IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Li Wei's linguistics and learning journey

6 July 2021

IOE Director and Dean, Professor Li Wei talks about his upbringing and education in China and the UK as well as the importance of learning languages.

Professor Li Wei outside the UCL Institute of Education building (Photo by John Cobb for UCL Institute of Education)

Interviews with Times Higher Education and TES have been republished here.

New IOE director wants institute to lead decolonisation agenda

First published in Times Higher Education, 12 July 2021 - Anna McKie

The new director of the UCL Institute of Education (IoE) has said that the centre “should be at the forefront of the decolonising education agenda”.

Li Wei told Times Higher Education that he felt it was a critical issue for the IoE as it is a leading centre for education and social research, and because he hopes to build on the institution’s international and interdisciplinary collaborations.

Professor Wei, who took up the post earlier this month and was previously chair of applied linguistics and director of the Centre for Applied Linguistics at the IoE, said it was “really important” to decolonise both pedagogies and the curriculum, because “the fact that people have different knowledge systems and educational practices is a good thing. The added value of the differences must be considered very carefully and really respected.”

At the IoE, this will involve “looking at what we teach and research but also the way we train teachers for this country, for Europe and the huge number of teachers we train all over the world”. The IOE is one of the UK’s largest teacher training providers.  

“This is the time for us to really reflect on what we have achieved, but also involve our partners in the Global South to revisit and revise our curriculum and pedagogy,” Professor Wei said.

“I really see the IoE leading the decolonisation agenda. It means a fundamental change of our mindset and our approach to the curriculum and how to genuinely collaborate and work together with people from the Global South and of the global majority.”

For example, university language teaching has been very much confined to European languages, but for Professor Wei, the study of a wider range of languages and broader cultures was essential.

Already the IoE’s Centre for Languages and International Education means undergraduate students can do languages from Arabic to Chinese to British Sign Language as part of their degree. However, he warned that the decline of modern languages among GCSE and A-level students was “a real worry”, especially because it has prompted a number of recent course closures in UK universities.

“How can we even think about global Britain without building the nation’s multilingual capacity? The closure of university language departments affects Britain’s capacity to produce the best linguistic and cultural talents for the 21st century and beyond,” he said.

Professor Wei added that there was growing concern that studying modern languages in higher education was becoming the preserve of students from private schools.

The institution had noted that the profile of language teachers “has changed quite considerably. It highlights the reliance of modern foreign language teaching on the independent school sector,” he said. “Because of Brexit, we are reliant on UK language students, who generally come from the independent school sector. The loss of teachers of multiple languages and cultural skills in the state school system is really significant.”

Professor Wei added that it was “disappointing” that the government’s recent proposals on initial teacher training, which would require all providers to go through a process of reaccreditation, did not reflect feedback from the sector.

“The past 18 months have demonstrated the strength of the existing system, with provision rooted in close partnership between universities and schools having maintained the vital supply of new teachers despite the immense disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

10 Questions with...Li Wei

First published in TES, 2 July 2021 - Claudia Civinini

The new dean and director of the UCL Institute of Education talks about his lack of a formal education as a child and the importance of learning languages 
A world-leading scholar in applied linguistics and language education, Professor Li Wei is taking up his post as the new dean and director of the UCL Institute of Education this week. Here, he talks to Tes about how he did not access formal schooling until he was 15, his thoughts on fee-paying schools and why he believes learning languages is so important.

1. Can you tell us about your background and education?

I was born in and grew up in Beijing, China, during the later years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and I did not have any proper school to go to – that was the time when there was no school running. But my mother was a musician and music teacher, so she knew lots of other school teachers. Together, they organised an informal education for their children. We would move from one house to another and had these somewhat informal private lessons. 
The year Mao died, I went to my first proper school, Beijing Foreign Language School. It was a very special school because it was the only school in China at the time where Westerners were teaching Chinese children directly. No other place had that. I had teaching from people from Britain, America, New Zealand, Germany and elsewhere. It was my first encounter with Europeans. I was 15. 
I stayed in this school for three years, learned English and became a teacher of English when I was 18. After three years, I went to university. Again, because of the specific history of modern China, universities did not start admitting students until quite late, until the late 1970s, so we all had work experience and then went to university. 
I don’t think I can single out one memorable teacher but, at the foreign language school, I had the first encounter with these Europeans who chose to live in China and devoted much of their lives to the Chinese revolutionary cause during a very difficult time. Many of them suffered during the Cultural Revolution but, still, they were committed to China, and to their care and teaching of young Chinese kids. 
It was this group of people that was really memorable. I was curious about their own experience, why they chose to be in a country like China at that particular moment in history, and why they chose to stay there after the Cultural Revolution. I was absolutely amazed by their conviction and their care for the Chinese youth, who would be the future of a nation that is not necessarily theirs.

2. What were the best and worst things about your time at school?

The best part was learning a foreign language. That really opened another world to me, and I realised the importance of language learning – and I continue to be absolutely convinced by the importance of learning languages. It helps to give people different perspectives on the world and I think that is so important, especially in this day and age. 
I guess the worst part was, at the time, in the late 1970s, the lack of resources and facilities, lack of books and libraries. For foreign language learning, we couldn’t get original English language books, for example, so that was a difficult experience. And personally, I also hated the boarding aspect of it. We had to spend all the time on campus and I didn’t really enjoy that.

3. Why do you work in education?

My early experience of the lack of formal schooling in 1970s China made me realise that education is the best antidote to authoritarianism, intolerance, hatred and also, in today’s world, it’s the best antidote to populist and nationalist divisions and ideologies, so I am absolutely committed to education.

Throughout my career, I have been particularly interested in the issues of equity and social justice concerning immigrant and ethnic minority children and communities, and I believe that education provides such an opportunity for them to progress in their lives, and that is something that I am really committed to.

I want to understand education in its broadest possible sense, not just schools. Again, it goes back to my own experience: whether you have formal schooling or not, you can learn and acquire knowledge in all different contexts. It is the process of acquiring knowledge that is so important.

4. What are you most proud of in your career and what’s your biggest regret? 

I have been fortunate enough to be in leadership roles at a number of institutions, which gives me the opportunity and capacity to support colleagues in their career development. And, over time, I see more and more of my colleagues and former students getting prestigious jobs, taking leadership roles, getting awards or major fellowships and prizes, and I feel extremely proud that I may have played a small part in their career development. I think that is the most rewarding part of my job. 

And, of course, I am proud of the fact that I was the first Chinese-born linguist to be made a full professor of linguistics in a UK university. And I am told that I am the first non-white dean of a UCL faculty. I tend to be overly positive and enthusiastic about things, so I do not have many regrets. Of course, there are things that I could have done better in hindsight, but it’s not so much regret.

5. Who would be your colleagues in your perfect staffroom?

I have not worked in a school for a very long time so that is an interesting question. 

I am always curious about what other people are doing and how they do things. I like cross-discipline and cross-curriculum working and collaboration so, in the school staffroom, I would most likely want to make friends with colleagues teaching other subjects. 

I would be an English teacher or foreign language teacher, but I would definitely want to make friends with other colleagues who are teaching other subjects to learn about the way they work and learn if there is any possibility for cross-curricular collaboration – that is really what I am passionate about. 

6. What are the best aspects of our school system today?

I have been in the UK since the 1980s, so I will talk about the school system here. In terms of the best, it has to be the commitment of teachers and teacher educators, there is no doubt about that. Many of them are working in quite challenging conditions. Their care for the children, and enthusiasm for knowledge and for learning, is absolutely amazing. 

In terms of the worst aspects, I think there is still a great deal of inequality in terms of access to high-quality teaching, access to learning resources. 

The pandemic has revealed huge discrepancies between different geographical areas in Britain, between different types of schools, and I think, in this regard, I am really concerned with the impact of the pandemic on children of ethnic minority backgrounds, and other socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

I would like to see a school system that is free for all, and is exposing children to a variety of pedagogies, learning systems, cultural practices – both inclusive and diverse – really aimed at maximising the children’s potential and creating opportunities for them. 

7. Your own teachers aside, who in education has influenced you most?

I think it has to be Basil Bernstein, the sociologist and sociolinguist, who was the Karl Mannheim chair of sociology of education here at the Institute of Education. He did his PhD in linguistics at UCL and, as a sociolinguist, he was concerned with the effect of social class-based differences in language use, access to knowledge and learning. As an educator, he was interested in accounting for the constructed, not real, relatively poor performance of working-class pupils in language-intensive subjects, such as history, when they were actually achieving grades that were comparable or even higher than their middle-class counterparts on mathematical subjects. 

He pointed out that people assign different social significance and meaning to the way pupils of different social class use language. I see a great deal of similarity when it comes to pupils of bilingual or multilingual ethnic minority background, so-called English as an additional language learners. The fact that they know languages other than English, which is naturally affecting the way they use English, is often not seen as a useful resource for learning but as a problem, because of social prejudice against non-standard English. 

In my own research, I have had pupils of ethnic minority backgrounds who were born and brought up in this country and speak what seems to me to be perfect English, but then they are discouraged to go for language-based subjects at A level and university. It is very disappointing that this is still happening half a decade after Bernstein’s original work. 

8. If you became education secretary tomorrow, what's the first thing you'd do?

I have never thought about it, so I can’t tell you what I would do on the first day as the education secretary. But here is a quote from Gavin Williamson, which I have used on a number of occasions: “We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job.” 
Contrast that with what Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” The difference is very obvious. 

9. What will our schools be like in 30 years?

To me, technology will change our schools fundamentally. People have started talking about smart schools. I don’t know exactly what they look like but, certainly, artificial-intelligence-enabled schools are being invented, and technology will change the way we teach and learn, and the way we communicate with each other. How teachers and pupils will cope with that is something that we are all anxious to see. 

I would like to see our education system, our schools, be free for all, and equalising opportunities for all, where children are happy and teachers are happy, and find the experience of schooling a rewarding experience. And school can enable them to develop critical minds – that’s something I would like to see. 

I do have an anxiety, I guess, that the school system will remain divided, and I think we have to make sure we have ways of overcoming those divides, and make sure that schools are able to maximise every learner’s potential and create opportunities for all.

I think having the different types of schools [state and fee-paying schools] creates differential access to education and learning resources. We still have a system, with some schools, where admission and entry depend on one’s ability to pay, so I hope that’s not going to remain in another 30 years’ time, but I fear it will still be there. 

10. What one person do you think has made the most difference to our schools in the past 12 months?

I am not sure there is a single person. I’d like to highlight the contribution of teachers collectively, I have huge admiration for school teachers during this very challenging time. They really went beyond their call of duty to care for the pupils.

I also want to highlight the contribution of schools of education in universities. We have continued to train new teachers during the pandemic and that’s a major contribution that really made a huge difference. 

University education departments have also done a great deal of research into how to manage emergencies and crises like Covid-19 in schools and the entire education sector. 

And there is a great deal of work in terms of catching up and levelling up, so the teacher and university-based teacher training programmes will be absolutely instrumental in post-Covid times as well as during Covid.

More: Q&A with Li Wei