Speaking in Clichés

People involved in business and other institutions often communicate in clichés. Insider words and phrases commonly used but vaguely understood, even less so by those on the outside.

Education certainly has it’s share, with many of them borrowed from other organizations. Like many of those in a post titled 17 Development Clichés I’ll Be Avoiding in 2017.

Empowerment – We want to empower teachers, students, girls, parents, principals, and who? But empowered to do what? However you define it, “empowerment isn’t like a light switch; it’s a long and messy process, and it certainly won’t be completed in a workshop”.

Capacity building – The World Health Organization says this is “the development and strengthening of human and institutional resources”, whatever that is. Ask the next person using the phrase if this is what they mean.

Global citizen – In their “Portrait of a Graduate” document, our local school board says every student needs to be one of these. They aren’t very clear on what it means to be a global citizen, or how their emphasis on a testing culture will make it happen.

Do good and do well – I had a principal who frequently used this phrase, and it, or variations, seem to pop up regularly in talks and writings on educational reform. Still don’t know why.

Liaising with key local stakeholders – And various other phrases incorporating the word “stakeholders”. Although, as much as the term is used in education, we rarely seem to include the most important “stakeholders” in the process – students.

Silver bullet – There’s no such thing, and no one should ever ask if whatever it is we’re talking about is a “silver bullet”. The answer is always no.

The writer also includes the phrase “on the ground”. Educational speakers seem to love something similar – in the trenches. Like the classroom is a battlefield and teaching an act of war. Definitely a cliché to be avoided.

So, how many of these clichés are commonly used in your school and district? How many have any real meaning? Is it possible to drop most of all of them from our conversation, in favor of words that have more meaning?

The Appearance of Digital Literacy

The title of a recent Wired article claims that Digital Literacy is the “key to the future” – even if we have no idea what that phrase means.

Here in the overly-large school district we talk a lot about “digital” literacy (with it’s interchangeable companion “digital learning”), although few of those using the phrase can offer a coherent definition for it, and often two people will have very different interpretations.

This particular story is based on discussions among “representatives of the tech industry… and academia” that took place at GitHub, one of the geekier places in Silicon Valley and the web. As you might expect, learning to code is a central tenet in this community, but even that idea is vaguely defined.

But “learning to code” is an exceedingly broad concept, and one which without more specifics risks oversimplifying conversations about what digital literacy really means. And how digital literacy is defined is important. This isn’t just about filling Silicon Valley jobs. It’s about educators, policy makers, and parents understanding how to give the rising generations of digital natives the tools they need to define the future of technology for themselves.

Let’s ignore the lame and outdated “digital natives” reference, and assume that we really do want our students, during their time in K12, to develop programming skills to help them define their “future of technology”. Where does that fit in our current concept of “school”? Or, to channel the thoughts of many students, will this be on the test?

Coding is one of those skills that are also puréed into STEM/STEAM/Maker, more ill-defined instructional concepts that in our schools are almost always welded on as before/after school, lunchtime, or pull-out enrichment activities, but rarely included as part of the “regular” curriculum. They are treated as events, rather than as an environment.

If STEAM is so important – and more than one school reformer has declared it to be vital to our national economic future – why isn’t it part of the core curriculum? Instead of a nice extra activity, great for photo ops, offered to a small segment of students, the ones we know will have no trouble passing the spring standardized tests?

As with the tendency to dump computers and other “high-tech” devices (tablets, “smart” boards, etc.) into classrooms with little or no change in instructional practice1, adding STEM and/or coding activities also provides schools – and district administrators, school board members, and other politicians – with “the appearance of teaching digital literacy without providing the actual substance”.

And without having to decide what in the hell “digital literacy” really means.

It Doesn’t Exist

Here in the overly-large school district, we’ve had lots of discussions around the term “digital learning”. It’s now part of vision statements and official plans, not to mention plenty of slides in presentations. We’ve ventured out into the community to ask parents, kids and others what the phase means to them. Digital Learning even has it’s own day, which I gather is today.

However, after all the conversations, articles, presentations, pronouncements, defining and redefining, the more I think about it, the closer I get to this conclusion:

There ain’t no such thing. “Digital Learning” is meaningless. It doesn’t exist.

Let’s face it, learning happened before so-called digital tools were created, before all of us were connected to multiple networks. Using non-digital artifacts like books, lectures, and even teachers. Scientists experimented, people explored, and kids came to understand what happens when they drop an analog brick on their brother’s head.2

Certainly learning is made better – easier, extended, enhanced in most cases – using connected devices. I can’t imagine not being able to use all the amazing resources available through the various screens I use. But that is not “digital” learning. That’s learning using the most effective tools I have available.

I understand the need to give the use of computers and other devices to improve the learning process a name, something short, catchy, ready for press releases, sound bites and tweets. Unfortunately, manufactured terms like “digital learning” often get in the way, with too many politicians, education “experts”, and even teachers emphasizing the tools over the desired outcomes.

Kids – people – do not “digitally” learn. They learn. Period. So what we need is to make the necessary tools of all kind available to all classrooms and then let the teacher and students decide which of them work best for the individual, subject and situation. On occasion, finger paints and chart paper can be more powerful to foster learning than a drawing program on a tablet.

We especially need to give students more options to choose their own approach to learning, the tools they will use, and the method of demonstrating the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired.

So, celebrate “Digital Learning Day” if you like. But as you do, remember that the Learning is far more important than the Digital. And “digital learning” is much more of a marketing concept than something that exists here in the real world.

Define Learning

Continuing the rant from last week about educlichés, our department focus document2 also includes several instances of another vaguely defined phrase: “digital learning”.

In fact, our job is not to help teachers understand the concept or make it part of the curriculum. The task is to…

Develop a definition of Digital Learning in [the OLSD2], identify how it impacts teaching and learning, and articulate why it is important to students’ learning.

Interesting. From reading that charge, I would have to conclude that Digital Learning is a separate idea from the learning that students do, and apparently from the process of teaching as well.

It’s certainly possible to learn without the use of digital tools. But is learning with digital tools fundamentally different than without them? Do we need a discrete phrase like “digital learning”? Or is it in the same class as 21st century learning – an oft repeated cliche linked to a collection of vaguely defined ideas?

Anyway, we will not be working alone in the effort to develop that definition. Over the next few weeks the district is holding a series of public meetings asking parents, students and other members of the community to contribute their ideas to the mix.

It will be interesting to see who shows up and what they have to contribute. I don’t expect large numbers since community sessions like this only draw big crowds for issues like boundary changes but I’d love to be surprised by some enthusiasm for issues related directly to instruction.

Stay tuned while we solve the mysterious identity of Digital Learning.

Learning 16th Century Skills

Although the language of education changes over time, some educliches just seem to endure far past the point of holding any real meaning. And one my favorites* seem to be making a big comeback around here: 21st century skills.

Recently our department here in the overly-large school district was given the areas on which we are to focus in the coming year (and maybe beyond, depending on how long the current big boss is in his position), and listed in several places is that phrase. Associated with it is our task: “Identifying strategies for teacher to use to integrate communications, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity skills into the curriculum”.

Beyond the constant use of a vaguely defined phrase that is at least 12 years past it’s expiration date, there are two major problems with this particular element of our discussion.

First, none of those skills are unique to the 21st century. A successful person at any point in human history was skillful at communicating, working with others, critically assessing the world, and finding creative ways to deal with new situations. They also made use of whatever technologies were available at the time to do all that. We want our kids to do the same throughout their lives with the most effective tools they have at hand.

An even larger issue is that last part about integrating all those skills “into the curriculum”.

Our curriculum, as in most K12 institutions in this country, is still very much a teacher-directed, fact-driven relic of the previous century. Or maybe even from the 19th. Everything is laid out in the “program of studies” and “pacing guides”, scripts that set the content and direction of learning from day one through day 180.

However, there’s a big disconnect. Those so-called “21st century” skills (aka the “4 C’s”) are best learned by doing. By interacting with ideas and solving problems that don’t necessarily have one simple answer. By finding and assessing information, and then creating new ways to use and communicate it.

If we are really serious about students learning these “new” skills, the current curriculum is largely worthless. It is chock full of easily googleable trivia and the primary skill being taught is how to play the testing game, to analyze packaged questions and select the “right” answers.

We need to totally rethink the definition of what is essential for students to know and be able to do when they graduate and that will not come from trying to graft a collection of cliches to the antiquated process we now call school.


* If by “favorite” you mean I want to scream whenever someone uses it.