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.

5 Replies to “Words are just words”

  1. I’m in the same place with regard to Obama’s ultimate beliefs on Education (Tech). I’m in waiting….What really hit home here, though, is the notion that our choice of words to describe 21st century learning/web 2.0/edtech can have vastly different meanings for many in education and political arenas.

    Having just completed and presented ‘Web 2.0 in Education for Teachers’, it has become obvious that it is a difficult task to truly define the totality of student engagement and learning that can result from effective use of (web-based) technology.

    As I re-read your article in Educational Leadership this morning, I was mentally taking note of how you defined ed. tech. in varied instances. Then I visited your blog and discovered you are grappling with the issue–as it relates to actual meaning for ed-tech-newbies.

    After three hours of presentation where teachers seemed truly engaged, one question at the end of the session drove the point home: “So, what exactly is Web 2.0?”

    We have a long way to go. Thanks for your efforts…

  2. Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think a lot of us are grappling with these issues as the world changes around us. Nothing stays the same, but trying to define what education is (or how is should be) based on simple technology updates doesn’t seem well grounded.

    As humans, we are wired to notice change – it’s literally in our genes. But I don’t think those ancient hunter skills suit us well when we try to think about the big picture.

  3. I wonder if the students will eventually be the final voice: How much longer will students wait for the education they imagine? How long will it be before they voice their preferences? Aren’t they already creating, collaborating, and communicating outside of school on issues important to their lives? Perhaps they will self-organize for learning without schools while the “authorities” continue to stifle the local teacher-leaders attempting to engage learners as responsible, respectful, and productive citizens because students are already interconnected and interacting globally? Perhaps the students will develop from their social networks their own learning networks because they are very tired of the empty words and empty work.

  4. Students will soon be the administrators as industrial walled garden gatekeeper models of education unknowingly add solvent to their own internal structures.

    If centralised departments of education continue to attempt to maintain their authoritative hold on learning, it just can’t work, not for very much longer at least. Learners are realising the flat world is also their learning world and are voting with their digital feet, in tertiary institutions at least.

    The strong glue of communities that students adopt, build and enliven will be the future educational landscape sooner rather than later.

    As professional, standards enforced, learning hubs called “Forcebook” etal with dedicated learning conciarges and ATAW learning become common if not universal within 10 years traditional teaching/learners roles will completely blur.

    Normative not summative assessment will predominate and pointless end/exit testing will be shown up for what it is.

    Schools will exist for social f2f skills development, reporting back on rael community projects and traditional hands on subjects, but they will blend with the virtual and online learning communities.

    Developing countries or lagging opportunities at the bottom of their educational cycles are at a massive advantage. They do not have to undo centuries of now disconnected established edupractice and as ubiquitous technology allows the fish to not see the water, these systems will prosper exponentially.

    The top of the exponential scale is the hardest incremental improvement. Current systems playing it conservatively safe or resting on laurels of tradition will be under increasing pressures as emerging new learning rapidly closes the disadvantage gap. Shift happened alright.

    The change pain still needs to be felt in some first world countries but a decade is all they have.

  5. While empty metaphors do have their place and they can serve an educational purpose I agree that clear understanding of your objectives and indicators of learning are important.

    I think we’re at the stage where to some extent we need to abandon existing notions of “teaching” and start to redefine our relationship with learners. We are never engaged solely as the arbiter of knowledge – we are always a co-learner; if at the least in learning about our students, and often in terms of our understanding of content, processes and practices…

    “21st Century Skills” will always be interpreted… the challenge is that clearly stated outcomes about specific skills often have the effect of being treated as an end-point rather than a staging point…

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