The stuff our books are made of – Part 1

dictionaryThere is terminological chaos in the education culture. Yes, this is about the words we use as authors. More specifically, it is about the language of instruction, not about cellulose and silicone.

As Aristotle put it,

“For as long as it is not clear in how many senses a term is used, it is possible that the answerer and the questioner are not directing their minds upon the same thing,… [and, therefore] It often happens that a difficulty is found in discussing or arguing a given position because the definition has not been correctly rendered.”

The stuff our books are made of is extremely important because classroom teachers rely instructionally on textbooks for engaging subject matter. The concern for terms extends to books and essays that address education policy, practices, and reform. How authors use instructional terms influences greatly their use in teacher education, school and college classrooms, research, and fellow authors. As discussed in TAA blog post of September 30, 2018, Why textbook authors should be using critical instruction pedagogy,

According to Reynolds (1976), 85% of classroom teachers rely on textbooks for subject matter engagement. Wakefield (2006), reports that “…70% to 95% of activities in United States classrooms was estimated to rely on textbooks” (p. 3). Regarding the effectiveness of textbooks, Wakefield observes that in their current form they serve to reinforce existing knowledge in students rather than “…provoking new thought…they may need to be fundamentally redesigned to provoke thought” (p. 5).

Own the Language, Own the Profession

The need to functionally redesign textbooks and bring the profession together terminologically needs to begin with agreement, within the profession, on what common terms (e.g., such as strategy, technique, and method), mean in the context of education practice, research, and writing.  A profession that owns its use of language, is a profession that owns its practice.

A common word or phrase that takes on a special meaning within a profes­sion is called a term of art. Here are some examples of such terms in the fields of medicine, engineering, and law. In medicine, zoning refers to blood tests, not to the land use of real estate. The term cell refers to the body’s building block, not to a prison. The term aberrant does not refer to the unusual in everyday life; it describes particular ducts, vessels, or nerves that do not follow a nor­mal path or configuration. In electrical engineering, the term resistance refers to the degree to which a material retards the flow of electrical current, not to opposition to an idea or act. Derivative refers to a mathematical relationship that addresses the slope of a curve or a rate of change, not to an investment instrument. In law, the term abandon refers to contract options entered into by inves­tors, not to abandoning a car or house. Safe harbor does not mean a place to tie up a boat securely; it refers to contractual protection from liability or penalty.

You can see that otherwise common terms mean something very special when used within professions. The result is that within their professions, doctors, engineers, and lawyers own and take responsibility for the language they use.

Yet, such specialized use of common instructional terms does not exist in the teaching profession. The use of instructional terms by teacher educa­tors, teacher candidates, teachers, researchers and writers, and others in the instructional community has yet to evolve to common professional status. The first public teacher-preparation program started in America at Framingham State University in 1839. Almost 200 years later, there is still no agreed upon lan­guage of instruction within the profession.

Here is a summary of research on the use of the instructional terms “strategy,” “technique,” and “method.” Of two educational dictionariesthe Education Week Guide to K-12 Ter­minology and the Oxford Dictionary of Education—the latter defines only one of the terms (method). Both the Guide and the Dictionary recurrently confuse the terms.

  • The Federal Department of Education does not define the terms. Except in one instance, where the term “strategy” is defined broadly, the education departments of the five largest states do not define the terms instructionally.
  • Of three organizations engaged in teacher preparation, no instructional definitions of the terms “strategy,” “technique,” and “method” was found in this review. Of four teacher associations, four accreditation and assess­ment organizations, and two standards organizations, none define the terms “strategy,” “technique,” and “method” instructionally.
  • The findings show that the education profession does not have a coherent and common understanding of the key terms “strategy,” “technique,” and “method.” There is no common understanding for the use of the terms in an instructional context. The terms are taken to have the same meaning and are used interchangeably. The result is confusion within the profession. The full study can be found in Chapter 1, The Profession Lacks a Language of Instruction, in Fixing Instruction – Resolving Major Issues With a Core Body of Knowledge for Critical Instruction.

Click here for the references that support these research findings.

Consequences of Confusion

Coming to terms with the language of instruction will allow textbook authors, academic writers, education reporters and opiners, teacher educators, professional developers, school and college faculty, researchers, students, administrative leaders, and government agencies to communicate clearly, precisely, and effectively with readers, colleagues, the instructional community, and throughout the education forum. These positive consequences will fix the poor incoherent current state of the language of instruction. Without change, these negative consequences will continue to plague and hold back education reform.

For example, there are serious negative consequences of continuing to use instructional terms in a professionally chaotic manner. Teacher preparation programs, educational associations, accreditation and assessment organizations, and standards organizations cannot communicate effectively with each other without the use of clear and commonly accepted instructionally based definitions of the terms.

Teacher educators and professional developers cannot communicate effec­tively with teacher candidates and in-service teachers. They cannot be sure they are understood if the terms continue to be used in a mixed manner.

Organizations that issue standards for teacher and student outcomes can­not describe desired outcomes effectively. Evaluations of teacher-education programs, teachers, and school-based instructional programs can be of little value when it is unknown exactly what is being assessed.

Researchers cannot properly describe their investigations and report their findings without a clear understanding of how the terms are being used. Writ­ers and publishers of educational materials, journal articles, and media report­ers cannot be clearly understood. Schools and school districts cannot properly evaluate and obtain instructional programs and materials without a precise understanding of what they are purchasing and to what end. Laws written by federal and state members of congress who serve on education committees cannot be described intelligently, nor can their intent be understood, if there is no common understanding of what the terms mean. The rules and procedures issued by federal and state departments of educa­tion can carry no specific meaning.  The same applies to public and private foundations and other entities that appropriate and expend billions of dollars annually to improve instructional effectiveness and student achievement.

These organizations write laws, issues directives, and requests for grant proposals, but they do so without a common, professional understand­ing of key instructional terms. On what basis, then, do they evaluate compet­ing proposals? How do they assess the results of winning proposals when there is no common understanding of key instructional terms? Accordingly, the use of the current use of instructional terms in laws, grants, and contracts has little meaning.

How can all the foregoing entities be sure that they are, “directing their minds upon the same thing?” The answer is that as things now stand, they cannot. As in the medical, engineering, and legal fields, a shared professional language is key to expert instructional preparation, practice, and research.

Post 2 will address the basis for a common language of instruction for the profession. Instruction-related descriptions of strategy, technique, and method will be provided. Later posts will address other terms including critical thinking, reading, and writing; the difference between critical instruction pedagogy and critical pedagogy, thinking for under­standing and for comprehension, deep learning, subject matter universals, mind grammar, and cogeracy.


Bibliography

Aristotle (trans. n.d.). Topics, Book 1, Part 18. Translated by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge. Retrieved from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/a8t/book1.html

Aristotle (trans. n.d.). Topics, Book 8, Part 3. Translated by W. A. Pickard-Cambridge. Retrieved from http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/a8t/book8.html

Maiorana, V.P. (2015). Fixing instruction – Resolving major issues with a core body of knowledge for critical instruction. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Reynolds Jr., J. C. (1976). American textbooks—The first 200 years. Educational Leadership, 33(4), 274–6.

Wakefield, J. F. (2006).  Textbook usage in the united states: the case of U.S. history, Paper presented at the International Seminar on Textbooks, Santiago, Chile, April 19-21, 2006.    Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED491579.pdf


Victor P. MaioranaTAA member Victor P. Maiorana is both a textbook and academic author in the disciplines of curriculum & instruction, education, linguistics, literacy, and college textbook psychology. He has written three textbooks published in the last three years, all by Rowman & Littlefield, including Teach like the mind learns: Instruct so students learn to think, read, and write critically (2017), Preparation for critical instruction: How to explain subject matter while teaching all learners to think, read, and write critically (2016) and Fixing instruction – Resolving major issues with a core body of knowledge for critical instruction (2015).