Language & Life


The goal of this new website is to help me make sense of the things that I have spent much of my life thinking about, professionally and personally. "How can I know what I think until I see what I say?" as someone once wrote. 

For now at least, it feels like a rather private domain. So if you are reading this it's either because I, or someone I know, thought you might have a shared interest in its contents. 

I've called this home page Language & Life because I've found that sensitivity to the nuances of language, and respect for its power, tend to generate the most meaningful and lasting insights into our diverse and complex world. 

I worry about standards of literacy in our education system. I mean literacy in the broadest sense of the ability to read, write, speak and listen in ways which are effective for different contexts, with or without the help of technology.  As I'm writing this, ChatGPT has just been declared the latest 'game-changer' in large language models (LLMs),  the branch of artificial intelligence which is having the biggest impact on the communicative evolution of our species.  It seems likely that those with strong traditional literacy skills, along with practice in critical thinking, are more likely to thrive in an LLM world, and vice versa, so it is more important than ever that we do not fail our young people in this aspect of their education. 

Technology evolution is awesome. It can enlighten and empower, but it can also obscure, deceive and exclude. Concepts of identity and integrity, of fairness, and of right and wrong, all seem more fragile and fluid than they did when I was young. Language can both help and hinder this fragility. So, as I move towards a more reflective stage in my career, I hope to make at least a tiny contribution to a more coherent, stable and equitable world.

If you feel that we might usefully share ideas or collaborate in some way, please don't be shy about reaching out. Send me an email or connect via LinkedIn, indicating that you've looked at this site.

Dr Jonathan (aka Joff) Wheeldon  

January 2023

Contents (overview)

My story

I cannot expect anyone to take any notice of what I write without sharing something of who I am. 

This section is rather longer than I had originally intended, but I found the process of editing my life into some kind of coherent narrative quite enjoyable.  Link here.

The education system

Book summaries: the site started life as a place to host the educational book summaries I wrote in early 2022. The selection is based on recommendations from colleagues and include my view of the implications of the books for those who have responsibility for educational strategy. People tell me they find the summaries very useful, so I intend to continue to produce them. Link here.

Educational reform (coming soon): this section will capture my perspective on the current state of the English education sector, largely informed by my time teaching and subsequently (since 2015) advising schools on governance, strategy, risk and technology. My hypothesis is that the education system is so 'stuck' because the reform debate rarely gets past the first hurdle of agreeing which problems we are trying to solve. I therefore aim to unpack the problems and focus on the choices and compromises. 

Teaching (coming soon): In 2013 I took a career break to do a PGCE and I spent a couple of years teaching A-level English in a state 6th form college. My colleagues and pupils seemed to find my materials engaging, especially those on Shakespeare and Chaucer, so I intend to provide them here along with some insights about what it's like to start to teach later in life. In the meantime, some of my teaching experiences are contained in the My Story section, link here

21st century careers - securing human roles in an AI future

Over the past 15 years I've been asked for, or volunteered, advice to youngsters (pupils, nephews/nieces, godchildren, children of friends and colleagues), and I thought it would be good to try to capture some of what I've learned from those experiences.

It's primarily aimed at 16-24 year-olds who are considering their futures, and at their parents, and teachers with responsibilities for skills & careers.

It's largely shaped by what I would like to have known when I was 17, so inevitably has some subjectivity. Whilst it's rather advanced for the average 16 year-old, I do think that anyone capable of going into Higher Education ought to be able to appreciate it to some extent.

Link here

Language, gender and identity

 As a potential contribution to the long-awaited guidance from government, I reflect on the role played by teachers, especially English teachers, in this sensitive area of cultural evolution. Link here.

The cultural industries

I spent most of my career working in industries referred to as 'cultural': music, film, theatre, and publishing. 

My research into the struggles of the cultural industries to adapt to the digital revolution has been published as a book. The intention is to help people understand why organisations and industries can be so resistant to change. It continues to be relevant and some updated summary extracts are linked here.