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Choking on the Rhetoric

By Trudy Knowles — April 21, 1993 2 min read
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Trudy Knowles is a professor of education at Sinte Gleska University in Rosebud, S.D.

Education has lost its direction and somewhere along the way we forgot how simple it is. Instead, we began to rely on complicated rhetoric to define the simplest of tasks. Words and phrases abound: Cooperative Learning, Outcome Based Education, Learning Styles, Authentic Assessment, Collaborative Learning, Whole Language, Transformational Units, Demonstrative Indicators, Constructivist Education.

It’s not that I don’t agree with what the words represent. It’s just that I don’t think we need to make it that complicated.

Rhetoric. Once you find a catchy phrase for an old concept, you can coin it and make a lot of money conducting workshops and writing books about it.

It’s a trend that began after Sputnik was launched by the Soviets in 1957. Suddenly, the U.S. government began to funnel massive amounts of money into science education. Entrepreneurs developed expensive science kits, marketing them under the guise of a national emergency, and made a lot of money as the kits sat on the top shelves of basement storage rooms in elementary schools around the country. The teachers didn’t know what to do with them.

The selling of rhetoric to the public has continued unabated to this day. Even former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander was not immune. Having once admitted to a graduate-level education class at the University of Tennessee that he really didn’t know anything about education, he was forced as secretary to buy into the rhetoric of choice, voucher systems, national tests, and a lot of other trendy ideas and sell that rhetoric nationwide.

Meanwhile, we are failing the kids.

We quickly saw the fallacy of teaching dictionary skills from a workbook. So far, so good. We knew that dictionary skills could best be taught from a dictionary. Even better yet. But instead of just doing it we developed a thematic, holistic, transformational unit with demonstrative indicators utilizing different learning styles in a developmentally appropriate and culturally relevant way.

It’s a good way to do it, of course, but the words scare the hell out of my education students. “What do you mean?’' they ask me.

I simply mean make it integrated, make it relevant, make it real, make it fun. Give students a reason to want to learn and let them direct their own learning. You got it?

It’s all very simple. When kids are having fun, they are learning. When their experiences are validated, they are learning. When they feel empowered, they are learning. When they see meaning and relevance in something, they are learning.

We don’t need any more labels.

If you’ve seen “Bull Durham,’' you probably remember the scene in which Annie Savoy, the love interest and the team’s unofficial trainer, asks Crash Davis, the seasoned catcher, just what he believes in. There is no mistaking what he tells her. He is simple, concise, and clear--with a running list that includes the fact that the Warren Commission was right about Lee Harvey Oswald.

I’ll tell you straight out what I believe in. I believe in children being empowered and having fun. What a change if a child woke up in the morning, jumped out of bed, and was quickly out the door to school because he knew neat things were happening in that place. At that place called school, something exciting happened every day. At that place, the child felt powerful. That’s my rhetoric. Maybe when I get a word for it I can bottle it and sell it and retire.

Just what are demonstrative indicators anyway?

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 1993 edition of Education Week as Choking on the Rhetoric

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