Sunday, May 22, 2011

Words Can Hurt

Recently Scott McLeod’s blog reminded me of a post from last fall by David Warlick titled “Are They Students or Are They Learners?” Warlick includes a wonderful table in which he delineates the difference. Rather than give details here, I encourage you to think about it and then look at the table.
As usual, Warlick makes some excellent points. But he also makes a false distinction. The kids in our schools always are learning. The question is: What? In many ways they are learning how to thrive as a student, but not necessarily as a learner in the modern world. The majority of the standards from various associations stress discrete bits of knowledge and rather pedestrian skills. That’s bad enough. But many of education’s traditional practices exacerbate the problem. What have we taught a student by warning he needs to learn something because it will be on the test? Or threatening that she needs to do her best because this is for a grade? Why do we provide set frameworks and lengths and templates for assignments that should be about students demonstrating what they have learned and can do in myriad complexity? (N.B. As a former English teacher, one of my pet peeves in this regard is the five-paragraph essay. I can’t recall ever seeing a quality professional piece of writing which uses this structure.) What is the message when we tell a student to choose a course because of how it will appear on the transcript? A colleague always fumes when she hears a teacher exhort students to learn something because they will need to know it next year. I’m certain you can think of some other examples besides these rather obvious ones.
There exists a direct relationship between language and thought and action. So the words we use matter. Greatly. Obviously they can affect how students perceive education. Furthermore, in The Book of Learning and Forgetting Frank Smith presents an interesting twist on how teachers may be victims as well. Smith draws his argument from an unexpected source: military history. Early in the 19th century, most countries had rag-tag armies. They comprised social riff-raff and lacked any discipline. Then, in direct contrast, appeared the Prussian army, which “dressed as on, moved as one, thought as one, and confounded everyone who confronted it” (46). This army had rigid recruitment and training policies. Education officials took note, and these practices moved into the one room schoolhouse. It proved a perfect fit for the emerging industrial world and mass education. Smith points out:
Numerous relics of the militaristic origins of modern educational theory survive in the language we use today. We talk of the deployment of resources, the recruitment of teachers and students, advancing or withdrawing students, promotion to higher grades, drills for learners, strategies for teachers, batteries of tests, word attack skills, attainment targets, reinforcement, cohorts, campaigns for achievement, and wars against illiteracy. The fact that this language seems natural to us, that we have all become so accustomed to it, perfectly illustrates the insidious infiltration of militaristic thinking in education (47).
Our use of such language is part of why many people have such a hard time reimagining schools.
We need new language to talk about education. Language that is holistic and flexible and adaptable.  Language about growth and creativity and insight. Language that opens us to any possibility. Language that expresses what students will need to thrive in the modern world.

                I’m hopeful. In the independent school world some important work is emerging that can provide pointed agenda items for crucial conversations. A great resource is NAIS’ A 21st Century Imperative: A Guide for Becoming a School of the Future. Many thoughtful people are fomenting mini-revolutions in their parts of the world. Ironically given my point above, here we can draw some important lessons from the military. The U.S. Armed Forces, long the paragon of hierarchy to the point of paralysis, has realized modern warfare necessitates allowing front-line soldiers to make more decisions and to innovate as necessary. The government just revealed that the SEALs had to go to plan b during the Bin Laden raid. Soldiers today cannot just be students; they have to be life-long learners.

While we may not be at war except metaphorically, the stakes are still plenty high—our kids’ futures.

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