La plume de ma tante… What French language lessons can tell us about current UK digital skills education

A quick French lesson

Over the last few days I’ve been mulling over the state of digital skills education in the current UK educational system, reflecting on a phrase that I randomly heard for the first time in forever on a BBC podcast – “La plume de ma tante”.

For those not familiar, ‘la plume de ma tante’ was a phrase commonly used in French language teaching in the UK for the first half of the 20th teaching. It translates literally as “the quill of my Aunt”, and it was for a long time one of the very first things every British student of the French language would learn in a French lesson.

You might be thinking to yourself that it is a really odd phrase to learn at the beginning of a French language course, and you would be entirely right. It was used as a functional example of French grammar. The phrase shows how the definite article and possessive adjectives change form according to gender. A useful grammar lesson for sure, and one that has useful applications for a study of the language, but nonetheless ‘la plume de ma tante’ was such an obscure phrase it was fairly useless if you wanted to learn practical French phrases.

Sure, the phrase had educational value and grammatical applications which could inform your use of French, but unfortunately but teaching such a random and obscure phrase to students, it managed to utterly divorced grammar lessons from the reality of the language, and taught generations of students a phrase that would never be said to any French person in a normal conversation. Indeed, ‘la plume de la tante’ was such a well known but practically useless phrase that it became mocking shorthand for something that served a practical purpose but would never actually be used in real life.

‘La plume de ma tante’ was slowly phased out in French language lessons here in the UK as we came to the realisation that language education didn’t have to be a case of either/or. We didn’t have to teach grammar separate from useful everyday French phrases, we could teach both at the same time, and embed language learning in the reality of a living language. Indeed, some of the most successful language apps and tools today such as duolingo and Rosetta Stone try to teach language in a way that imparts BOTH practical phrases and useful grammatical skills.

The Current UK system – the ‘la plume de ma tante’ model

The UK current digital skills curriculum is running on a ‘la plume de me tante’ model in its attitude towards social media and digital environments. Below is the some of the goals of the current UK digital skills curriculum aimed at key stage 3 pupils (aged 11-14):

  • design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems
  • understand several key algorithms that reflect computational thinking [for example, ones for sorting and searching]; use logical reasoning to compare the utility of alternative algorithms for the same problem
  • use 2 or more programming languages, at least one of which is textual, to solve a variety of computational problems; make appropriate use of data structures [for example, lists, tables or arrays]; design and develop modular programs that use procedures or functions
  • understand simple Boolean logic [for example, AND, OR and NOT] and some of its uses in circuits and programming; understand how numbers can be represented in binary, and be able to carry out simple operations on binary numbers [for example, binary addition, and conversion between binary and decimal]
  • understand the hardware and software components that make up computer systems, and how they communicate with one another and with other systems
  • understand how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system; understand how data of various types (including text, sounds and pictures) can be represented and manipulated digitally, in the form of binary digits

Note what’s missing from this? Any actual acknowledgement of the messy and complicated reality of social media and digital environments. Social media has become a touchstone that is increasingly touted in educational institutions, but which is utterly devoid of a relationship with the actual real world in which it is situated, so much so that the skills taught in schools, whilst useful for understanding the ‘grammar’ of the internet, are fairly useless in everyday online interactions.

Much like ‘La plume de ma tante’, student engagement with social media in the current UK education system is based around the functions behind the systems – the grammar of the Internet. In a hope to increase skills in a digital market place, students are being taught to engage with the logics and codes of the digital age. Boolean logic, simple coding, and basic programming are trotted out in a manner that prepares students for the market place. But this divorces and (to use a very loaded Marxist term) alienates the systems from the actual reality of a digitally enmeshed life.

learning the language of the internet – grammar and practical knowledge

Learning the ‘la plume de ma tante’ of the Internet is fairly useless, and it is clear to anyone watching the current social media landscape that education desperately needs a curricula that is both grammatically useful and practically situated. Much as the old French phrase died out in language education in place of increasingly less rote lessons around language that situated it in everyday circumstances, I am hopeful that our educational usage of social media will evolve beyond an engagement with social media that is utterly divorced from the reality of everyday reality.

Indeed, that reality of the internet in everyday life is messy and contradictory, bringing new freedoms and new challenges. But just teaching a ‘la plume de ma tante’ attitude to social media ignores this mess to search for logic and order where little exists. To deny or ignore the problems and realities of the internet is either ignorant or naive.

If nothing else, attempting to divorce ‘grammatical’ lessons from ‘practical’ lessons teaches students to accept the internet and the logics that have sprung from it as if they are to be expected and accepted. As Emejulu and McGregor brilliantly point out, there is a need for a

“recognition of the ways in which the dominant discursive and material practices of digital literacy are entangled in a wider web of exploitation…Constructing technology as innocent or neutral misunderstands the social relations of technology and its very real material consequences in our social world”

Indeed, they go on to note “to understand what digital technology is, we must understand what it does, materially and asymmetrically, to different social groups”. A useful digital curriculum needs to not accept the internet as it is, but needs to acknowledge, question, and challenge the social world in which it is embedded, and upon which it impacts so significantly. It needs to teach students to critically question, understand, utilise, and challenge the status quo.

As the response to Parkland and the shootings since have shown, we need engaged students who understand and can leverage the power afforded to them by social media. We need digital engagement that is embedded in everyday reality. We don’t need more ‘la plume de ma tante’. It didn’t work to teach language adequately in the early 20th century, and it is entirely inadequate to teach digital skills in the 21st century.


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