Edgeucation Blog

Ten Terms that Keep Us in a Box

August 29, 2016

Thom Markham

Albert Einstein nailed it: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” That truth will decide whether we develop a 21st-century friendly educational system or continue to tinker at the margins of school.

So far, we’re not showing much out of the box thinking. The Common Core is really just an extension of the past, with a few new standards and practices thrown in to stimulate more problem-solving. My view is that part of the resistance to the Common Core is the nagging suspicion that focusing on standards as the ‘it’ of transformation is too feeble for the times; we seek deeper change, but don’t know how to go about it.

Partly, this is because we’re stuck in factory-model terminology—and getting unstuck can be hard work. Thinking is driven by metaphors that become patterns of thought. Over time, the patterns get hardwired into the brain and limit us to a particular world view. The old terms act like conduits to keep our thoughts contained and channeled in the direction of more industrial education rather than opening us up to a more fluid system based on personalized learning, inquiry, authentic projects, and distributed knowledge—all of which, we know, will be part of the future.

One way to get at the problem is to change our vocabulary intentionally so we can redirect our thoughts. It’s similar to the growth mindset. The words of the teacher affect the beliefs of the student and result in different performance. With advances in neuroplasticity, we know these shifts are physiological as well as psychological. The brain is malleable, but needs direction. When it comes to reinventing schooling, that should be our aim as well.

Outside of education, this is familiar turf. Society and industry has had to invent thousands of innovative terms to capture new trends, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships. But education might as well be using rotary phones. So much of our vocabulary speaks to the past, not the future. For example:

Lesson. In the 13th century, a lesson meant “a reading aloud from the Bible,” or just “a reading.” It’s hard to escape this history. The term is freighted with the past: The static delivery of information, listening as opposed to doing, and the passive transfer of information. Can’t we substitute ‘experience’ or something more process-oriented?

Unit. In the old way of thinking, knowledge is discrete, compartmentalized, and divisible into bite-size pieces. The unit nicely captures this metaphor, holding subjects, teaching plans, and pacing guides in tidy confines. The world no longer fits in boxes. Enough said.

Rigor. Rigor may be an educational favorite, but it’s associated with drudgery: The amount of diligent effort necessary to transfer mountains of information into the brain, memorize it, and recall it for a test. The result: More homework equals more ‘rigor.’ Today, rigor needs to be redefined as personal rigor. Information comes at the touch of a button. How a student holds themselves in relationship to the information is the key.

Soft skills. Memorizing information may be hard, but who believes that 21st century skills, such as communication and collaboration, are easy? Relegating the most challenging aspects of human performance to the category of ‘soft skills’ misses the point of teaching them. They are not an ‘add-on.’ Mastering those skills lies at the core of 21st century learning.

‘High’ and ‘low’ students. I hear this terminology a lot, and always cringe. First, the ‘high’ and ‘low’ is often system-induced; somewhere along the line a child did not get the support or love they needed. Second, research shows the brain can change and intelligence is malleable. In a personalized system that will depend on the more subtle learning abilities of the student, rather than the ability to absorb information, it will be critical that teachers maintain a neutral stance, along with the belief and expectation that a student is capable of breakthroughs in their abilities.

Off task. A recent study showed that six-year olds who play more and have less structured activities have higher executive functioning abilities. Imagine what life in school will be like for them over the next twelve years. The brain does not like to be focused on one thing every minute, but that won’t stop us from continuing to insist that each of those precious minutes in class be used in pursuit of a dedicated learning goal.

Learning styles. Some terms feel progressive, but aren’t. There is no research that connects learning styles and effective instruction. There is no evidence, as well, for multiple intelligences. Yes, people are diverse in their abilities and thinking, but instead of trying to categorize learners, why not just develop a personalized system that lets every student flower in their own way?

Summer learning loss. Loss of what? Facts or other chunks of information that the brain doesn’t really need to keep in storage? This term is an artifact of a test-based system focused more on recall than understanding. The ability to ask questions, understand a concept, or solve a problem is like riding a bicycle—it doesn’t go away in three months, or even a lifetime.

Special education. This is industrial education at its best. There is education for normal people, who fit into a pre-designated template of what a good student does. Others need special help. How about a system that embraces human diversity and recognizes that everyone expresses their gifts in different ways? That’s the direction of the world right now; education must follow.

Brain-based learning. I know this term is meant to advance our understanding of the brain, but it overemphasizes cognition and ignores powerful research that shows how the heart and brain work together for optimal functioning, peak brain performance, and emotional self-regulation. To explore the roots of motivation, persistence, flexibility, and empathy—the foundation for 21st century learning—we need to rebalance heart and brain.

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