Monday, September 19, 2016

More Vivid Verbs: Language of Education

       Shortly after starting Kevin Kelly's The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, I tweeted:
To which Kevin Ruth (Chief Executive of European Council of International Schools) replied:
Potent, indeed.I'm making my way through it more slowly than I do most books, as I find myself drifting into wild speculation based on the not-so-long-ago inconceivable scenarios Kelly lays out. They have brewed a concoction of giddy anticipation and some plain terror.
       The noun-verb metaphor holds together much of the book. It appeals to me greatly, in large part because of my background as an English teacher. I'm particularly sensitive to how language affects how we perceive and act. It is our primary cognitive tool, and I've enjoyed watching students debate whether language drives thought or vice-versa. On a less ethereal level, as a writing teacher I preached, "The verb is the heartbeat of every sentence. Make them vivid!" Often I would tell students they needed to aim for fewer words overall but relatively more verbs.
       Considering how language reflects our thinking about education is nothing new. In The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith points out how many of the words we use have their ties back to our schooling model being inspired by the Prussian army's training protocols: "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 in mathematics, and wars against illiteracy." That we use this language so naturally, Smith argues, shows how deeply ingrained such thinking is. This notion has stuck with me since I first read it nearly twenty years ago, and I've often referred to it in various ways. Kelly's line has sparked some more particular consideration, with focus on the idea of nouns and verbs as applied to education.
       Nouns dominate our educational language. When we talk about  a student, we talk about, for example, "a seventh grader" or a "high school junior." Sometimes we individualize a bit and say the student is "a visual learner." Learning (as a gerund) equals the accumulation of lessons and facts, and that learning occurs in a defined space such as a classroom. We use the text to deliver the curriculum, emphasis on the definitive article, as if these are immutable, near-sacred objects. These examples, especially when linked with the many others I could cite, erect a rigid, finite framework.
       The issue is captured perfectly by the practice of grading, even in the best type of assessments such as performance tasks or open prompts or project-based studies. I cite those because they involve students doing something--usually multiple things--as they construct knowledge and skills and understandings. But then we, often per the rubric which clarifies the standards, slap a grade on a piece of work. And what is a grade? A desperate, ultimately futile attempt to capture the quality of a bunch of verbs in a single noun.
       Like grades, words are how we try to express what we really mean. They connote what we deem important. But they are intrinsically limited. Mention a table, and it's quite unlikely any two people see exactly the same object. Become more specific, i.e. desk, and we gain a bit more control over the message. I intentionally used a noun, but the same idea applies to verbs, such as run versus jog versus sprint.  The more precise we can be, the closer we come to accurate expression not only of what we mean but also of what we value.
       Writing chock full of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs without vigorous verbs drags somnolently. It fails to inspire. It deflates. It doesn't probe our human essence. Vigorous writing compels us to play in an imaginarium, a place grounded in reality with innumerable paths meandering into possibilities. There we question and explore and create and hypothesize and analyze and... Thereby we learn. Shouldn't those be the words of education?
       More vivid verbs, please.

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