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What’s the Buzz?

Here’s a little collaboration between me and a colleague of mine at Six Red Marbles about jargon in the education space. Spoiler alert: I hate jargon. Mind you, I don’t mind vocabulary, but jargon to me speaks of language designed to exclude and to obfuscate actual understanding.

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What’s the Buzz?

By Jennifer Livengood and Margaret Weigel

Jennifer: Learning Designers use dozens of buzzwords to describe what they do and Margaret and I decided to come up with some of them off the top of our heads:

Margaret: Emotional Intelligence

Jennifer: Social Constructivism

Margaret: Flipped Classrooms

Jennifer: Pedagogy

Margaret: Adaptive Learning

Jennifer: UI/UX

Margaret :The Cloud!

Jennifer: There are other terms commonly heard amongst packs of hard-working learning designers: Androgogy, blended learning, asynchronous,, F2F, LMS, assessment, gamification, game-based learning, emotional intelligence, whole-student learning, grit, multiple intelligences, and student-centered learning.

Margaret: Stop, I’m getting dizzy. Or maybe I’m getting ‘buzzy.’

Jennifer: Why do we use these buzzwords, or to take a more general viewpoint, why do we use buzzwords at all?

Margaret: First, let’s define what we mean by ‘buzzwords.’ They’re usually common terms that are just as commonly misused and misunderstood. It’s not their fault. These concepts are typically perfectly harmless, well-meaning ideas. In fact, that’s part of the problem. They’re victims of their own success. Everyone wants to use them. And, with mixed results, everyone does.

Jennifer: I have an untested theory that people may misuse buzzwords in a well-meaning attempt to appear informed about rapidly-changing ideas. Learning design is filled with new research on how humans learn and new technologies that enhance the learning experience every day. Keeping up on the newest technology or learning theory can be difficult during a typical work week and buzz words help make new, and confusing, technologies and theories seem more digestible.

Margaret: Jennifer is far more gracious about the infestation of buzzwords than I am. I may be lacking in some EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE. Every discipline has its dedicated vocabulary, and when used well, these words help to convey complicated concepts quickly and easy. When used poorly, however, the very usefulness and definition of these words is put to the test. Words become buzzwords when they are frequently used without knowing what they fully mean, usually as a way to jump on a popular idea.

Jennifer: When I was a professor, I found myself telling colleagues that I used a “blended” or “flipped classroom” format to teach my course because it was easier than saying I teach a class that is partly online and partly face-to-face. Also saying I taught “flipped” or “blended” courses sounded more avant garde, and well buzzy!

Margaret: If you were using the term correctly, they probably knew what you were talking about. Buzzwords aren’t in and of themselves evil. Their power can also be harnessed for good.

Jennifer: I found the more I investigated this classroom format, the less likely I was to use fancy buzzwords. I was comfortable saying I taught a course that had multiple formats or I taught a course where students were online for part of it. It almost felt phony to use buzzwords after a while.

Margaret: I’m guilty of misusing buzzwords on occasion. But I am only partially ashamed of this transgression. As new concepts emerge, their definition often remains fuzzy until the concept is put into practice for a period of time. There’s also that challenge of understanding the totality of an idea. I liken it to how I’ve used PhotoShop for twenty years at this point and I still have never used or fully understood what 3D Extrusion mode is or what the video options can do. Perhaps we need a better way to express parts of an idea. Perhaps we’ll develop language for that over time.

Jennifer: Buzzwords can help us define something that is new, and perhaps bewildering, and offer us an entry point into thinking about a learning design method or theory. Leaving the conversation and professional development on the buzzword level does not offer us much intellectual depth. Buzzwords are a good entry point into starting a conversation about new learning design methods.

Margaret: Agreed. However, we suggest a more authentic approach of digging in to the design or theory and discovering the nuts and bolts of how methods and theories actually work. Knowing this on-the-ground information can help us describe what is really happening in the learning experience and further our understanding beyond the surface of the buzzwords.

The Participation Gap you Haven’t Heard About

Cross-posted at Six Red Marbles

Harvard professor and researcher Robert Putnam—renown for his ’bowling alone’ thesis of American anomie—has turned his attention in recent years to growing levels of inequality between young people. While his extensive research project on this topic continues, you can get a sense of his preliminary findings from his working paper “Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness among American Youth” (2012). This paper focuses on the widening gap between the experiences of middle and upper class youth and their less affluent peers since the 1990s, and how these experiences affect everything from future earnings and levels of educational attainment to social capital, civic engagement, and feelings of self-worth. Spoiler alert: lower class students are not faring so well.

Putnam the political scientist is more focused on the civic engagement component of this growing gap, but I, the learning experience designer, am more drawn to his section outlining student engagement in extracurricular activities. In an era where scores on standardized tests often translates into much-needed financial support for struggling institutions, public school students are often fed a steady diet of content that in reality is little more than test prep. But the intrepid student can always join the concert band, the student council, or the yearbook staff, right? 

Theoretically, yes, if those groups exist. But in theory only. In practice, social class accurately predicts participation in such activities. And over the past fifty years, a sharp divide in participation has emerged between students from more affluent backgrounds and their less affluent classmates.

Involvement in extracurricular activities, Putnam and his team note, “bolsters self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, boosts high school grade point average, shapes educational aspirations, and attainment, as well as wages and occupational choice.” Participation in extracurricular activities is also positively correlated with other goodies, such as future earnings and overall physical health. I would add to that list the opportunity to explore specific interests in more depth; social engagement with like-minded peers; and a chance to explore the ins and outs of collective governance and the rules of collective engagement in a (mostly) non-hierarchical setting only loosely directed by adults. In short, extracurricular activities can be a transformative experience for the typical student, and they help to transcend the limitations of academic offerings.  

But while participation in school-sponsored extracurricular activities for those in the highest income quintile has soared in the past fifty years, the participation for those in the lowest quintile peaked in 1964 and has steadily declined ever since. Putnam notes that while it is true that middle class youth have always had an advantage over their lower SES [socioeconomic status] peers, that advantage has “increased significantly over the past several decades.” The social institutions of working-class neighborhoods that once provided local outlets for student engagement “have essentially collapsed.”

Is there is some way to integrate elements of extracurricular activities into required coursework to help level the playing field a bit more? Even as I type this, I wonder if I’ve just identified a new oxymoron along the lines of jumbo shrimp or plastic silverware. Could these types of activities be successfully retrofitted into more formal academic frameworks and should they? 

Perhaps we would do well to revisit what constitutes mainstream classroom instruction while we’re at it. What would a classroom look like if students were able to express themselves through activities typically relegated to the after school hours, such as music, physical movement, computer-based play, or volunteer work? Sure, it would be messy. It would probably be pretty noisy, too. Can the modern classroom accommodate a little chaos? 

We as educators can’t directly address the enormous economic, cultural, and social inequities that separate learners into those whose future outlook is sunny and those whose outlook is decidedly cloudier. But we can figure out ways to provide a more level playing field in the public school classroom, and beyond.



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