Words are just words

Speculation on Obama’s choice for Secretary of Education is flying fast and furious. Several governors, superintendents of big school districts, an education professor, and a couple of businessmen are rumored to be in the running.

The language being used in the press is interesting to watch. As Alfie Kohn points out, in a new article in The Nation, Beware of School “Reformers”, the word “reform” has been stolen. It seems to have been co-opted by people wanting to bust teacher unions and test kids more.

Several education blogs have expressed their feelings on this Orwellian turn of events. I urge you to read Deborah Meier, Scott McLeod, Tim Stahmer, Gary Stager, Doug Johnson, David Warlick, Mike Petrelli, and I’m sure more I’ve missed.

What occurs to me is that every time we allow simplistic slogans to do our talking for us, we run the risk of having them stolen, misinterpreted, and co-opted.

Now, this is hardly as momentous as whether reform is really mean-spirited test prep factories or happy places for children to learn — but I think that “21st century skills” and “___ 2.0” have essentially become meaningless.

People use empty words for a reason, because it’s easier to use an evocative phrase that has no true meaning. The listener does all the work, adding their own imagination of what the phrase means. Then, voila!, the speaker has just concocted a brilliant metaphor that everyone can agree with because there are no messy details involved.

Marketers call these words, “empty vessels“, because in advertising, you want the consumer to imagine your product is perfect. What better way than to sell them their own imagination.

When I talk about teaching with technology, I intend it to mean giving students access to tools and teaching them to find answers to tough problems that challenge them. I want kids to be able to think and act, construct, compute, solve, share, and more. There are nuances and details that paint the complete picture of what I think teaching and learning should look like in the 21st century. And sure, many of these are simply aspects of what a good education should have provided in any century.

But I often hear people talk about “21st century skills” and invariably someone will immediately say, “Oh yes, we’ve bought active whiteboards for all our classrooms.” When you’ve been in as many classrooms as I have, you know that the vast majority of these whiteboards are being used as a projection screen and most of the rest are pushed awkwardly into a corner with boxes stacked up in front of them. Something didn’t translate. Obviously no one “planned” this, but somewhere between “We’re moving into the future!” and “Where can I roll this stupid thing so it won’t block the bulletin board,” there was a big failure to communicate.

Any idea that involves how human beings learn is complex, and complex ideas don’t make pretty speeches and zippy headlines. I wish I knew how to fix that.

It’s hard to know what Obama really believes about learning and what he believes will work for public schools. His own choice for his children’s school stands in direct contrast to statements he’s made about “accountability”. But soon we’ll see if he believes what’s right for his kids is the same as what’s right for everyone else.

We’ll see.