My Banned Word List for Teacher Education OR Questioning our Assumptions About Learning, Teaching, and Schooling

Since 2009, I have been “banning” the use of certain words in my classroom. I’ve come to this point because of my intense irritation when I hear them used. I’m irritated because these words carry an incredible amount of baggage loaded with faulty assumptions and meanings that are rooted in problematic theoretical and philosophical frameworks. In fact, most of these words are used within the frames of positivism and mechanism. Both “positivism” and “mechanism” describe a worldview that is based on the notion that everything fits into nice little categorical cubby-holes, that we can quantify everything, that everything works like a well-oiled machines, and that our world works in very linear and predictable ways. If we’re honest enough about our own experiences, we realize that such a worldview is more of wishful thinking than a description of what actually occurs. Yet, our society and especially our schools are deeply embedded in this positivistic and mechanistic worldview – complete with the highly questionable outcomes of testing as a measure of learning or intelligence, repetitive practice as the way of learning, working with children as a process of “management,” and schooling as a technical enterprise.

My banned word list arose not as an edict to stop using these words, but rather as a reminder to examine the assumptions that underlie these words. These assumptions tend to be consistent with positivistic and mechanistic views. At the same time, the use of these words perpetuates a dysfunctional status quo of schooling and undermines our attempts to engage students in systems thinking and its holistic and organic worldview.

a. What are the assumptions underlying these words?

b. What is problematic about each of these words?

c. How are they inconsistent with the following notions?

  • classrooms as communities;
  • children as producers of knowledge;
  • the complexity sciences (chaos and complexity theories) as explanatory frameworks for biosphere, psychological, and cultural systems;
  • learning as constructive, non-linear, and recursive;
  • democracy in education and education for democracy;
  • children as inquirers;
  • teachers as mentors, facilitators, orchestrators, models, etc.

Banned Words

Lesson Plans and Lessons

Whenever I hear “lesson,” I can’t help but think about some serious adult saying sternly or worse to some child, “I’ll teach you a lesson!” In addition to such a negative connotation of “lesson,” the underlying assumptions of lessons and lesson plans undermine authentic inquiry, complex and meaningful learning, and classrooms as communities. Lessons are discrete packages of teacher controlled and directed sequences of instruction. They occur during predetermined periods of time, which are generally quite short and inflexible. The content of such lessons is almost always delivered to various degrees of fragmentation and tends to be disconnected from other subject matter areas. Predetermined lessons disallow authentic inquiry that arises from the curiosity and questions of students. And, the entire approach tends to reject the power of spontaneity, the importance of emergent curriculum, and the worthiness of children as thoughtful decision-makers and contributors to classroom communities. Even though “lessons” and “lesson plans” are problematic, teachers do need to plan. Planning for inquiry and planning in ways that support the dignity of children needs to be done in very different ways and in conjunction with the children themselves.

Closure

Why in the world do we want to close down any learning? In fact, as Gregory Bateson suggested, students should leave school with more questions than “answers.”

Objectives

This term arose from behaviorist approaches to schooling. They were called “behavioral objectives” at that time. Even though the name has been changed, the approach hasn’t.

Classroom Management

Based on the notion of control and the preparation of children for factory work, this term undermines approaches to classrooms as communities, where children share in the control of the classroom.

Test

Testing and the quantification of “learning” is rooted in positivist traditions, but really don’t tell us anything about what children do and don’t understand or the depth and extent of such understandings and misunderstandings.

Worksheets

Just drill and “kill.” They may allow for very superficial learning, but the learning is usually what is not intended: that is, “going through the motions can be enough.”

Scientific Method (as a singular and linear process of knowledge production)

There are many scientific methods. The linear and dogmatic one used in schooling tends to kill curiosity and misrepresent the nature of science.

Direct Instruction

If used more than 20% of the time and at the expense of engaging children in inquiry, communication, and the production of knowledge, then children’s real learning is minimized.

Anticipatory Set

An over-used and out-dated approach to setting up direct instruction. As it is presented, it tends to narrow the possibilities and make teaching and learning a linear and lifeless process.

Accountability (unless we hold banks, corporations, CEOs, politicians, et al. accountable)

Misplaced approach to assessing teachers. Typically accountability is based on student achievement, but it only perpetuates bad teaching and superficial learning.

Piagetian stages of development

Way out-dated. It has been disproven by Margaret Donaldson. Her account is available in her book, Children’s Minds.

Behaviorism – including:

  • rewards,
  • reinforcement or reinforce
  • behavior modification, etc.)

Demeaning to children, not to mention a superficial, positivistic, and simplistic view of learning.

Prescriptive Learning

Just down right scary that we can view learning as something that is imposed upon others.

E-Learning (& related terms)

At best, online learning is superficial. It focused almost entirely on content learning, which is only one part of learning and a decreasingly important part at that.

On-Task

Another term related to “control” over children. How often are adults “on-task?”

Efficiency (in teaching and learning)

Real learning isn’t about efficiency. It’s about taking the time to go into depth and extent, to play with ideas, and to question and test ideas.

SWBAT (Students Will Be Able To)

This is a meaningless phrase embedded in positivistic views of teaching and learning, especially behaviorism.

Age appropriate

More often than not this well-intended idea leads to underestimating the capabilities of children.

Standards

Content standards are always questionable. Who decides what is and is not important to learn? What is the agenda behind such decisions?

About Jeff Bloom

I’m a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.

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