have:

Taken a “students-eye-view” of what the world of LEARNing and TEACHing should look like in our institutions…

Reflected on the implications of this at the level of school leadership and culture…

Conducted the type of “cultural anthropology” and made the type of “appropriate adjustments” recommended by Zur and Zur.

Modified the way they “do the business” of curriculum and assessment planning (at a systemic, whole-school level)

Adapted their learning environments and classrooms to mirror these – hell, even bothered to modify how “timetables” are built…

Many institutions have…..

Many others are starting to get to grips with these challenges….

BUT “most” have not!


Sure, there are many schools and colleges that are talking about the impact of the 21st century transformative moment

…and battle lines are often drawn across the playground by those who have become very fluent in DSL and those who are still struggling to put a sentence together.

The problem with this is that it often creates another divide…and “fear“!

Does this really help us all out…seriously?

We often come across “tourists” who do not have a solid command of the language of the host-country they are visiting…trying to buy stuff in shops. Sometimes they struggle with the currency and can’t tell the $5 bill from the $50 bill. If they are lucky, they fall into the hands of a decent, honest shop-keeper or store assistant…if not, you know the rest!

In much the same way, hundreds of educational institutions have sought to “buy” themselves out of the problems being created by the so-called “digital divide” – and we are seeing that much of this expenditure just throws good money after bad.


The problem is…these institutions often have a very “thick accent“, get mixed up with “appropriate collocations” or drop a critical “helping verb” or two while they are chatting. However, for many of them – the REAL issues are their values, beliefs and assumptions about what works best…and what matters.

Far too many institutions have not explored many of the critical questions I noted at the very start of this little blog-post, they have not engaged their communities – and, they still believe in “silver bullet recipes” and “magic“.


We cannot hope to get to the place where we all TAKE a LEARNing perspective (or get fluent in another language) without asking a few questions…


Think this one needs a SEQUEL

…(or five)!


If you are interested in the two earlier posts, click n’go: 



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