What value in a word?

In my previous post I talked about words having power to change our perceptions, even of the job we do. I have been pondering the power of words again this week. But the power of words goes much deeper. You see, words give value to the things they name. And our use of words reflects our own values. Sometimes, there are words and terms closely connected and often used interchangeably. We need to ask ourselves, whether using these terms interchangeably enhances the values we are trying to convey, or causes us and our audience to lose something of the values and the bigger picture we are trying to create. I think it can depend very much on the words and the values under consideration.

As an example, consider my Year 11 German class discussing the German concept of Heimat. When asked to consider its meaning, most automatically went to google and a couple to their dictionaries, to find the English translation given as ‘homeland’. I asked them to tell me what that means in their own words. The general consensus was ‘where you are born’. But the German concept is so much richer and more involved than simply a place of birth. Heimat expresses feelings of belonging, being valued and contributing, feeling whole and like you and that place fit together. It may be a country, a region, a town. And unlike ‘birth place’, there is room to have eine zweite Heimat, a second homeland. If my students think of the literal translation, they lose most of the values expressed in the German word.

This ‘value laden’ aspect of words struck me again tonight at the staff meeting at my school. Firstly, that term ‘soft skills’, which I briefly lamented last post, was raised again. Soft as opposed to co-cognitive – which term places more value on those skills? Do we lose something of the planning required, the explicit teaching needed, and the practice needed to teach them and learn them well if we insist on using ‘soft’? ‘Co’ means together, with. ‘Cognitive’ relates to cognition, the mental act and process of getting to know something. How much more does that actually tell us about these skills? We have to actively get to know and be involved in a process to learn them! Please, no more soft skills!

On the other hand, the P in PBL reared its head. It seems to me that the definition of that ‘P’ at times creates a hierarchy. Is Problem more student centred, rigourous and difficult (read better) than Project? If a student has voice in defining the project, the process to achieve it and the demonstration of the outcome, then isn’t that also student centred? Either way, the P is often loaded with values and proponents of each are keen to point out the differences. But does it matter if there is some overlap and if we cross between the two? If we keep our students and their needs at the centre and tailor our learning programs to our specific contexts, then is it necessary or helpful to maintain a puritan definition? Or is the ability to adapt and adopt elements of both PBLs to suit our learners and have a looser definition actually more beneficial than dogma? It depends somewhat on our values.

Finally, the leader of the meeting briefly mentioned some work I have been doing on Universal Design for Learning. While I was pleased he drew attention to the offer to staff to involve them, I was rather less impressed when he defined it as ‘about differentiation’. I think something in the process and concept of UDL was lost when Differentiation was used interchangeably with it. UDL is more than that! Differentiation usually happens once most planning has already occured, and focuses on some students doing something ‘different’, with the focus often being on the student and their difference and often with negative connotations attached. With its roots in architecture and design, UDL seeks to remove barriers to learning at the planning stage. It seeks to have flexibility available in the tools, processes and environment for all learners so they can make choices to suit their learning, rather than a teacher directing them to task A, B or C based on the teacher’s perception of capability or need. Perhaps it is in the ‘universal’ as opposed to the ‘different’ that I see some opposing values being expressed.

Are there other edu words that have this conundrum?

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