A semantic difficulty for school reform

Paul is working with ScrumAlliance on the first agile certification specifically for educators: the Agile Certified Educator. 

For the better part of a year I’ve been working with a small group on a new approach to teaching and learning. At least, we believe it is new. But sometimes we question ourselves.

Here’s the issue.

As we move away from the norm – away from our regular experience with education – we start introducing more and more new terminology to describe our vision. It doesn’t take long before what we’ve written isn’t terribly clear, because of the new terminology. We then rewrite using terminology more familiar to us as educators. Then the text is clearer, but … we find that it is clearer because readers relate with the text by understanding it as their regular experience with education. And that’s not the goal.

This in turns introduces a new level of concern for us. Originally we were worried that using language common to education would impede readers understanding the unique quality of what we are proposing. So we introduced new terms, which make what we are saying hard to understand, leading us back to common terminology, which waters down our vision. As we continued working, we began sliding back and forth along this continuum.

Now we have to ask ourselves if our vision may simply not be all that grandiose a departure from our regular experience of education because of our ability to move back and forth on a continuum. If on one end of our semantic continuum we are able to describe in words familiar to educators what is already familiar in practice, is the other end of the continuum, expressed in unfamiliar terms, actually different in practice? Are we really breaking new ground or are we just renaming things? (We believe we are going beyond renaming.)

I imagine this is a common problem with new ideas. Namely, there isn’t quite the right words to describe them. New terms sound contrived and are hard to understand. Current terms reinforce current understandings, which isn’t really the point. Arriving at any understanding tends to mean arriving at current understanding. Again, not the point.

Maybe this is what folks mean when they say they can’t describe something, but they’ll know it when they see it. And maybe that provides a bit of the answer to the problem. We need more people actually seeing the different teaching and learning we are writing about. We may need examples of what this new manner of teaching and learning is before we try so hard to describe it. Short of actually experiencing it, perhaps we move forward by describing real examples more and the theory less. Then with time the terminology may come.

Interested in pulling agility into education? Contact Paul at pmagnuson@las.ch.


About Paul Magnuson

Several years ago, Paul Magnuson founded a research center at the high school level in collaboration with colleagues at Leysin American School. The center supports professional learning through a variety of programs, including year-long action research projects by faculty who receive competitive resident scholarships. In addition, the center works with schools and universities around the world, hosting 10 to 15 visiting scholars annually, and consulting and presenting at schools and other organizations. Paul has created a number of tools and programs, including classroom observation schemes, language immersion summer camps, the middle school at LAS, and most recently, edge, a high school program which offers an alternative to traditional school through greatly increased student agency. His current interests are the documentation of edge, pulling agile into education, and self-regulation for both students and teachers.
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