Saturday, January 28, 2012

Let's Ditch the Limiting Language of Education

We love the familiarity of structure, especially when that familiarity conjures up memories – real or contrived – of good times and warm fuzzy feelings. But the language of structure can be limiting just for that very reason, because its words connected to indelible images that form our memories and activate our emotional response systems. And there's no other structure that activates more of our emotions – good or bad – then memories of school.


And it's these memories that limit our thinking and imagination about what could be when it comes to bringing our educational structures into the 21st century, because all too often we're stuck on "what should be" as measured by our personal experiences and historical understanding of school. In other words, we are limited by our very own vocabulary from making real structural changes. So instead, we dabble around the edges with so-called reform careful not to damage the traditional structures beyond recognition. This is why it is often said that a teacher who retired in the 1960's could very easily walk into our schools and classrooms today, and after perhaps a few minor adjustments, would feel very much at home.


So let's consider changing the vocabulary behind our educational structure and once-and-for-all take down the real barriers that are preventing real reform. Here are some of my suggestions for changing the vocabulary found in formal institutions of learning:


School – let's start right away by eliminating this term right now. Close your eyes and blank your thoughts. Now think of the word "school." What visual do you get? I'll bet its either a school you attended – no matter how many years ago – or one you're working in right now. You can't shake that image and instead visualize a structure that's considerably different from either. Even if you try, chances are the "new" building you are imagining looks very similar or has similar structures to it.  This infects the thinking of every member of the community, which is why making substantial change is often next to impossible.


Classroom – this has got to go! It implies that the only place learning occurs is in some little box-shaped room with all the traditional trappings of a handsome 19th or 20th century classroom. There's order that usually includes the teacher standing in front and students lined up like ducks in a row. Your brain avoids chaos and can't imagine something called a "classroom" looking like anything else, even if "anything else" is a much better learning environment. And what's worse is when a teacher says "my classroom" which implies control and rationing out of course content only in ways I see fit. In other words, this is my kingdom and if you're good little children, I'll let you come in and I'll teach you. If you're not, please leave my classroom, now.


Class period – little is more limiting than the use of the word "period." The formal definition makes me shudder that we still use this as part of our learning lexicon. It implies that learning is structured into specified divisions or portions of time, marked by the recurrence of some phenomenon or occupied by some recurring process or action ( Nothing could be further from the truth for if this were true, there would be no learning in the seemingly endless chaos of childhood play. In addition, using class period to divide up a day, week, term or year means that we only have to think about chemistry or English or history or any other subject in that one fraction of time.


Grade – there are two limiting uses of this word, the first of which is the way we divide up a child's life between the ages of 5 and 18 into numbered grade levels, thereby also dividing up the curriculum accordingly, as if all children grow, mature, and learn at the same rate as a function of years. But we find that we can't talk about any of our other learning-related structures without bringing up the late-19th century concept of grades. Go ahead and try it. Meet with your peers and discuss the curriculum or any other school-related business and see who's the first to mention grade or grade-level. Make a game of it or better yet, a fundraiser. Anytime a member of the staff says "grade" or "grade-level" it's a quarter in the jar.


The second use of the word – to indicate how well a child has learned something (if in fact that's how you grade instead of giving points for getting work done, behaving, attendance or even donating a box of tissues to the room) – assumes that all a student has to do is endure whatever activity is required, get graded for the work, and move on whether or not he or she mastered the concept or not. Heck, it doesn't even matter if the child is ready for whatever is next, as long as a passing grade was acquired. After all, that's what parents want to know – did my child pass? What grade did he/she get? As if learning is always something in the past that comes to an end with the granting of the almighty grade.


Teacher – the online dictionary can't even define this word without using it, because we truly have come to believe that education is all about a single person imparting knowledge or skills and without that, we would have no learning at all. What if we devised an educational structure that was void of teachers and instead was constructed completely around the needs of individual and collaborative groups of learners, staffed only by adult mentors and learning assistants or guides to help along the way.


No way! That's not school!


See what I mean?


  1. I do indeed see what you mean. And while we're at it, let's ditch the rest of the things that limit education: school year? established curriculum? high-stakes testing? NCLB?

  2. Excellent post, David. People's perceptions of school sometimes are more about emotion than logic. I like Jamie Volmer's term, "Nostesia": nostalgia combined with amnesia.

  3. Great post... as a person who is called a 'teacher' at a 'school', I can't think of anything more odd or strange than the traditional classroom set up: I mean, where else in the adult world do you sit all facing the same direction looking at one person, not allowed to leave (rule out movies), not allowed to talk to the person next to you (rule out theatre) and made to move seats if you don't do 'what is expected'? It is a bizarre setup!


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