Trump, Brexit and Breakthrough to Learning

Breakthrough to Learning is based on a linguistic description of the abstract language used by educated people trying to make sense of the world. This layer of abstract language is on top of the everyday language used by everybody, educated and uneducated alike, in setting up social relationships and the norms of their culture

This extra layer of language enables educated people to consider the world in terms of interacting and ever-changing variables. It is indispensable, for instance, in conceptualising the water cycle by giving words to such processes as evaporation, rising, condensation, precipitation. People without abstract language are trapped in the literal concrete descriptions of their everyday experience – it’s going to rain tomorrow.

The scholars and teachers who worked on Breakthrough to Learning were interested primarily in the application of this new knowledge about language to improving the educational achievement of young people. Some of us were also aware of the political importance of enabling the majority of the people in a democracy to make informed and considered choices. This demands abstract language – such as democracy, accountability, economic downturn etc. rather than paying more money to Europe or fake news.

Our vague unhappiness and bemusement about the use of computers exploded into an all too lucid fright on 26th February this year with the appearance of Carole Cadwalladr’s article in the Observer (26//02/2017):







The answer is Robert Mercer, an extreme rightwing hedge fund billionaire, who funded the Trump and Brexit campaigns.

Cadwalladr shows how a group of interlinked extreme rightwing politicians, billionaires and thinktanks are using the unregulated power of Facebook and Twitter to influence elections, including the American Presidential election and the Brexit referendum. Most scary is their computer experts’ access to “big data”, enormous amounts of information about themselves which people unsuspectingly make available online. This enables the computer whizzes employed by the extreme rightwing to target their weak spots and appeal to the emotions of voters unprotected by the rational abstract language which educated people have access to.

The academics contributing to this new consortium are not only computer experts. You can bet that linguists have also been heavily involved. “Cognitive linguistics” has relevance not only to education, it seems, but also to politics.

Cadwalladr’s article exposes why the present political world feels so strange and frightening compared with even a few years ago. It was an educational tragedy that Breakthrough to Learning was not taken up by the educational establishment, when its claims to improve performance were validated in 1991. The failure to extend the power of abstract language to the whole population has resulted in the potential catastrophe of fascism using technology to usher in a new Dark Age.



Good news

Two pieces of good news about Breakthrough to Learning

1.It appears as part of the curriculum followed at Matthew Moss High School. This can be accessed on Youtube. Particularly interesting is the site Innovation Unit, showing that the school is among the ten most innovative schools in the world.

It notes that the school has achieved a 28 point increase in the Best 8 Value Added measures since 2013. It is gratifying that BtL is playing a part in this.

The Head’s blogs on Ofstead make very good reading.

2.I received the email below:

Catharine Driver

Dear Mary,
I have been an admirer and user of your work for years. I am now
working for the National Literacy Trust and am in a position to
publicize some of your resources more widely. In the first instance,
could I use some of the Self Access Knowledge about Language course? I
want to produce an easy grammar self -audit for Secondary teachers (
whose grammar knowledge is even worse than Primary these days!) and
then refer them to your course if they want to do more work on this.
This would be published on line as part of our Literacy CPD offer. It
will only be accessible from our Network (Here is a link to our
thanks in advance.

Sent from (ip address): (
Date/Time: February 4, 2016 12:53 pm





Sign Supported English

In my last blog I recorded my observations from regular visits to the Deaf Cultural Centre (for their excellent lunches). While some of the deaf people there were clearly using full BSL (British Sign Language) – quietly and undemonstratively communicating with their hands, others (including the friendly people who tried to teach some signs to my friend and me) were clearly using something quite different. These signs were not arbitrary but clearly related to the gestures and imitative movements that hearing people would use.

Alf Stewart, who fulfils various roles at the Centre, explained to me that this language is Sign Supported English, quite different from BSL but a lot easier to learn for limited everyday uses than BSL. It all goes to show how ingenious people are at overcoming handicaps to communication.

Pragmatics (continued)

We’ve had to take a couple of weeks off our study of pragmatics but resumed recently with chapters 5 and 6 of the book we are working through.*

Chapter 5 Speech Acts in Context brought us what we have been waiting for – a coherent framework for describing the interface between the language we use and the meaning we intend it to have in a social context. Several attempts at such a system are outlined, but none are an advance on the groundbreaking work of Sinclair and Coulthard in their 1975 book Towards an Analysis of Discourse.

They recorded lessons in primary schools and analysed them at the level of discourse, using a “rank-scale” of a social activity (in this case the lesson), which is made up of exchanges between teacher and pupils, which can be further sub-divided into acts (a single piece of dialogue). I remember how excited we all were in 1975  by this framework of analysis (especially those of us involved in teacher education). Continue reading

Seeing Voices

This is the title of a book by Oliver Sacks (1989) about the history of deaf people learning to communicate.

I first became interested in the topic when a former student rang me up: she had found herself teaching the deaf without any training, and she asked me what Linguistics had to offer on the subject. I had just happened to read an article in one of the journals, which supported the use of sign language, rather than the received wisdom of the time, which insisted on deaf people trying to learn to speak and lip read. While this worked for some people, many deaf learners were cognitively impaired because they never learned any full language. Sign language apparently offered full cognitive development because it is a complete language, one which uses the eyes rather than the ears for communication. (Hence Sacks’s title Seeing Voices.) Continue reading

Breakthrough to Learning

Two pieces of good news:

(1)  A secondary school Huddersfield has taken up my course, timetabling into their programme for the next three years. A team visited Matthew Moss High School, which has been running the course for two years and learned from their experience. Maybe the good news is spreading!

(2)  My article on the work at MMHS for the last two years is now out – in Creative Teaching and Learning Volume 4.4 under the title A Great Idea Revived! As always with this journal, it is beautifully laid out with pictures and charts.







A friend recently shared with me a reflection on learning by a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Ken Holmes. I was struck by how well it describes how I learn in the modern world and how unsatisfactory I often feel it to be. I have the author’s permission to reproduce it here:

Listening, Reflecting, Cultivating


I’ve come to notice more and more the power of word “interesting”—in Britain and France at least— and the way it reflects on our modern mentality. It has become the guideline of evaluation, a key factor of measurement. Something or, worse, someone, can be rather interesting, quite interesting, really interesting, not very interesting at all and so forth. When it comes to giving dharma talks, you are better off making them “interesting” for people otherwise you soon lose them, one way or another. Their mind wanders or, with time, they find other teachers. People like the charismatic speakers, with the clever ways of putting things, new buzzwords or phrases or perhaps those who come up with original examples or metaphors that keep the listener’s mind “interested”. The spiritual quest is mixed with a quest for entertainment and one has to learn to live with that.
This is surely in part due to the conditioning of TV and cinema, where the audience needs to be held captive in order to watch the adverts. It is doubtless also to do with the easy availability of information nowadays. Gone are the days when a spiritual seeker needed to risk life and limb travelling the world to find the rare holy person who would impart the sacred knowledge. The wise words are nearly all just a click or a Youtube away. Their value has plummeted due to market surplus…In-Your-Face-book. If we consider the acquisition of information as being the key point of study, in Buddhism’s famous study-reflection-meditation three steps to wisdom, then this impinges very much on step one-study. There used to be only an oral tradition, in which one listened so, so carefully to what one was being told and tried to commit it to memory; to learn it by heart. Very often these days, people feel this first step—study—to have been accomplished if they have attended a teaching once, or seen the video or read the book. To have encountered and received a first impact of the idea suffices, because one knows it can always be Googled later or found on the hard drive where it has been archived. That is delusion. It is a vital task to study and study and study again, to a point where the knowledge has been properly conceptually mastered and is now inside oneself (in the mind) and not in an object. You can’t take the hard drive into the bardo.

The second stepreflection on the facts acquired—was traditionally where the “interest” came in. It is, in fact, the story of deepening and deepening that interest. It becomes a fascination, just like artists or scientists or other people have who are passionate about their subject, the reward for us Buddhists being for more and more truths to emerge from those basic, acquired ideas. Ones eyes open and open even further. The words which had originally been thought to have been understood now take on much more significance and a real appreciation of the depth of the Buddha’s understanding arises. One peels off layer after layer of the onion (sometimes bringing tears to the eyes). The etymology of the word “interest” comes into play here: the Latin meant “what matters”, “what makes a difference” or “what is of concern”.

The fast-moving mind of today keeps wanting to find new things of interest, to meet new and interesting people. It quickly loses interest. It is interesting (!) to listen to the conversations around one to realise the importance of things being superficially interesting, just enough to amuse the mind for a little while or to titillate the fancy of one’s friends. Deep interest is something else and one hesitates to venture into someone else’s territory of deep interest for fear of being suffocated.

The third step—usually titled “meditation”—is actually one of familiarisation. The Tibetan term sgom which can mean “meditation” more generally means “becoming familiar with” or “becoming habituated to”. The practice of meditation on the cushion is just that—a process of giving oneself the time to discover and become habituated to new states of mind. Here, sgom does not mean what many people assume, i.e. that one has gained deeper understanding through reflection (stage two) and then, in this third stage, one sits down on a cushion and meditates on those, in some quiet, deep calm state—kind of “going cosmic” on the understanding. It means, on the contrary, integrating the insights acquired into one’s everyday world, all day long in all situations, because now they are becoming familiar. It was a long journey to get there. What started out as a search for truth-and a whole process of unveiling it-has led to a state where the truth is blatantly obvious, unavoidable and could not be anything else. At this point, disinterest is natural. What was an extraordinary discovery has become “normal”, almost boring.

A final note of caution. The boredom and the disinterest will come naturally, just like facial hair comes to a man with growing up. Those who read the texts of yogis and enlightened beings and who are trying to jump to the stage of disinterest without having gone through the interest, deepening interest, deep interest and so forth are like little children painting beards with felt pens. The very fact of doing that does not make them grown-up but proves they are children.

I hope this was interesting.



Learning journeys

I’ve recently been reading some papers in Educational Sociology that make use of biographical narratives in order to understand the experience of “non-traditional” students in Higher Education. “Non-traditional” students are those who, by class, ethnicity and/or gender, are under-represented in university courses. They are usually the first person in their family to enter Higher Education. One of the articles seeks to explain why a disproportionate number of such students drop out: this is a European phenomenon. (1) Continue reading

Resurrection of a Great Idea

Just a brief note this week: I’ve finished the article for Creative Teaching and Learning on the progress of Breakthrough to Learning at Matthew Moss High School 2012-14. It will be appearing in the next issue due out in March.

You can download a draft from this site. The published article will be briefer and more coherent.

You can order it from

More in-service work at BtL

The BtL team at MMHS has followed up the in-service day on January 6th with a meeting of Faculty reps, and then a whole staff meeting on the evening of 27th January. The main substance of this was to work through the third section of The Language of Ideas – Problem/Solution. I am told they found this very relevant to exam questions in their own subjects. The Humanities Faculty reported on the work they have started in identifying concrete/abstract words in their own subjects. The staff  found this very  inspiring. The team are collating the work of the faculties and I look forward to putting it alongside the work my friends and I are doing on analyzing GCSE exam questions. All very interesting! Continue reading