In need of a common language

by Vinay

Those of you that have taken the time to read my first few posts have probably gathered that one of the books I am knee deep in right now is Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen. As a fan of his previous work and also the work that his consulting company Innosight does, I was excited to see how Christensen would apply his theory on disruptive innovation to the field of education.

You say tomato; I say virtual learning

One of the key points Christensen raises in the book is in order to create movement or change within an organization or industry, there must be the development of a “common language and a common way to frame the problem.” Christensen argues that although the creation of a common language will not solve the problems, it is a prerequisite to discovering solutions. In his opinion, education currently suffers from a lack of standard frameworks to communicate across parties the challenges facing education today, and that part of the book’s goal is to help bridge that divide.

Moreover, I believe that identifying and building a common language is a necessary step for the professionalization of any industry. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, etc. have all developed entire lexicons specific to their own professions, and as annoying as these terminologies may seem to outsiders the vocabulary actually increases the opportunity for efficient and effective communication within each community. This in turn results in a stronger, healthier community dynamic amongst the language’s users.

This pursuit for establishing a common language can be seen beyond the conventional. For example, one paper I discovered discussed the need to develop a common framework in the field of dance therapy. The paper’s second paragraph states:

Dance  therapy  lacks a common understanding  of words  that describe and interpret movement. Effective communication depends  upon  the comprehension of words for achieving patient-treatment goals. Effective teamwork emerges as members understand each other’s roles and functions, as well as their different language systems.

While education has been regarded as an integral part of society for that past century, the field’s lexicon is relatively undeveloped. Much of this disconnect can be attributed to the number of stakeholders invested in defining eduction and its components, each of whom have differing and often times conflicting priorities. Education also suffers from its ubiquity, especially with regard to the fact that anything can effectively be described as learning or an educational lesson. Despite these hurdles, attempts to develop shared frameworks emerge constantly. One example is New Jersey’s Professional Development Standards for Educators, which focuses on developing a common language for professional learning communities. This framework identifies issues like,

  • What is essential for students to know?
  • How will we know when they have learned it?
  • What interventions will we put in place when they don’t learn it?
  • What do teachers need to know and be able to do to support the student learning?
  • What professional learning must the team engage in for student learning?

and also attempts to define the criteria for what a professional learning community would look like. More informal communities are also springing up everywhere. A few weeks ago I attended the NY EdTech Meetup and met a number of people trying to understand the intersection of education and technology, the effective business strategies to meld them.

Two steps forward, few steps back

Professional learning communities while important still result in a piecemeal approach to identifying answers to these critical questions. Conversations across the social graph, including Twitter, blogs and other sources are also contributing to this dialogue in a decentralized way. For education to reach its next stage of reform and innovation, we must continue to germinate these homegrown discussions into a national and eventually global discussion. In doing so, we must also be willing to accept at the core that education itself is a multi-faceted concept that serves multiple roles in society and thus the language used needs to be sensitive to that.