Pearson’s Grand Vision: Standardised Everything!

Pearson PLC is a British multinational publishing and education company headquartered in London. It’s the largest education company and the largest book publisher in the world. It generates total revenues of $10 billion. It’s a key player in the ELT world and in the last couple of months, Pearson has stepped up its promotional campaign for its Global Scale of English (GSE). Here’s what they say in their Single Global Framework report

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The GSE comprises four distinct parts to create an overall English learning ecosystem:

  1. The scale itself – a granular, precise scale of proficiency aligned to the Common European Framework of Reference.
  2. GSE Learning Objectives – over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  3. Course Materials – both digital and printed materials, aligned to the selection of learning objectives relevant for a course/level.
  4. Assessments – Placement, Progress and Pearson Test of English Academic (PTE Academic) tests, which are placement, formative/ summative assessments and high stakes tests aligned to the GSE.

The use of the Global Scale of English and GSE Learning Objectives is free along with the full database of GSE Grammar and Vocabulary. A range of Pearson English coursebooks, digital tools and assessments that are mapped to the GSE are available.

Pearson explain that the global ELT industry will be a much better place once everybody in it is using their Global Scale of English ecosystem. The GSE reinforces the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) as a tool for standards-based assessment, and is

 the world’s first truly global English language standard, allowing educators, employers and learners to measure progress accurately, easily, and in context.

The GSE uses “Learning Objectives” to describe

 what a learner should be able to do at every point on the Global Scale of English for reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Pearson proudly claim that

Thousands of teachers from over 50 countries have worked on the project to rate the GSE Learning Objectives – to come to a shared understanding of what it means to be at a level in English across each of the four skills on a scale from 10 to 90. 

Pearson now has every part of the ELT business covered (although maybe it needs to make further incursions into the lucrative teacher training sector, just to really sew things up) and is set to solve all our problems, no matter where we might happen to teach. According to Pearson

The GSE is becoming an indispensable tool for schools and educators as a global framework for auditing, building and modifying curriculums.

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The question is whether or not we should welcome this latest attempt by Pearson to neatly package the whole of our teaching lives for us; and the answer is, of course, that we should not. The GSE is the most audacious realisation so far of an on-going attempt to standardise ELT, starting with assessment, as epitomised by the CEFR which it aims to supersede. As Glenn Fulcher has pointed out over a number of years (see for example, Fulcher 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010) we are moving towards “a common educational policy in language learning, teaching and assessment, both at the EU level and beyond” (Bonnet 2007: 672, cited in Fulcher, 2010). Fulcher notes that the CEFR has been indiscriminately exported for use in standards-based education and assessment in non-European contexts, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan; that it is manipulated by  centralizing institutions which use it to define required levels of achievement for school pupils and adult language learners; and that it is likely to lead to “reducing diversity and experimentation” in research and language pedagogy (Davies, 2008).

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Reification

The basic problem of the GSE, in common with the CEFR, is that it reifies the language learning process, converting the abstract concepts of its granular descriptors into real entities and inviting us to accept the fallacy that those real entities represent language learning and communicative competence. All the difficult to define and difficult to measure processes involved in language learning,  and all the different kinds of knowledge and skills which make up communicative competence, are flattened out, granularised and turned into measurable entities. The learning objectives of the GSE, which describe “what a learner should be able to do at every point on the Global Scale of English”, are mistakenly taken as statements which reflect what is learned and how language acquisition actually happens. What makes this conceit truly preposterous is that the learning objectives of the GSE are not the result of a principled analysis of language use, or of the application of a theory of second language acquisition. Rather, they’re the result of asking teachers to make judgments on sets of descriptors, which they classify according to “levels of difficulty”, “usefulness”, “relevance”, and so on. The data from these teacher judgements are then used to construct scales of unidimensional items using Rasch analysis.

We may summarise the weaknesses of the GSE as follows:

  • The GSE has absolutely no basis in theory or in SLA research.
  • The GSE is an example of what Fulcher calls “Frankenstein scales”, which don’t relate to any specific communicative context, or give a good description of any particular communicative language ability.
  • The GSE assumes that the abilities it describes develop in the way implied by the hierarchical structure of the scales, but we know that learners don’t actually acquire language or communicative abilities in this way. Statistical and psychological unidimensionality are not equivalent, and the pedagogic notion of learners moving unidimensionally along the line from 10 to 90 is ridiculuous. Learning an L2 is gradual, incremental and slow, exhibiting plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours.
  • Post-hoc attempts by Pearson to produce benchmark samples showing typical performance along the GSE do no more than state things that are true by definition only. These definitions are both circular and reductive (Fulcher 2008: 170-171).

epa01350400 Students in Deventer buckle down to their exam, 19 May 2008. More than 200.000 surdents of secondary schools in the Netherlands take their final exams this week. EPA/Vincent Jannink

Pearson’s “overall English learning ecosystem” wants to turn the messy, unruly thing that is communicative competence into thousands of carefully identified, described and graded granules, serve them up in coursebooks which respect the “correct order” described in the GSE, and then assess learners’ ability to regurgitate them to specification. The motivation for this appalling mission is profit, and its rationale is creating order out of chaos. Alas, Pearson’s joyless vision of the future of ELT is a real threat, representing the culmination of a process started in the nineties, when coursebooks first started to snuff out the wonderful profusion of methods which abounded during the previous decade. This standardised, granular  approach to ELT  means that learners don’t learn what is taught and that teachers don’t heed what is known about the language learning process. It also means that most learners fall short of the level of proficiency they aim for, and that most teachers fall short of the level of job satisfaction they expected.

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It’s a bit like climate change. There are those who deny that the commercialisation of education as manifested in Pearson’s GSE, and the fall in standards that it represents, is happening at all. There are those who say that it’s not as bad as the doom mongers make out. There are those who grudgingly admit that it’s a problem, but don’t want to give up the comfortable positions they enjoy, and those who just can’t imagine ELT being any other way. But there are also those who speak out, and who organise against the status quo. Join us! Teachers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your coursebook!

 

References

Fulcher G. (2004) Deluded by artifices? The Common European Framework and harmonization. Language Assessment Quarterly 1/4: 253-266.

Fulcher G. (2006) Test architecture. Foreign Language Education Research 12: 1-22.

Fulcher G. (2008) Criteria for evaluating language quality. In E. Shohamy (ed.), Language testing and assessment. Encyclopedia of language and education, Vol 7. Amsterdam: Springer, 157-176.

Fulcher, G. (2010) The reification of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) and effect-driven testing. In Advances in Research on Language Acquisition and  Teaching. Selected Papers.  

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Pearson’s Grand Vision: Standardised Everything!

  1. Hi Geoff
    In your research did you see any reference to any national or international standards that Pearson’s English Standard has been validated against?

    The story of the Common Core Standards in US education shows that when comparing it to the American ANSI standards it seems to fail their principles.

    Assuming international bodies like the ISO, follow similar principles how does Pearson’s approach measure up?

    E.g. is their process transparent, involve all interested parties, no single interest that dominates, process for appeal and revision?

    above principles from – [https://dianeravitch.net/2014/03/24/the-fatal-flaw-of-the-common-core-standards/]

    by the way i did some graphics critiquing GSE on twitter (all based on Fulcher’s work) that your readers may find of interest:

    Granularity Drawbacks – https://twitter.com/muranava/status/743451023658876929

    Global Scales – https://twitter.com/muranava/status/744156856856248320

    The son of CEFR Frankenstein reanimated – https://twitter.com/muranava/status/744625998319222785

    3 ways Pearson GSE is sold – https://twitter.com/muranava/status/747530490102562816

    ta
    mura

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  2. Hi Mura,

    Thanks for the useful links. I’m afraid I didn’t do much research for this. Pearson sent me the Single Global Framework Report, and I relied on what I’d read by Fulcher to support my argument.

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  3. I attended a Pearson presentation on the GSE at TESOL Baltimore. All your criticisms ring true. I bit my lip, but I couldn’t help thinking it was perverse that Pearson – with all the big data they must have amassed on student learning trajectories – made absolutely zero mention of any attempt to align their 1800+ can do statements with any empirical data on actual learner experience. The learners were not mnentioned at all, except as the lowing herd who are frogmarched (if that’s not a mxied metaphor) through the minefield of competencies that have been cobbled together by so-called experts based entirely on their intuitions and – no doubt – many years flogging their way through English File.

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  4. As with climate change, how big is the problem? I’d think that the original fall of education happened when it became institutionalized. That’s when the anchor of the oil rig was lowered and knowledge became divorced from family, tribe, maybe life? Wasn’t there once a natural approach to schooling? By now education has become a substitute religion, a solution for everything (the thought comes from Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful), even climate change; if we just had more education, yet another NatGeo documentary on dripping ice. Education produces narration fitting for purpose. It’s the freedom fighter / terrorist dilemma. I happen to be in a place where armed conflict with neighbors is depicted in very different terms across the border. Curricula and standards unify creed and woe if you differ. Commerce is not just now catching the tide. It has been the master. Education is about getting a job, getting somewhere (Neil Postman’s End of Education here). It’s really, really much worse. After all, isn’t climate change the product of the most educated civilization in history? But now we have Trump, and with ignorance comes bliss.

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    • PS: when I did my undergrad Engl Lit. program “they” did not count any education courses towards the major. They must have known that over there, in the education camp, the parasite of utility had placed its eggs. What use for poetry other than creating courses to teach it?

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    • Hi Thom,

      Institutionalised education serves political ends of course, but there’s always wriggle room and there’s always the opportunity, however small in the more openly repressive states, for protest and for organisation against that which we want to change. At the very least, we can blow the whistle on those like Pearson who use Orwellian Doublespeak to persuade us that the most blatant attempts at standardisation are “really” attempts to provide every single individual learner with “personalised educational opportunities”.

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  5. Here’s the Bonnet reference if anyone is interested. I found it surprising at the time that a Ministry of Education official should contribute to the MLJ’s special issue on the CEFR, alongside linguists and applied linguists like Little, North, Alderson and Hulstijn. One of his concerns in that paper is “policing of the CEFR levels.”

    Bonnet, G. (2007). The CEFR and education policies in Europe. The Modern Language Journal, 91(4), 669-672.

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  6. Hi Shona,

    Thanks for this reference. Bonnet’s short contribution is interesting only in that it shows how keen he is to standardise everything. For example, he says “The advent of the CEFR and its adoption by the EU introduced for the first time a degree of commonality in terms of contents; it thus marked the beginning of a common educational policy in language teaching, learning, and assessment, both at the EU level and beyond. For the first time a truly European dimension has been embraced in one area of education, despite repeated claims that education policies should be left to individual countries. Attempts currently being made by the Council of Europe to extend the philosophy and methodology of the CEFR to the language of instruction show that….” bla bla bla. Needless to say, he makes no attempt to answer the well-written commentaries of Alderson, Hulstijn and others.

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  7. Sadly, this rings true. I’ve always eyed Pearson with a little awe and a lot of suspicion. But I’m an optimist …so I think I’ll put my faith in the sheer wonder of the English language, and its ability to defy all attempts at classification, standardization and reductionism. Sticking to the metaphor of climate change, isn’t it Lovelock who assures us that the earth is adaptable and resilient enough to recover from all attempts to destroy it? The earth will survive, but perhaps without the human race. And of course, there the metaphor breaks down because how can the language survive without anyone to speak it?

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