Every few years, new educational buzzwords seem to surface. I remember first noticing this when we were in the third year of running a district wide Parent Support Group for families with Talented and Gifted students. In the third year of our existence, 2013, a new instructional services person was hired. She was not new to the district but new to the position. It became entirely clear that she was not in favor of our efforts to support these students with more challenge, awareness and opportunities. After several repeated invitations, she finally came to our meeting and used the new common core state standards as an excuse to not provide students at our middle school with honors classes in language and the sciences, stating that the common core standards would support gifted learners because they were more rigorous. She also used the word “unpacking”. It was at that point she really lost me…….Unpacking???? What the heck? Did she mean getting used to? Starting to use? Implementing? Now, looking back I assume she meant all of the above but her use of the word unpacking as applied to the Common Core State Standards, really turned me off. It was probably done so intentionally, as she might have assumed we parents did not “understand” what was needed in terms of time or effort from the district educators in getting used to the new standards. I, for one, did understand. I also understood, it was an excuse. I mean, really, who enjoys unpacking anything?
Thankfully, this person is no longer with our district. Unfortunately, her exit was only accomplished after she had time to wreck some damage with decisions that affected every student at our high school with a grade policy change in the summer/fall of 2016. When I asked, early that fall, about the research and reasoning behind this grade policy change, which constituted 80% summative assessments, and 20% formative assessments, I was able to surmise that there was none. It was an arbitrary decision meant to “standardize” grading. Over the last two years, and after some analysis, I can honestly say it did nothing of the kind. Other ways were found to manipulate grades such as the use of a multiplier (which was previously, almost always left at 1.0, but had now started to be used to increase or decrease weight of assignments and assessments). Some weird numbers were inserted for the multiplier on digital grading system, such as 2.67 or .43! It just did not make sense and certainly young high schools students did not see the impact these numerical changes made on their grades, if they were even aware of them! I can barely remember the correct name for this statistical tool – the multiplier – because in my head, I have equated it with being a “manipulator”. All this from an educator who talked the lingo, such as “unpacking”, but really did not recognize (or maybe, did not care about) the impact arbitrary or poorly considered decisions can have on students.
The development and use of educational lingo has been around for decades. As with any discipline, terms develop and evolve according to the needs of those involved in the profession. I know due to my recent forage into the field of Environmental Education – talk about an evolution of terms! Anyway, I remember when my mom was still teaching back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the terms inclusive and inclusiveness came into use. Certainly, these terms have stood the test of time in an educational capacity. However, you can be sure that when they were first utilized there was skepticism and uncertainty about how they were to be implemented. I vividly remember my mom having severely handicapped children placed in her “general education” third grade class without much additional support. It took awhile for systems to recognize that while inclusiveness is good and necessary, it also deemed increased support for those teaching in an inclusive setting. Fortunately, I do think we have arrived at that point. But, for my mom, it was the beginning of the end. It took a while for the implementation to catch up with the phrase. She got out because the transition was not fast enough.
For years now we have been hearing about equity, another “educational buzzword”. My first educational exposure to this word was when my eldest son was a young elementary student and I served on PTO. The principal at the school used the term during a discussion at one of our meetings, stating that equity is not the same as equality. Given the fact that my son is now almost 24 years old, this was a wise piece of information for our principal to impart. In fact, my own experience in K-12 education tells me that we still have not reached equitable experiences for all of our students and I have started to educate myself on that very subject. And, while I did not have the chance to use my examples when I interviewed recently for a school board seat, you can be sure I went armed with them. Sometimes, the pendulum swings so widely that we end up causing inequities for other groups of students while we were trying to provide equity for those most in need. This applies to co-curricular offerings, community experiences, internships, and more – not just academics. While the term equity has been around longer, it is still misunderstood by some of those who use it and therefore, remains a buzzword in education. In other words, it makes you sound like you know what you are talking about when you really do not.
The Newest Terms
More recently, we are hearing the terms culturally sensitive and trauma informed. I would consider both of these phrases educational buzzwords at the current time. They are new and have not passed the test of time like inclusiveness and equity. Cultural sensitivity and trauma informed education are the popular subjects of books, discussions, and district personnel trying to find ways to reach all of our students – especially those that come from more difficult backgrounds or from outside what is considered to be the mainstream. Reaching all students, especially those with challenges, is certainly an admirable goal, so I am not faulting the premise behind the development or use of these words. Time will be the judge as the implementation is initiated, carried out, and tested.
In the fall of 2016, while in graduate school for environmental education I had to do a project that included forming a focus group on cultural interpretation that had to do with the administration of our lessons. The largest minority group of students at the elementary school where I led a garden club for the past 13 years (2004-2017) were Hmong. I wanted to look at the proportion of Hmong students joining garden club and how I could serve this population of students/families better, as well as how we could learn from them. The Hmong tradition includes a great deal of involvement in gardening already. Could this be a reason few joined the garden club? This was only one of several questions posed. I would have to say this was a “culturally sensitive” area to pursue. My focus group included building administrators, past and present, teachers retired and current, and our retired librarian, as well as the ESL (the English as a Second Language) teacher. The problem with this, however, is that none of the ideas that formed as a result of the focus group were ever implemented. I did the work for a class, the teachers and administrators supported my work, but we never moved forward with any of it.
I fear that might often be the case with new educational lingo. The words are developed or altered to fit our educational systems, book studies are done, discussions are held, parameters or action plans might even be developed, and then – nothing. We continue down the same path that was there before.
Admittedly, I do not know much about the trauma informed model of education that is evolving now. From what I do know, it makes sense to support students who have had trauma affect their lives differently than a student who has not had those life altering experiences. But, where do we draw the line? The potential problem I see with this is that not all student trauma is visible. It might not be the death of a parent, a house fire, a crime, or any other horrendous act that is traumatic for a student. We might not ever know every child in our classrooms that is affected by trauma. A good place to start, then, might be how to recognize trauma in all its shapes and sizes. When it comes down to it, we might all have some traumatic incident in our lives that impedes learning. So, I have reservations about this newest phrase in the world of educational lingo and how it will be woven into current systems.
Does new educational lingo impede progress in our educational systems? I do not have the answer. In some cases, I think it does. Certainly, in the case of the educator who used the word “unpacking” used it as a divider, a distractor, and an excuse, it did. In that case, yes, an impediment to our goals as a Talented and Gifted Parent support group was put in place by the “lingo”. But, then you look at the word inclusive and how its understanding has helped to provide for many students over a generation, and one becomes not so sure.
Words are important. In fact, words themselves play a huge a role in education. We would be wise to pick ones that do not impede student learning by being caught up in how they are defined or put into action. The more time spent on that means less time for teaching. While it is important to continually evolve education to provide for all scenarios in the human condition, it is equally important to ensure the students who are in school now do not get passed by because of districts wanting to be on the newest wave of educational lingo.