The Power of Language

Using language to challenge historical inequities, promote rigorous differentiated instruction, and empower student ownership of learning for 2020-2021

Regardless of models adopted for the fall, to create a collaborative community teachers and staff need to evaluate the language present and the concepts the language implies, supports, or emphasizes. With the increasing research regarding neurological process of learning, the power of strong mindful habits, and the importance of social emotional instructional practices in the classroom, teachers have a growing quantity of responsibilities. By taking a moment to evaluate and define specific thinking patterns inherent and embedded in educational systems and pedagogical practices, district leaders, coaches, teachers and staff can understand, reflect, and expand how language powerfully shapes conversations, classroom environments, and school culture.

“Being educated is not about simply knowing information or memorizing facts but rather about learners’ ability to apply these eight principles in a connected world to create new meaning for themselves.  Knowledge therefore is not a set of facts but rather a learner’s ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn information quickly and be able to apply that new knowledge in an ever-changing information landscape.”

Utrect, Jeff & Keller, Doreen “Becoming Relevant Again: Applying Connectivism Learning Theory to Today’s Classrooms” spring 2019 revisited 23 July 2020

A brief historical overview

Education in the United States of American experienced several movements, reformations, and transformations. Many current programs and legal requirements have their root in Progressive Education, frequently based upon the founding ideas and statements by John Dewey and Charles W Elliott (Counts, Tozer). However, these ideologies were based in the industrialized era to create democratic, self-aware working class youth with employable skills in a system rooted in meritocracy (Tozer). Teachers need to understand the current educational systems and pedagogical practices were rooted in providing manual and industrial skills considered appropriate for the majority of students (the White working class), who would one day participate in a democratic society and business driven economy (Tozer). Meritocracy, often seen in the awarding of privileges based upon good attendance and grades, reflects and encourages ideal compliant behaviors prevalent in the deep culture of White working class in the United States (Counts & Hammond). Only by understanding and acknowledging this deeply embedded cultural identity can districts and teachers reflect upon practices (that may be leftover or deliberate refractions of racist or classism) to move beyond into inclusive, culturally relevant and diverse practices for all students.

Addressing language that refracts racism, classism, and credentialism

According to Alfie Kohn’s article “Only My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform,” there are localized, powerful members in communities that prevent school reforms due to the inherent individualism and competitive nature to achieve success for their student(s). This is often most present in trying to maintain key traits reflecting meritocracy or an inherent classism to maintain current traditions or systems (which often benefit their specific class or reflect their ideal way of life). Kohn organizes these oppositional views into three clusters: type of instruction, placement, and selecting and sorting students recognition. An example is an outrage upon the removal of traditional letter grades instead of a shift to rubrics and narrative assessments in California. Kohn postulates that “perhaps the reaction can more accurately be predicted by the status of the student than by the income level of the parent– although the significant correlation between these two is itself cause for concern” (4). In fact, through various examples there is an inherent competitiveness where parents demand an equalitarian approach in division of school resources and programs. While there is a need for districts to provide assistance for all students, the language in which certain programs are encouraged as the expense and detriment of others needs to be evaluated to ensure imbedded ideals or racism, classism, and credentialism are not actually present. Teachers and district members need to be aware the language used by parents, teachers, community members and board members often reflects an unrecognized, internalized cultural ideology– what Hammond terms “deep culture”– and there may be a need to question, challenge, and refute in order to adopt and implement educational systems and pedagogical practices to benefit all students.

Professional development should be organized to help teachers recognize the meritocratic practices implemented and their own deeply embedded cultural tendencies. In “Culturally Relevant Teaching and the Brain“, Hammond provides the example of James sharpening his pencil and the manner in which a teacher directs the student to return to the seat. According to Hammond, “indirect directives are a feature of White middle class cultural communication style” which in the provided example looked like the teachers asking the student, “Would you like to take your seat?” (58). The student had a reason not to return to the seat (sharpening a pencil) and because the directive was masked in a question did not recognize the directive; in turn, the teacher reacted according to her personal cultural lens. Districts and teachers can participate in professional development to expand and help recognize different cultural processes by book studies, workshops, small group collaboration, webinars, interviews, and even inviting guests to observe mannerisms and behaviors in the classroom. Understanding how clear, concise, age-appropriate, culturally-appropriate directives and instructions create clarity for all students to understand responsibilities, tasks, and create a strong sense of community by decreasing social anxiety from cultural miscues.

Addressing equal rigor, deeper thinking, and computational skills

How can teachers and districts best organize instruction for synchronous and asynchronous learning that is differentiated for various needs and rigorous? While there are numerous threads and resources to help teachers and districts, some which will be shared via links or referenced, the focus is on the language to enhance and guide critical, evaluative, and reflective teacher collaboration.

There are two manners to address increasing the rigor and demanding higher level of thinking assessments. The first is to understand how Webb’s depth of knowledge levels overlap and connect with Bloom’s cognitive process levels in regard to specific content skills. A resource to help is using these downloadable matrixes, work by Karin Hess. Each content matrix demonstrates and overlaps thinking levels to guide instructional development. Using the language of the rubrics during collaboration on instructional and curricular design of a course can help teachers discuss if assignments are reaching the upper levels of thinking. Often, most assignments in traditional curriculum often reflect recall, memorization, or organization of information (lowest levels of learning according to the matrix) instead of challenging students to innovate, create, and expand upon the content. The second is to critique and reflecting on instruction using “Understanding by Design” by McTighe and Wiggins, or backward design model. This model focuses on the larger instructional goals and necessary skills to develop powerful instruction by creating a powerful assessment first. This blog by Jennifer Gonzalez exemplifies how questioning and critiquing instructional design enforces deliberate design to provide multiple opportunities and skills to engage these deeper cognitive levels. Teachers need to become comfortable with challenging course work and analyzing to what extent students are reaching and demonstrating these higher levels of thinking. Often, these demonstrations are considered more subjective than objective data, but using language to recognize and address the various cognitive developmental levels of knowledge allows teachers to really critique the instruction of the course.

An important manner in which to critique course content is through the language of third-data point discussion method (also known as three point communication). The instruction, lesson, or practice is what is being discussed and addressed instead of the individual (who probably spent a lot of time designing and creating the lesson or unit). By making the focus of the critique the student’s learning and demonstration of the skill, the focus is upon student learning. This also preserves a working relationship by avoiding confrontational body language and communication and separating the content from the relationship (Grinder). Teachers have powerful emotions concerning their students, instructional content, and pedagogical practices. By acknowledging that a particular novel, web quest, lab, or project is a personal favorite and then stepping aside to evaluate objectively whether higher student cognitive development is being achieved based upon gathered data is difficult yet important. In addition, teachers need to evaluate if their deeper cultural tendencies and ideologies are preventing, limiting, or disengaging student learning. Evaluating one’s self and work in a critical lens is not easy, but this reflective, honest practice is imperative towards improving instruction and instructional practices.

Another key word that requires defining and a more in-depth understanding by teachers and parents is differentiation:

“Differentiation of instruction is often misconstrued. It would be handy to represent differentiation as simply instructional decision making through which a teacher creates varied learning options to address students’ diverse readiness levels, interests, and learning preferences. Although that approach is attractive because it simplifies teacher thinking, administrator feedback, and professional development design, it is ineffective and potentially dangerous. To see differentiation as an isolated element reduces teaching to a series of disconnected components that function effectively apart from the whole. The more difficult and elegant truth is that effective teaching is a system composed of interdependent elements. As with all systems, each part is enhanced when others are enhanced, and each part is diminished when any part is weakened.

Robust teaching links five classroom elements so that each one flows from, feeds, and enhances the others. Those elements are learning environment, curriculum, assessment, instruction, and classroom leadership and management.” (Tomlinson & Moon, 2013). 

With many new technology tools, experiences, gadgets, and apps, teachers and districts need to remember the technology is always a tool to enhance, enable, and empower student learning and teachers and students need practice and time to evaluate which tools are best for the learning targets (ISTE Standards). In addition, there are various opportunities to differentiate using technology, but also by allowing students to select the process, content, or final product. By possessing a thorough understanding of differentiation in the classroom and using the Hess Rigor Matrixes and Backward Design, the language of collaboration is centered and grounded on instructional design that promotes student learning.

Language of Learning Theories

“The connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.”

~ George Siemens, Connectivism

In 2005, Dr. George Siemens published an article outlining the eight principles of Connectivism Learning Theory based upon his experiences, observations, and research regarding how learning is more than content and collaboration. Based on the recent neurological research emphasizing the brain’s process in learning, Dr. Siemens addresses how more engaging and deeper learning occurs within the context of our relationships to one another, a more networked learning environment.

  • Siemens Connectivism Learning Theory (2005) Eight Principles as a frame to apply concrete techniques to engage learners
    • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions
    • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources
    • Learning may reside in non-human appliances
    • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
    • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning
    • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill
    • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivism learning activities
    • Decision making is itself a learning process.  Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality.  While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the informational climate affecting the decision.

By utilizing the above Connectivism Learning principles, the Hess Rigor Matrix, and Understanding by Design to guide instructional planning, teachers can revolutionize learning engagement experience for students to increase critical computational thinking skills (ISTE Student Standards & OSPI Educational Technology Standards). These resources provide an updated learning lens for teachers, districts, and parents to work together to create powerful instructional opportunities for students. By utilizing the language of learning theories, teachers can transform instruction by including and connecting parents to student learning.

Resources & References

Counts, George S. “Dare Progressive Education Be Progressive?” Progressive Education, Vol IX No 4. April 1932. Viewed July 2020.

Gonzalez, Jennifer. “Backward Design: The Basics” 21 June 2020. Viewed July 2020.

Gonzalez, Jennifer. “9 Ways Online Teaching Should be Different from Face to Face” 05 July 2020. Viewed July 2020.

Grinder, Michael & Associates. “Two & Three Point Communication” TWINN, 06 Jan 2017. Viewed 24 July 2020.

Guido, Marcus. “20 Differentiated Instructional Strategies and Examples” 12 Oct 2016. Viewed July 2020.

Hess, Karin. Cognitive Rigor and Depth of Knowledge Matrixes. Viewed July 2020.

Kitchen, Melanie. “Best practices for Remote Learning Guide.” Viewed July 2020.

Kohn, Alfie, “Only for My Kid: How Privileged Parents Undermine School Reform,” Phi Delta Kappan, April 1998. Viewed July 2020.

McGeary, David. ISTE Summer Webinar “FeedForward,” Presented 21 July 2020.

Siemens, George. “Overview of Connectivism with Dr. George Siemens,” 21 Jan 2014. USC Teaching and Learning. Viewed 24 July 2020.

Tomlinson & Moon. “Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom,” 2013.

Tozer. “Social Diversity and Differentiated Schooling” Chapter 4. Viewed July 2020.

Utrect, Jeff & Keller, Doreen “Becoming Relevant Again: Applying Connectivism Learning Theory to Today’s Classrooms,” Spring 2019. Revisited 23 July 2020.

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