December 31, 2008

Zombie jargon for the end of 2008

As this incredibly horrid, wonderful, and plain odd year limps to a close, we should say goodbye to terms that are long past their usefulness. (Snark warning: It's the end of a year, and this is one of the rare times that I will actively make fun of bad ideas.) In my view, the following terms are zombie jargon, terms that by all accounts should be dead but somehow are still walking around. Are your brains being eaten by any of them?

  • Speaking of brains, let's start out with brain-based learning. All learning is brain-based, but neuropsychology is not sufficiently advanced for anyone to say with certainty how a specific instructional method is tied to what happens in specific parts of our brains. This term is too often connected with pseudoscientic cant used to sell various products and programs.
  • Let's move from brains to classrooms: sage-on-the-stage vs. guide-on-the-side. If you can figure out a classroom where there is either no structure at all or children don't have their own ideas, go visit a real one. Until then, please don't bother me with false dichotomies. All good teachers have some structure in the classroom. All good teachers work with the fact that students are human beings with their own motives, moods, and so forth.
  • But the fact that students are different is sometimes reified into categories with little research support, such as learning styles. My educational psychology colleagues tell me that there is insufficient evidence to support claims that a particular student will inherently learn better in some presumed "mode," let alone support for the constructs of various proposed modes. And it's a good thing, too: if some of us truly were verbal or kinesthetic learners rather than being able to absorb visual information, the roads would be much more dangerous than they already are.
  • Along the lines of learning styles is multiple intelligence, which is Howard Gardner's assay of our internal baloney meter. If you've paid money to read one of his books on the topic, you failed the test. In his defense, I know that he developed the term in trying to address the king of all zombie jargon in education, intelligence. But I'm not sure if it makes problems any better if you multiply them.
  • But let's move from psychology to policy pablum. If you hear policymakers talk about world class standards, make sure to run as fast as you can before they open up your skull. I don't know if my children and their peers need to meet standards that would work in Quito, Buenos Aires, Accra, or Beijing, but I'd settle for their meeting MIT standards, Oberlin standards, and UC Irvine standards, and for their being able to make friends and work with peers from Quito, Buenos Aires, Accra, or Beijing.
  • And now that we are in the 21st century, can we stop talking about terms such as 21st century skills as if being able to read and knowing a bit of science, math, and history are somehow obsolete?
  • While all of the terms listed above should have been dead a few years ago, I want to add another one that's freshly dead (or should be): data-driven decision-making. This is not an argument against using data to make decisions but against using the term "data-driven decision-making" to avoid talking about hard decisions: what should we be teaching children, who has priority on resources, is a teacher or principle thinking that their job is working hard instead of teaching, etc. It is a term used by technocrat wannabes, the ones who would have talked about zero-based budgeting in the 1960s or time-and-motion studies in the 1920s.

If it's still 2008 where you are, please take care tonight, don't drink if you're going to drive, and have a great New Year!  Oh, yes, and don't taken in by zombies talking in management-speak:

Update: Lake Superior State University has published its new banished-words list for those who want to avoid abusing the English language when talking about other subjects.

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Tags: educationese, jargon, Jonathan Coulton, snake oil
Posted in Education policy on December 31, 2008 5:27 PM |