What linguistics could be – a preliminary sketch

These are personal reflections towards ideas on decolonizing linguistics.

What could linguistics be?  Communication is always multimodal.  The long twentieth century project of shifting linguistics away from an illusory abstracted notion of what language might be, according to the “intuition” of white men thinking primarily in English, has, fortunately, long broadened. Although it must be added that this paradigm of thinking itself seeded many fertile signposts towards a decolonisation project. For example since abstracted systematic theories needed to be applicable to all languages, then to be viewed as a linguist in the US in the middle of the twentieth century one had to engage with at least one Indo-European language.  This continues to be a vital component of linguistics courses.  I’d recommend anyone to take even a short course; a brief glimpse into an unfamiliar language; it’s one of the most useful exercises one can take, to broaden horizons on diverse and unexpected ways of thinking. Who would have thought that Mandarin the USA is rendered as “the beautiful country?”  


Face with tears of joy emoji in Unicode U+1F602 (according to Seargeant). WordPress would not allow me to upload unless embedded in an image such as this one.

Nonetheless, writing about the discipline of linguistics in general, it can be said that as the influence of Chomsky and his magnificently ambitious Universal Grammar project has waned, linguistics has shifted its attention towards authentic language in use. This entails thinking about the material qualities of language, along with all the other features we might wrap up with the word “context” – although posthumanism is fruitfully calling the possibility of any such peculiarly shaped notion into question. For the time being then I focus on materiality.  Spoken language is as essentially material as sign languages and written language; all make use of diverse combinations of mode.  Materiality is as important if language is spoken between two people, talk is broadcast through a recording technology, or communicated online through texts and images.  Morphemes are units of meaning in a language (manatees/manatee – having encountered the first term in the news this week; I deduce the singular). Written languages may make use of morphemes or have quite other bases, such as being logographic, as Mandarin. The arbitrary nature of matching primary symbols to meanings is well known.  That is to say the “m” of manatee does not convey a meaning to us by itself).  In his fascinating reflection on the links between language, writing and technology, Philip Seargeant shares that emoji, picture images that convey meanings on digital devices, are encoded through essentially arbitrary choices of combinations in Unicode.  What systems we can make use of, on our smartphones, face to face or in any communicative condition, depends on what technologies we have access to and the interlinked factor of our semiotic repertoire. 

The primary insight of Systemic Functional Linguistics – that we make choices from the repertoires available to us to make meaningful communication – was helpful in its turn to functionality from structure, although I admit I always found its frameworks unconvincing. Materiality was not originally highlighted; although writers such as Kress and Van Leeuwen addressed this with their powerful arguments for bringing multimodality into linguistics.  But language was previously always and inescapably multimodal; it has not become increasingly so with the digital revolution; multimodality is an inescapable property of all communication.

An Edwardian postcard from my collection. One of those that evokes contemporary social media communications.

Language is essentially dialogic, that is formed through interaction. I find Bakhtin’s ways of thinking about the communication of meaning through language highly productive. Bakhtin used the term polyvocality to argue that what is integral to all use of language is that our understandings are informed by our histories of use. Our previous interactions with others inform how we understand any language we come across.  In producing, or reusing language we shape our own sense of meaning through responsivity to what has come before and contribute to interactants’ own understandings in turn.  However, Bakhtin and those taking on this dialogic turn, are often engaged with meanings in language; it is the proliferation of text types, of communication channels, that has exploded since the digital revolution that has served to draw more attention to material elements and lay out some of the preconditions for a newly exciting posthumanist project.

But again I draw back from the multidisciplinary posthumanist turn, at least for now, to look again at meaning in language, as a central concern for linguistics.  Rommetveit developed insights by Bakhtin, Volosinov and Kristeva to propose that meanings proffered in interactions are “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” (Rommetveit 1992: 22). This addresses what he powerfully calls, “the myth of literal meaning” – the argument that no lexical item possesses a meaning untethered from its context of use.  His illustration (yes, one of those abstractions beloved of philosophical linguists that can I admit be so powerful) is that of Mrs Smith who answers the telephone to two enquirers about her husband.  To one she describes Mr Smith as “working” because he is mowing the lawn, to the other as “not working” because he has not gone to his place of employment.  Rommetveit’s proposal of the “culturally transmitted drafts of contracts” makes room for the essential instability of language, the impossibility of any such thing as “literal meaning”, but also for the notion of discourse communities.  For much of the time many of us at least are fortunate enough to sufficiently share meanings with those in our social contexts to get by.  Here, though, “many of us” – my phrase in the last sentence – glosses over relations of power.  I write as a white cis woman in a position of privilege.  What gets heard, what gets understood, what gets taken up: relations of power are inextricable with language in use.  In the linguistics community many are mourning the recent loss of Jan Blommaert.  Future projects on decolonising linguistics will grapple with the concerns that troubled him; what happens to language and literacies – language in all forms then –  in the profoundly inequitable conditions of contemporary globalised capitalism.

To begin with one illustration of power: national governments are associated with defining languages.  That is to say, even if they cannot determine everything, they can assign powerful positions to named languages and fail to recognise others.  An important component in the vitality of sign languages is the degree of official recognition.  The labelling of languages can become synonymous with national boundaries; be extended through empire, be razed to the ground.  One reason I enjoy my single undergraduate lecture on the history of English each year is to explain how the language almost disappeared in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it was the third language of this country below Norman French and Latin; only used by the lowest classes.  If this had continued, it would have died out, but the Hundred Years War with France led to a new emphasis on English.

The concept of translanguaging is shaking up the association of languages with codes and national boundaries, making more visible the enduring impact of colonialism.  Ideas around transduction and transposition have long hovered around Bakhtinian ways of thinking about language, but have are now fruitfully bursting through into other domains of work, as resemiotization is brought to the fore.  Li Wei (2018) argues, “Translanguaging offers a multilingual, multisemiotic, multisensory, and multimodal resource that human beings use for thinking and for communicating thought.”

In 1984/5 I was learning Slovak in Czechoslovakia, one of only a handful of medium term British visitors in a highly repressive state, controlled by the Soviet Union. The regime was seemingly almost impregnable, having endured decades of oppression since the attempted “Prague Spring” and subsequent military and political control.  I got into the country to study Slovak since I possessed a Russian degree, had attended a Summer school and was sponsored by the British Council.  I learnt Slovak quickly, I can say without false modesty, since the first thing I had to say to people after my arrival was, “I am sorry I am speaking Russian but I am English. I am here to learn Slovak……” and then I would stand a chance of getting to my real question such as where to buy toilet paper.  Only with the rapid preamble would an interlocutor on the street engage with me for long enough to ask my question.  Toilet paper was on sale in stationers, not in grocers, and I soon adapted to a more effective Slovak introduction.  In Czechoslovakia language in every form was not immune from interference.  Russian, for example, had a privileged place in the university.  But nobody’s lives were exempt from linguistic control; even the days of the week were not immune from interference.  The regime would announce that to enhance productivity next Saturday would become a “Wednesday”: all transport timetables, schools, universities and most importantly of all of course factories and farms would all act as if it were Wednesday.  One month the entire weekend, Saturday and Sunday, were obliterated. 

Oneof my photos from Slovakia in 1984. The banners say: “Peace is the idea of socialism”

Censorship was such it seemed as if little subversive communication could get through; policing was as thorough as the guns and watchtowers overlooking the Iron Curtain around Bratislava.  But one evening I was taken to a children’s puppet show.  It had become extremely popular and difficult to get into. Unsurprising perhaps since puppetry, mime and entertainments for children had a strong cultural history and were greatly valued in a regime that permitted so little arts expression.  However, everybody craned their necks and their ears to watch a joke that had escaped the censors; it was a performance of hitting a spoon on a boiled egg – was the pointy or round end hit? This was a much appreciated reference to the bald head of the prime minister.

Traditionally, linguistics has had a focus on speech, sometimes exclusively so.  Even now, occasionally handbooks on research methods in linguistics will firmly hold to this.  In one collection of Research Methods in Linguistics the only chapter on writing treats historical writing as a resource from which we can learn about historical speech.  I was immensely lucky very early in my career to work with Angela Goddard, who later led the introduction of the English Language ‘A’ Level into the UK and did so much to encourage the notion that everybody has a linguistic and semiotic repertoire fertile for research. This remains a wonderful starting off point for investigations of language. 

One of Angela’s practical and enormously influential books

Angela worked in an innovative Department of Human Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Later, owing to standardisation by pan university authorities the name had to be changed; since prospective students would look mostly for departments of “communications” or “linguistics” and overlook “Human Communication”.  I used to wonder if it would be a better title for a linguistics department, finally ridding us of the surely ridiculous divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics.”  Now though the posthumanist lenses are prompting a view into the embedding of language and communication into materiality, into all the conditions of the world, nonhuman and human, as endlessly dynamic.  This entails more profound considerations of ethical engagement with the world than linguistics has been used to, it seems to me. Increased attention to power and social justice may be a result of posthumanist enterprises, although this could be an optimistic view.   I’d definitely no longer want to see Departments of Linguistics (with or without “English language”) called Departments of (Human) Communication.  A better reason for avoiding “communication” is that the existing discipline of communication has its own tenets and practices, being far more entwined with media studies and sociology than incorporating insights that only detailed engagement with texts can give us.  So all in all I think the route to take is to forget the divide between “Linguistics” and “Applied Linguistics” but rather discuss decolonising linguistics: what might linguistics be?

Julia Gillen

This is a hasty sketch, written on 17th February 2021.  It does not represent the Literacy Research Centre. 

References (partial, in both senses)

Bakhtin, M. (ed. M. Holquist) (1981) The Dialogic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. (ed. C. Emerson & M. Holquist) (1986) Speech Genres and other late essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: a critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2008) Grassroots literacy: Writing, identity and voice in Central Africa. London: Routledge.

Chomsky, N. (1980) Rules and representations. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3, 1-61.

Gillen. J. (2014) Digital Literacies.  Abingdon: Routledge.

Goddard, A. (2012) Doing English Language: a guide for students.  Routledge.

Goddard, A. and Gillen, J. ([2004] 2013) ”Bye Alligator”: Mediated discourse as learnable social interaction: a study of the language of novice users of communication channels. https://eprints.lancs.ac.uk/id/eprint/66197/1/Bye_alligator_2004_posted_2013.pdf

Halliday, M.A.K. & Hasan, R. (1985) Language, context and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective. Geelong: Deakin University Press.

Kristeva, J. (1986) Revolution in poetic language. In T. Moi (ed.) The Kristeva Reader. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Kusters, A., Spotti, M., Swanwick, R., & Tapio, E. (2017). Beyond languages, beyond modalities: transforming the study of semiotic repertoires. International Journal of Multilingualism, 14(3), 219–232. Routledge.

Mercer, N. (2000) Words and minds: how we use language to think together. London: Routledge.

Podesva, R. and Sharma, D. (eds) Research methods in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Rommetveit, R. (1988) On literacy and the myth of literal meaning. In R. Säljö (ed.) The Written world: Studies in literate thought and action. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Rommetveit, R. (1992) Outlines of a dialogically based social-cognitive approach to human cognition and communication. In A.H. Wold (ed.) The Dialogical alternative: towards a theory of language and mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Seargeant, P. (2019) The Emoji revolution: how technology is shaping the future of communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

UNESCO: Intangible cultural heritage: Puppetry in Slovakia and Czechia.

Volosinov, V.N. (1995) Language, speech and utterance. In S. Dentith (ed.) Bakhtinian Thought: a reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Wei, L. (2018) Translanguaging as a practical theory of language. Applied Linguistics 39(1) 9-30.


Making a Difference: A Literacies Perspective on Eden North and the Morecambe Bay Curriculum

The Eden Project is an educational charity famous for its Biomes located in Cornwall. It aims to work with people to shape attitudes and knowledge about the local environment and the natural world more generally, to inspire social change and find creative and sustainable solutions to the emergencies we face due to climate change. It aligns with the UN Sustainable Development Goals related to the environment and emphasises participation and social justice.

A map of Morecambe Bay and its immediate surroundings

The Eden North project is designed to carry through these aims in a new and very different environment in the North of England – Morecambe Bay which is one of the largest tidal bays in the UK, situated on the NW coast near the big conurbations of Liverpool and Manchester. The project has generated significant excitement across all sectors of the region: county offices, businesses, schools, the volunteer sector and more. Recognition of the centrality of the Bay in the lives and interests of the region’s people has acted as a catalyst for additional discussions on educational, economic and social change. Within those discussions, the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (see below) plays a central role. While the Bay is a unique place, the issues that Eden North and the Morecambe Bay Curriculum aim to address are in no way unique to the Bay or to the North of England.

Architect’s drawing of the Eden North   “mussel shell” domes

The Morecambe Bay Curriculum (MBC) is an initiative linked to Eden North, which spans education from early years to college and University level. Its aim is ‘to promote green, technical, vocational and professional pathways to University. The Curriculum will help provide the skills and knowledge needed by employers, build capacity to develop responsible and sustainable new green enterprises and support regional graduate retention.’ Lancaster University is a partner in this initiative, working closely together with further and adult education colleges, local schools, community organisations and businesses.

In this blog post, three members of the LRC share their thoughts on the MBC, looking at it from a language and literacies perspective and in the context of climate change being a global issue faced by people across the world.

Curriculum as Participation

Diane Potts writes:

“We are rightful participants in this democracy” (Burch, 2020, December 29). Those words were spoken by LaTosha Brown, a founderof the Georgia-state, grassroots organization Black Voters Matter. It is one many such groups that have worked over the last decade to ensure the rightful participation of blacks in U.S. electoral processes. In another time and place, the quiet power of these words might not have resonated so forcefully. But amid the social isolation created by a pandemic that disproportionately impacts the economically and socially disadvantaged but also amid the more hopeful discussions surrounding the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (MBC), the words gave pause. For Brown is not arguing for a specific policy or programme nor is her organization seeking to impose their vision of the world on others. What they are working toward is something far more fundamental, the rightness of their participation in determining what that future might be.

A curriculum is a negotiated vision of the future. Within discussions of Eden Project North, negotiations have been open-ended and use of the word curriculum rather loose. For good reason. Heads and Deputy Heads, educational consultants and community members have focused on curriculum as it might be imagined, not details of how curriculum will be decided upon and delivered. Whatever form it takes, Morecambe Bay will be at the curriculum’s centre for while MBC has not been described as a place-based curriculum – at least, not to my knowledge – Morecambe Bay legitimates and circumscribes the project. The Bay, what the curriculum would have us think of as our Bay, bounds participation. Rightness, however, is not so easily addressed.

Rightness requires consideration of how and not only who will be involved. MBC is imagined as formal and informal learning and as addressing learning in and beyond educational institutions. It is a curriculum in which each of us is a source and recipient of knowledge, future knowledge that will be jointly developed but also individual and community knowledge that arises from our unique experiences and opportunities. The Bay’s diverse natural habitats, its relations with peoples and histories and its contributions to our economic, social and personal well-being bring together what is inherently a site of diversity and difference. Referencing the Bay does not, however, answer who we are to each other and who we will need to be in order to achieve the project’s larger objectives. This has implications for the development of the curriculum and not only the curriculum itself.

If rightness of participation is to be achieved, then participative practices for formulating MBC will be diverse. They cannot, for example, be limited to traditions of formal consultation for these traditions have historically excluded many who MBC seeks to involve. Quite simply, the ways in which language is organized and used are not ways that the diverse communities of the Bay recognize as theirs. Too easily, the language of bids, grants and policies hardens into structures and processes that exclude. This is no small matter. Time and again, research in education and more particularly language and literacy education has demonstrated that learners succeed when they see themselves represented in a curriculum and not only represented but represented as they understand themselves. Failure to account for diverse ways of knowing – that is, failure to understand learners as participants rather than recipients – undermines educational initiatives and the larger change efforts of which they are often part. Research in language and literacy education shows this. Research in education more broadly shows this. Educational research carried out by organizations such as the OECD shows this. While Lancaster University’s leadership has been frank in their support of non-academic voices, new practices of participation must be imagined or crucial voices will be excluded from the onset. This makes rightness among the first knotty puzzles that must be addressed, one that will require drawing upon the diversity of expertise across and beyond the university will need to be drawn upon.

Those who have read this far will recognize themes that cut across current academic interest in design-based research (Anderson & Shattuck, 2012; Design-based Research Collective, 2003; McKenney & Reeves, 2019, participatory research methods (Penuel, Riedy, Barber, Peurach, LeBouef  & Clark, 2020) and decades-old work on decolonizing methodologies (Smith, 1999). The thinking will resonate with those engaged in theorizing culturally-sustaining pedagogies, pedagogies that assume rather than advocate for the necessity of rethinking how ways of knowing come together in curricular spaces (Harmon, 2018, Paris, 2012; Paris & Alum, 2014; Prasad & Lory, 2020). My interest rests with schools, teachers and young people engaged not only in curriculum-as-plan but curriculum-as-lived (Aoki, 1993, 2004). This reflects my longstanding involvement as a consultant and as a researcher in participatory practices that extend communities’ capacity to capitalize on existing expertise. The place of language and other semiotic resources in such practices is at the heart of my interests, not as objects of study but as the very means in which and through which we engage in social action. In the language of the day-to-day unfolding of a curriculum, the future is designed (New London Group, 1996/2000; Potts, 2018).

Knowledge, skills, dispositions: language is crucial in all. In his work on the sociology of knowledge, Bernstein (1990, 2001) wrote of recognition and realization rules; of recognizing the relevance of what one knows and of recognizing how such knowledge must be reformulated to gain wider circulation. But what teachers have taught me, those who have worked in ‘the poorest postal code in Canada’ and with children whose parents cook in restaurants, deliver packages and cross oceans to visit families, is that learners must first be supported in recognizing their experience as knowledge. What my limited experience in community work with the First Nations and aboriginal peoples of Canada has taught me is that I may be asking the wrong question. Curriculum work is language work. I imagine the lived MBC as one that begins by understanding itself as incomplete and that recognizes its participants will scribe in knowledge that is unrecognized and unrealized at the onset. Curriculum rewritten as it is lived: participants’ language will be stretched as knowledge is shared.

Where then would I position myself as a participant in this work? Engaged in the front-line of schools’ efforts, documenting, analyzing and accounting for the development and circulation of knowledge in the course of learners’ literacies development. The languaging of MBC and concordant attention to language as social action is an area in which the people of The Bay can be global thought leaders for MBC is unusual in the range of peoples involved from its inception. At a fundamental level, the project recognizes that the work of curriculum design is not separate from the delivery of curriculum content and that the onus is on each of us to learn as well as share. In this, MBC offers participation in an evolving curriculum that simultaneously provides access to privileged semiotic registers, supports reformulation of experience and engages learners in re-creation rather than replication. Participation, reformulating and re-creating: each takes us back to issues of rightness. Teachers know that. Those who have been engaged in the early discussions of MBC know that. The question is how we go forward.

Reading the Word and reading the World: the Challenge of Critical Literacies in the MBC

Uta Papen writes:

To me, the Morecambe Bay Curriculum is a relevant and welcome initiative and I am pleased to see that my institution, Lancaster University, is part of this endeavour. The MBC (and the Eden North Project) is an opportunity for the University to strengthen its commitment to the region, to environmental research, social justice and educational innovation. It is an opportunity to act as a civic university. As a member of the Literacy Research Centre, I am keen to explore what role our work on literacies and languages may be able to play in support of the MBC.

Thinking about the Morecambe Bay Curriculum from a literacies perspective, the relevance of critical literacy to its aims and spirit is the first thing that caught my attention. The MBC, as I see it, seems to be exactly about what Macedo and Freire (1987) spoke about so many years ago: it is about reading the word and reading the world.

Critical literacy, or rather critical literacies, can be defined in various ways. Following Janks (2013) and others, I see it as essentially being about examining the role of language in shaping ideas, values and attitudes and the importance of texts in seeking to persuade. Critical literacy education seeks to equip students with tools to understand and carefully examine texts and the ideas they contain and to do so from a variety of perspectives. Text analysis, however, is not the ultimate aim. With critical literacy, students and teachers are engaging in social analyses (‘reading the world’) and they embark on social action, striving for social change.

To me all this is highly relevant to the aims of the MBC. If this is to be a truly ‘green’ curriculum and a truly transformative initiative, seeking to change local lives and futures, then it will need to adopt a critical perspective of the kind Paulo Freire, Hilary Janks, Barbara Comber and others suggest. It needs to consider the teaching of reading and writing to cover the four dimensions included in Luke and Freebody’s (1999) framework and to avoid a focus on decoding and comprehension only. Thinking about the MBC through the lens of critical literacies also chimes with the points about participation and the joint imagination of social futures that Diane talks about above.

What else does a critical literacies perspective suggest that could inform the MBC and its ambition? A critical literacies perspective suggests an approach to teaching and learning the ‘science’ of climate change that avoids an exclusive focus on ‘facts’, avoiding the complex political, economic and social issues that are intimately connected to local people’s experiences of climate change. Recent comments by Ofsted’s (England’s school inspection service) chief inspector, reported in the media, about climate change and how it ought to be taught in schools, are revealing of the challenges a critical and transformative MBC might face. According to the Guardian, in a very recent debate, Amanda Spielman, responding to calls for diversifying the curriculum, stressed the importance of science in addressing climate change and sustainability. She said “I think if it is not grounded in science there is no real understanding underneath it, it becomes a morality tale or something quasi-religious”. She was reported to have suggested that the curriculum should not be revised in response to a single issue or concern.

If schools have to treat climate change as a purely scientific issue, as Spielman’s words suggest, how will the MBC deal with the complex interconnectivities between ecological change, economic stagnation, social inequalities and local people’s personal experiences of the area they live in? To exclude these complexities would mean to separate science from society and it would be a bit like separating reading the word from reading the world. Critical literacy, to return to my starting point, is not a solely rational endeavour but involves emotions (Papen and Peach, forthcoming).

A related challenge is this: If the MBC has transformative ambitions, how is it to engage with the National Curriculum and its associated assessment regime? If the MBC is to be a truly local and critical curriculum, it is bound to hit against national standards for literacy and education and associated mandatory assessments. For example, how would a focus on critical, green, collaborative, local and engaging learning at primary school level square with the requirements of the Phonics Screening Check or the SATs tests, national assessments that undoubtedly shape what teachers can and can’t do in their daily lessons? In the wake of assessment related curricular necessities and constraints, might the MBC risk being no more than an ‘add on’? Similarly, what about secondary education and the requirements of GSCE and A-levels, which necessarily constrain schools and teachers to teach required exam content and to train students in the genres of subject specific exams?

I may underestimate the spaces available for local engagements with the curriculum. Drawing on local funds of knowledge and local concerns it may be possible to flexibly engage with the parameters of the national curriculum and yet to develop local content that follows the spirit of the MBC’s green ambition. Assessment structures may be a bigger challenge to the MBC, specifically when assessments are high stakes and externally set. It may need to engage with these structures, seeking to change established assessment practices as well as the content of these assessments.

Lifelong and Lifewide: Home and Community Literacies in the Morecambe Bay Curriculum

Mary Hamilton writes:

When I went into the Eden Project website as I began writing this blog, I found a message that the project in Cornwall was temporarily closed while they dealt with the effects of significant flooding. Flooding events are becoming commonplace in the UK, the sea and rain pour onto the land unpredictably leaving devastation and fear behind with long-lasting consequences for the communities they touch. The Eden project emphasises the ways in which it can work with people to make sense of such events, to shape attitudes and knowledge about the local environment and the natural world more generally, to inspire social change and find creative and sustainable solutions to the emergencies we face due to climate change. 

Consistent with the aims of its parent project, The Eden Project North is working with all sectors of the educational system to draw on as much local expertise and energy as possible, and has funded an appointment in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster university to support this work. In offering a way to connect the different spaces where education and learning happen in Morecambe Bay, the project has already taken a radical step.

As Uta says above, developing a curriculum that has radically different starting points from the current English national curriculum presents big challenges for schools – though we might argue that through media exposure and their own lived experience, children’s awareness of the issues of planetary emergency may already have outstripped the existing curriculum and this awareness is waiting to be recognised and harnessed for change. Morecambe Bay and the rivers that feed it, is a vast and moving landscape of water that affects all of us who live here. It has strong industrial and rural connections. It is home to a nuclear power station, a wind farm, a gas field, ship building, railways, fishing, tourism and is famous for its wildlife including the millions of birds that live and travel across it. All these can be starting points for the lived local curriculum that Diane discusses.

A definition of education that includes informal and lifelong learning offers further ways to develop a new approach to curriculum. After school clubs, community activities that cross generations, further and adult education and the university are not subject to the national curriculum in the same way as schools. These are places to experiment with new ideas and make new connections which can in turn affect learning in schools and beyond (Ivanic et al, 2009}.

Some of the roots of the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre lie in such experimentation. My own work has focussed on developing sound theory that sees literacy not simply as a set of technical skills but as a part of social practice, inextricably linked to the context of peoples’ lives, relationships and concerns (Barton and Hamilton, 2012). Such a perspective and the ethnographic evidence and practical expertise on which it is based, resonates with the ambitions of the Eden Project North. Our work can make a crucial contribution to realising these ambitions. It fits particularly well with the aim of drawing on the local  ‘funds of knowledge’ that exist in homes and communities around the Bay to inform curriculum (Gonzales et al, 2006; Moll, 2019), using multiple, alternative forms of learning including art, performance, physical outdoor learning and strengthening the role of strong, collaborative, self-managed, community resources such as local media, advice centres and libraries in supporting learning (Hamilton, 2015).

Literacy, the mastery of the written word, including its new digital forms, is essential to any curriculum and there are choices about how to work with learners to achieve it. These choices determine our attitudes toward language variety and dialect, community languages and how the language resources of newcomers are treated. A theory of literacy as social practice links with international work on literacy and the creation of local post-colonial curricula (Andreotti, 2012). Paradoxically, strengthening the power of the local to inspire learners also develops a bigger sense of history, how we got to where we are now and our connectedness with others in creating alternative futures.


We can see from the three perspectives offered above that The Lancaster Literacy Research Centre (LLRC) has a great deal of expertise about how to develop critical, responsive pedagogies in relation to language and literacy. Together with other perspectives, these can, we hope, feed into the MBC. The roles of learner and teacher are remade through such pedagogies, to create an evolving, living and participatory MBC. Documenting these processes and joint creations will be important and the collaborative ethnographic methods that we have been using for many years can lend support to such effort, so that what happens in the Eden North Project and the MBC can be shared with others, in contexts similar to or different from the Bay, informing their journeys to new curricula and new spaces of learning and exchange.


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