French: What is its knowledge?

Here’s where I put French:

Axes (2) - French

This would apply of course to all the MFL languages.

Substantive Knowledge

The language!  Grammar, spelling, vocabulary etc. etc.

Disciplinary Knowledge


Disciplines and Non-Disciplines

MFL was a very interesting subject to think about in this framework.  For the first time it became apparent to me just how different it is as a school subject compared with others.

The problem with always using the word ‘subject,’ or ‘lessons,’ for everything from maths to P.E. is that we obfuscate the idiosyncrasies of each piece of the education we are trying to impart to future citizens.

Online I noticed some discussions between students on the brink of selecting A Levels and thinking about applying to universities.  The question was ‘Is French an academic subject?’  The general impression of the people speaking was that ‘It’s more academic than drama, but less academic than maths, English or history.’  They didn’t have a clear definition of what was meant by ‘academic,’ and seemed to be swapping out the word in favour of ‘difficult,’ or ‘intellectual.’

Have you ever done that?  I’m pretty sure I’ve done that in the past… but when you start to consider ‘academics’ in terms of ‘disciplines,’ something changes.  It becomes obvious that MFL is distinct from maths and history because it is not a discipline, there is nothing but ‘substantive knowledge’ to study and learn.  This would change if we swapped out linguistics in favour of ‘foreign language,’ but that’s not what we offer at school-level!  So really, French probably shouldn’t be on the grid at all; the only reason I didn’t place it at zero disciplinary knowledge is because I tend to avoid absolutism – what if I’m missing something?

Immunity to Evisceration

A curious aspect of French that has always struck me, as a maths teacher, is how closely related the pedagogies can be.  More than that, I always found it interesting how maths and French seemed to be the only two subjects that survived the evisceration of knowledge suffered by the others.  Although at a surface level this always made sense – if you don’t teach the language, what on Earth will you teach in its place…?!  What I find useful about the discipline model is that is helps us to understand precisely how and why other subjects were not so protected – there was something other than substantive knowledge that could be taught in its place – not so for MFL.

That said, the pedagogy of MFL is still a heated battleground.  Some favour target-language immersion, others a focus on grammar, others on creative writing in the target-language, others on written translation, others on learning certain words and phrases with grammar coming later, others prefer to focus on speaking and listening… and so on!

This is also similar to what happened in mathematics.  The reformist movement was successful in turning maths from a subject in which one must apply ones own mind at great length and with great effort, into one which should always be discussed in groups of four.  I’m sure neither pedagogy has been successful when adopted in isolation, and I expect there are merits to both approaches that must investigated carefully, but a research-informed education sector is a topic for another day.

Finally worth noting, in that previous post I did mention how there was an ongoing battle to shift maths away from communicating substantive knowledge and further towards communicating disciplinary knowledge.  This shows us one final distinction between the discipline and the non-discipline – while in maths we’ve survived so far, we are not immune, since mathematics is a discipline.  In MFL, there is total immunity, since it is not a discipline.  There is no great virtue one way or the other – this is all about recognising the subtleties and nuances of the various things we use to compose our universal gift of education.


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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