Archived entries for learning

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.


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.

Why Johnny Can’t Pivot

(crossed-posted on  Send me an invitation!)

Back in the day when songs were stories (think mid-1970s), singer Kenny Rogers summarized the problem of the human condition with a country-rock haiku for the ages:

You’ve got to know when to hold’em
Know when to fold’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run….

The song is ostensibly about a wizened gambler’s wisdom, back in the days when gamblers traveled on trains bound for nowhere and died quietly in their sleep. What the song is really about, though, is the quality of the metric we use to make choices. We make so many choices in the course of a day, they have become the defining fabric of modern life: aisle or window, cup or cone, soft or firm, Android or Mac.

When a start-up engages in this decision-making struggle on business development, it may use the language of “persevere or pivot.” But when a student is faced with similar struggles in school, psychologist typically employs only one term — ‘grit.’ There is no palpable alternative to grit, only “Johnny has grit” or “Johnny is lacking in grit.” Lacking in grit is considered bad. Hold’em, never fold’em.

Grit is a buzzword in educational circles right now. MacArthur “genius” award recipient Angela Duckworth’s research focuses on grit as a indicator of school and professional successes throughout life. Students who have lots of grit, a close cousin of self-control, will align themselves towards a goal over a long period of time. This can-do spirit is positively correlated with long-term achievement such as “surviving the arduous first summer of training at West Point and reaching the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, retention in the U.S. Special Forces, retention and performance among novice teachers, and graduation from Chicago public high schools.” (

Don’t get me wrong. Grit is great. But I am concerned that there is no equivalent to the dialectic of “persevere or pivot” in this constellation of holding and folding behaviors for young people. We need to remember that there is such a thing as too much grit. With respect to learners, I hope that educational activities for younger learners are clear and possible to accomplish. As learners mature, however, we typically introduce them to more complex, ambiguous tasks that more closely resemble the cacophony of the adult world. There are fewer clear right answers, and sometimes no good answers at all.

And as such, learners need to appreciate that sometimes – often — it makes absolute sense to change course. We do our learners a disservice if we do not teach them how to assess the wisdom of a given course of action in an ongoing fashion. In our rapid-moving world, what was true yesterday is often not true today, and may directly conflict with tomorrow. We need a re-examination of how grit is considered in education, so we produce a generation of learners who can both embrace long term goals and can recalculate course when necessary.

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