The Changing Vocabulary of Education and its Spaces

An image from Ngram Viewer showing relative trends in the words 'education' and 'learning' between 1800 and 2008

Over time we change the words we use to refer to things – in education just as elsewhere. One way to see how vocabulary shifts, is Google’s Ngram Viewer.

Ngram Viewer shows the percentage share a particular word or phrase gets of all words or phrases published in a particular year in books that are part of Google’s corpus or library of scanned books, 1500-2008. Looking over a number of years, you can get a sense of that word’s relative performance – whether it becomes more or less popular (in written, published, Google-scanned texts that is).

If two or more terms are close enough in frequency, they can be mapped on the same graph, for example ‘education’ vs ‘learning’:

An image from Ngram Viewer showing relative trends in the words 'education' and 'learning' between 1800 and 2008

Link to this chart in Ngram Viewer

‘Education’ and ‘learning’ are very different kinds of words but it’s interesting how their frequencies changes relative to each other, as equals in 1800 before ‘education’ becomes much more (indeed for most of the 20th century three or more times more) popular before the gap closes again: ‘education’ is becoming less popular relative to ‘learning’.

The volumes of some terms are so different that they can’t usefully be compared on the same chart if you’re interested in relative changes. ‘Classroom’, ‘learning environment’ and ‘learning space’, for example:


Link to this chart in Ngram Viewer

‘Classrooms’ is so much more popular than the others that, on the same scale, their changes are drowned out. So separately, ‘learning environment’:


Link to this chart in Ngram Viewer

And ‘learning space’:


Link to this chart in Ngram Viewer

Does any of this mean anything?

The charts show correlations so describe rather than explain patterns. Why changes in patterns occur, their causes, is not something that they can do and I tend to use them for a bit of fun. Sometimes it’s fairly banal. You can compare trends of ‘classroom’ etc with ‘building’ and ‘construction’ and see similar stalling or downturning patterns in and shortly after times of economic downturn which is hardly surprising.

But some things are more interesting – in particular the relative changes of ‘education’ and ‘learning’. ‘Education’ was a success story during the period 1900 to 1975-ish but has shown a fairly steady decline since then in contrast to ‘learning’ which has gone from strength to strength. ‘Learning space’ and ‘learning environment’ as distinct terms have grown hugely since 1990 or so. ‘Classroom’ on the other hand has flattened or declined since the mid-90s.

In my own research and teaching experience the shift from ‘classroom’ to ‘learning space/environment’ at least in England has been quite significant and I wonder if and how this might reflect and reproduce changes in how we think of education and its participants. ‘Classroom’, after all, is a noun based on the possession of a space by a social group, a class. The space is theirs, they are defined collectively, it is clear there is a ‘they’: people are at the centre of the construction. ‘Learning space/environment’ describes (optimistically, let’s face it, since it is difficult to ascertain learning, its extent, what it is of) a site’s assumed activity – a potentially individual, internalised and more psychologically-framed one.

There’s a related point here – one that connects to Lave and Wenger’s argument* for whom:

[Our] viewpoint makes a fundamental distinction between learning and intentional instruction. Such decoupling does not deny that learning can take place where there is teaching, but does not take intentional instruction to be in itself the source or cause of learning, and thus does not blunt the claim that what gets learned is problematic with respect to what is taught. (1991:40-1)

This last point could be helpfully disambiguated by Neil Selwyn’s call for a ‘fighting back’ against the misleading language often used in edtech discusssions:

Why not refer to the systems that are currently described as ‘virtual learning environments’ as ‘teaching management systems’ or ‘instructional organization systems’? Why not refer to the people using these systems as ‘students’ rather than ‘learners’? Why not refer to internet ‘work groups’ rather than ‘learning communities’? (2015:5)

Similarly, to call a space a ‘learning space’ is not just aspirational, it is an ontological claim: this is a space where learning happens – hard to evidence and very hard to know who is learning what, in what ways. ‘Teaching space’ is more dull, less engaging, old-fashioned perhaps but it is probably more modest, more honest, more accurate and it is certainly more verifiable. It is also narrower: if everywhere is in some way a learning space, then calling a particular space a ‘learning space’ adds nothing except the performative hope that that is what it will become.

Another way to approach these issues is to ask what happens if we re-name “restaurant” as “eating space”? What is gained and what lost in this more functional description? Where would you rather do your eating? Why? Is eating all that’s important in a restaurant? Transpose these questions to “classroom” and “learning space”. What is happening here?

Neither ‘classroom’ nor ‘learning space/environment’ are neutral terms; they both have baggage. But every now and again it is worth asking to see inside those bags and perhaps find out what other ideas and ideologies they contain and sustain.


Note: I’d love to hear from anyone with thoughts about if and how educational language is changing in other languages – I realise the above is very English-focused and uses Google’s English corpus. There are a number of corpora in other languages.

* = Something I’ve not focused on here is the way that ‘learning’ has increased not simply because of its replacing education but as a result of developed interest in informal learning and social theories of learning. Then there’s the whole focus on the ‘learning society’ and learning as part of neoliberal modes of governance, schooling and the imperative to keep up-to-date skills-wise. We’re all learners and always have been but who or what does the recognising and what they recognise as Learning changes. That’s for another day.



Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Selwyn, N. (2015) Minding our language: why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it, Learning, Media and Technology,


Further Reading

Gert Biesta is a very interesting thinker who writes extremely elegantly about changing educational concepts and their implications for how we conceive of why we put younger and older people together en masse in buildings. An interview with him and links to some of his work is here: What are schools for? An interview with Gert Biesta on the learnification of school buildings and education

Norm Friesen (2013) has an excellent chapter ‘Educational Technology and the “New Language of Learning”: Lineage and Limitations.’ in Selwyn, N. and Facer, K. (eds) The Politics of Education and Technology: Conflicts, Controversies, and Connections. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 21–38 For example: ‘By framing learning as a biological or cognitive function that is at base malleable, naturally occurring and universal, psychological learning theories have the effect of stripping away layers of social and institutional significance and connotation, and political, historical, and cultural context.’ (p.32)

Thomas Markus and Deborah Cameron‘s (2002) book The Words Between the Spaces: Buildings and Language. London: Routledge is well worth reading. In it, ‘We argue that the language used to speak and write about the built environment plays a significant role in shaping that environment, and our responses to it. We try to show that reflecting systematically on language can yield insight into the buildings we have now, and the ones we may create in future.’ (p.2)


‘The linguistic choices speakers and writers make can cue hearers and readers to make certain inferences about the meaning of an utterance or text, and these go beyond its purely informational content. Often, as we will see later on, they are ideologically significant, implicitly presupposing certain values and social relations.’ (p.3)



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