What’s in a name?

Words have power to change the way we think and the way we see and interact with the world around us. As someone who moves often between languages, I am aware that the words I use and how I use them can impact the clarity and reception of my communication. While it’s very noticeable when ‘translanguaging’, it is perhaps less obvious to many that the same is true when communicating with others who have the same first language as us, or indeed how we frame our own thinking.

I have become aware of the power of words again this week during some staff professional development at my school. We were discussing the benefits of PBL, including the opportunities it gives for developing the so called ‘soft skills’. Personally, I have an issue with the term ‘soft’ for these skills – there is nothing soft about them, they are not easy and they take years of experiences interacting with the world to develop. We may wonder why many teachers find it difficult to ‘fit’ these skills into their programs or to cover them on top of the content of their subjects. Calling them ‘soft’ makes them seem extra, somehow less important. Certainly they are less concrete, less easily defined, than the content of many subjects. However, a colleague mentioned that in some circles, these skills are called co-cognitive skills. Soft vs co-cognitive. Which term gives the impression of being equally important and equally as difficult to master as the other aspects of our subjects? You see, words have power!

Our school is undergoing a period of transformation, particularly in terms of learning spaces. We have also developed a document regarding school-wide pedagogy. Money can be poured into renewing spaces and making them more flexible and school leadership can provide vision and direction for the teaching and learning that should happen within those spaces, but in the end, whether there is any change in the teaching and learning comes down to the individual teachers and the learning opportunities and experiences they offer their students. It is quite possible that despite new spaces and new visions, little may change in the experiences of our students. This pondering has had me thinking about what might happen if at the individual level, teachers stop thinking and talking about ‘planning lessons’ and instead start thinking and talking about ‘designing learning experiences’.

To many, this may seem just a question of a pedantic semantic, but I think it has the potential to actually change the way we see our role and the way we go about it. Words have power, after all…

Planning lessons – suggests to me a linear process to meet a required outcome, following a set text prepared by others with a little supplementing with other resources and activities, teacher led. The teacher follows the plan, students do what the teacher tells them is on the plan and then they are assessed. If students are assessed as not demonstrating satisfactory achievement, then it is easy to pass them off as deficient in something. No pressing need to look at what role I had. I followed the plan! The plan is then filed away for next year, only changing greatly when the textbook is swapped for another. It is all very fixed.

Designing learning experiences – the inclusion of the word ‘design’ may be what makes the difference here in my head. Designing is a cyclical process. It involves investigating a problem or need and finding multiple options, weighing them up, considering the impact from multiple perspectives. The problem or need is not just the outcome to be met, but the varied needs of the students in the class and the learning environment. Designing involves building in flexibility for multiple users, the ability to adapt. The design process involves prototyping, replicating, adapting, tweaking along the way. When the product is used, or in this case experienced, it is then appraised.  The designer seeks feedback. A process of reflection follows to see what improvements can be made, what was successful and why it worked. Furthermore, including the words ‘learning’ and ‘experiences’ also changes what is at the centre of our thinking while we design. Instead of a lesson I will deliver, there is learning that students will experience. And if the result is not learning, then I need to figure out why that was the case. I also need to review the learning design before using it again – the design brief that is each cohort of students can vary considerably!

So at this time of year as we finish one semester and begin readying ourselves and our classrooms for the next, what if we harness the power of the words and think of ourselves as Learning Experience Designers?


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