Thursday, October 7, 2010

What’s in a Name? Examining Educational Initiatives

by Douglas Grudzina

We all know the line. Act II, scene ii. Juliet is wandering around on her balcony, sighing meaningful sighs, questioning why the love of her life, whom she’s just met and whose name precedes her own in the credits, is who he is.

(You did know that “wherefore” means “why,” not “where,” right?)

After one particularly meaningful sigh, she naively states, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose—by any other name—would smell as sweet.”

Nice sentiment.

Makes us question all of our petty biases and wrongful judgments and leapt-to conclusions.

But it’s not really true—especially if you’re an educator. In education, the name is everything. In fact, many a good educational idea, has died a death as tragic as the two titular characters referenced above—I just wanted to use the word titular—doomed by a bad name, or doomed by the simple fact that it was given a name.

I read the other day in the New York Times (well, the online version that gets e-mailed to me every morning) that there’s this relatively new initiative called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). It has something to do with integrating instruction—oops! another red-flag name—in the four disciplines because they are so closely related, and there are so many areas of overlap among them.

Apparently, judging from the editorial I read, a lot of people don’t like STEM. Apparently, judging from the editorial I read, what they don’t like about STEM is the name.

If you’re old enough, the phrase “Whole Language” probably makes you cringe; yet Whole Language was not a bad idea. The name, however, was unclear; it was too easy to misunderstand the concept; and it was too easy to dismiss a decent idea as a “fad” simply because someone had slapped a clever name on it.

As a parent and educator, I would cringe every time I heard my daughters’ elementary teachers announce, “I don’t teach grammar because this is a Whole Language classroom.”

Whole Language, doff thy name! And for thy name, which is no part of thee, take an honest description of what thou art: “I don’t teach grammar rules in isolation but tie all of our grammar and mechanics instruction to the students’ writing and reading.”

How much more effective—and popular—might initiatives like “Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum” have been if we’d doffed those names and instead simply acknowledged that, in science class, the kids were going to read their textbooks and, perhaps, the occasional article in a scientific journal, and they were going to be expected to know how to comprehend what they were reading? What if our stated goal was merely to prepare kids to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of historical periods, the causes of such and such, and the consequences of this and that? What if we told the kids and their parents that, in addition to traditional tests, our social studies students would be required to respond to essay questions, write a review of an article from a magazine, maybe even perform some research and write a paper in support of a thesis?

Would anyone really have insisted, “No, no … we want our children taking only multiple-choice and matching tests in science and history. Save reading and writing for English class”?

But we had to give it a name, and all of a sudden, the rose didn’t smell so sweet.

I could go on and on. Multi-culturalism (“we’re going to read works by authors from all over the world and from several periods in United States and world history”); HOTS (“our goal is for students to go beyond merely repeating the facts of what they’ve read to being able to share with others the merits and shortcomings of a passage and to reflecting on how the author’s view or opinion resonates with their own”); Inventive Spelling (“while the student is in the prewriting and first draft stages, we don’t want to lose momentum and content by stopping to check the spelling of challenging words; we’ll make sure the student proofreads for spelling before turning the final draft in”). And so on.

None of these examples was a bad idea. A few are actually still in practice—though the names have been changed to protect the innocent. The problem, with each of them—and scores of others—was the name. Something about having a name subjects the initiative to derision without scrutiny. The presumption of guilt without the benefit of a fair trial.

Right now, the name we love to hate is “Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment.”

Whether they’re your state’s standards or some version of national standards; whether they’re performance standards or instructional standards, chances are your first reaction to the word “standards” is to bristle your back—at least a little—and snarl.

But … wait a minute … what were we doing 20 or 30 or 70 years ago if it wasn’t “standards-based”? What did an A or a B or a 75% on an exam mean if it wasn’t a measure against some standard? In most societies and sub-societies and sub-sub-societies, not to have standards is the basis of any number of jokes: You see a couple you know sitting at a table in a restaurant, and in greeting, you say, “I guess they lowered their standards on who they let eat here!” (Har, har, har.)

It’s an old joke; it’s not a terribly funny joke; but it’s a joke only because we all operate on the assumption that, at some level, there exist standards.

“Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment” are not bad things. They are not new things. They come to our attention only because we’ve slapped a new name on an old concept. After all … “a rose by any other name …”

But … really?

To be fair, Juliet was … what? … fourteen? Sixteen, tops? I think we can forgive her for falling for that old cliché.

But we’re adults and educators. Don’t we owe it to our students to go beyond the catchy-sound-bite-name-in-a-phrase-of-the-day and examine the actual content of an idea or initiative before we either pan it or embrace it?

And shouldn’t those of us who teach communications, find the best language with which to convey the idea so it will be the idea that’s judged and not an over generalized impression of the idea?

After all, even Juliet knew that her parents would just love Romeo if they could only get to know him …

... and forget his name.

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