Watching Your Words

A colleague used the word rigor the other day to refer to the difference between a video and a PowerPoint presentation.  According to my colleague, the presentation would be “more rigorous,” or maybe a “more appropriate level of rigor,” for high-school students than the video would be.  What I think he was saying (which is a good, thoughtful point) is that a video can easily turn into a fairly low-level summary, while the presentation could involve more analysis and synthesis of a Particular Concept.  But there’s something about the word rigor, like the word motivation which was on my mind yesterday, that still bothers me.  A quick search (rigor reveals that the word rigor inspired a post last June, another last August, and lots of others, including one of the earliest posts I published here back in December 2009.  Language is important, and not just to us language teachers; John Kellden’s recent Google+ post makes clear the close connections between language and perspectives, connections that can bind us to old ways of thinking (and blind us to alternatives) if we don’t take the time to examine and reflect on our words and the thought patterns they represent.

“Who has time for that?” Ms. X and Mr. Y would surely ask.  “There’s so much to do and so much to cover, and those bad, lazy kids will make me look bad with their terrible test scores!”  That’s a distillation, of course, and not a direct quote, but every one of those words and phrases is just loaded with perspectives and assumptions.  I agree with one of them: time is a finite resource.  But I find the others increasingly questionable.  Ms. X and Mr. Y prioritize doing because doing is observable, especially when what gets done is a worksheet that can be graded or a tangible product (perhaps a colorful poster or graphic organizer) that can be hung on the wall as an example of student work.  And of course there’s nothing wrong with doing, and there are lots of things to do in everybody’s life … but when Ms. X and Mr. Y talk about doing, they’re usually contrasting it with just sitting there or playing with those cell phones or, from Ms. X and Mr. Y’s perspective, doing nothing … which is to say, not doing exactly the thing Ms. X and Mr. Y have planned, at exactly the speed and tempo Ms. X and Mr. Y expect. Hidden in that innocuous little phrase is the whole factory-education mindset!

No wonder my students (at least those who get the “bad, lazy ones” label from Ms. X and Mr. Y!) often struggle with figuring out what they need to do to make a particular product!  Their whole school experience has focused on doing (or, to be fair, appearing to do while avoiding doing) All That Stuff that Ms. X and Mr. Y said to do. “I just don’t understand,” a colleague said to me at that Special Celebration last Friday, “why kids today have such problems with self-direction and multiple-step directions!  Something has really changed over the last ten years.”  And she’s right about the fact of change, I think, but I’m not sure we’d agree on the specifics of what has changed.  Ten years ago, people could still believe, if they tried hard enough, in the good old 20th-century dream of “go to college, get a nice safe job with benefits, live happily ever after,” and they could still see, if they squinted just right, a connection between Ms. X’s boring worksheet today, that college acceptance next year, and that Nice Safe Job a few years down the road.  With those days long gone for everybody but Ms. X and Mr. Y, how do you “motivate kids” to see such a connection … a connection that actually isn’t there anymore?

Do you say, as one teacher does, that the “real purpose” of school is to develop resilience in the face of adversity and persistence in the face of obstacles?  Do you follow Amy’s wise advice to “be engaged in the thing they DO want to learn” and help to build connections from there?  Do you throw up your hands and mutter angrily about “those digital natives” even when research increasingly shows that “those digital natives” don’t know very much about the tech they seem so proficient with?

N, J, C, and T usually make physical posters at the end of a set of readings for their work on the Advanced Placement syllabus, but last week they decided to stretch themselves and collaboratively make a Prezi instead.  “We needed more details,” they said in their self-evaluation … and that was true.  It’s also true that they don’t know very much about creating a product online together, and that’s probably because they haven’t had much practice.  “Nobody cares,” Someone Important said at a meeting not that long ago, “about what you can do together on an assignment or an assessment.”  That Someone was trying to discourage cheating, but those carelessly chosen words seemed to dismiss every form of collaboration and cooperation … things that lots of companies and thought leaders do care about very much.  Things you have to be able to do to “get a nice safe job” in today’s economy, but things that factory-schools aren’t designed to deliver.  And there’s “not enough time” to think about those deliverables, either, because there’s “so much to cover,” and “all those interruptions” (from the “bad, lazy kids” and the “unbelievable parents” and “people who just don’t understand” in the community) don’t help matters at all.  If only, Ms. X and Mr. Y seem to believe, everyone would just sit down, shut up, do the worksheet, and copy the notes from the PowerPoint!  If only that would happen, everything would be OK again.  The test scores would go back up, making them “look good” once again, and schools and teachers would “be revered” again, just like in the Good Old Days.

I wonder what Ms. X and Mr. Y would say if they felt they did have “enough time” to sit and unpack their words.  I wonder if they’d agree with this analysis … and I wonder what their reaction would be.  I also wonder how, and whether, you can build a joyful learning community and make meaningful things together with folks who just don’t see the point of it.  And I wonder what new insights and discoveries await us all today.


Published in: on April 22, 2014 at 1:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

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