From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 14|No 5|June|2005
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Singular Displeasure:
Literacy and
Power Plays

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2005, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

While it is rarely noticed, the words selected for schools by policy makers and others can severely limit educational opportunities and can dictate how we work with children. We face a war of words.

Education in the States is currently suffering a decade of damaging penetration by interest groups from the outside. Some of these groups wish to narrow the curriculum. Others work to divert spending to a limited range of products.

A prime strategy of these groups is semantic. Some employ the singular of certain words - LITERACY and TECHNOLOGY - to impose their agendas. Others employ terms like RESEARCH-BASED to limit choices. We are seeing the educational equivalent of Trojan horses.

The impact of this semantic weaponry can be devastating.

By surrendering to such semantic controls and devices, we end up with an evaporating curriculum - a freeze-dried, parched learning experience. The political and economic motives behind the word control are well hidden. Even though semantic control amounts to mind control, most folks are happily oblivious to this trend. They are sadly unaware of the channeling and shaping wrought by modern marketing experts and policy wonks.

“You will buy this product, this idea and this policy whether it is good for you or not. We will help you learn to want, need and love things you never imagined would be important to you. Everyone can be trained to love what we want them to love.”

LITERACY is used instead of “literacies” so that schools will look at basic reading and math instead of defining purpose more broadly. A school that equips young ones to make sense of information across a dozen literacies raises a vastly different type of citizen than one that restricts itself to basic reading and math. A grounding in cultural literacy, social literacy, media literacy, natural literacy, artistic literacy and ethical literacy will deepen and broaden a student's capacities in keeping with a Jeffersonian concept of democracy. A thick porridge of basic reading and math is more fitting for an authoritarian regime than a democratic nation.

We are reminded of lyrics from Pink Floyd's “Another Brick in the Wall.”

In a similar fashion, TECHNOLOGY is used instead of “technologies” so that schools will focus their spending and thinking upon electronic products and digital resources as if all future and modern use of learning tools must be electronic. A school that includes technologies such as books, paper and questioning techniques in its planning is more likely to make discerning use of tools than one that leaps on the technology bandwagon.

Likewise, RESEARCH-BASED is a phrase employed to narrow the choice of products and programs that schools might consider, even though the term is applied imprecisely and inconsistently by the power brokers. Pseudo-science and pseudo-research are cited as if worthy of biblical reverence. Sham prophets and preachers embroider their harsh social agendas with skillfully spun falsehoods bolstered by studies that cannot stand up to scrutiny or careful review.

Once embedded in laws, regulations, and assessment models, these word choices effectively limit educational possibilities, but they work their damage below the surface, eating into the foundations of our democratic society like termites chewing into a residence

The Power of Words to Dictate

Even though semantics are known to exercise powerful control over human thought and decision-making, much of the word game goes unexamined by the participants. The players - teachers, principals and other school leaders - are so busy rushing about the educational field of play that they cannot recognize that the turf has changed from grass to artificial. Caught up in a survival game intensified by the pressures of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), many practitioners have little time for reflection. Even though the context has changed, the field has been narrowed, and the rules have been altered, they race back and forth reading the latest scripts while installing the most recently approved program strategies, packages and products.

The puppeteers can pull strings remotely through their control of words, regulations and marketing themes.

The Power of Words - TECHNOLOGY

In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be
eaten; in the human kingdom, define
or be defined.

Thomas Szasz

Why have we allowed corporations in the computer and broadband industry to misappropriate the word “technology,” applying it primarily to tools that plug into the wall and operate on electrical power?

Why do we create a special subject area in schools separate from the real classrooms and call it “technology?”

Why do we set up skill listings, tests and outcome statements that encourage the use of electronic tools apart from curriculum content?

How can anyone justify spreadsheeting divorced from real questions as a worthwhile endeavor? or PowerPointing? or Internetting?

Sadly, we see this trendy approach to information, to technologies and (almost accidentally) to learning sweeping through schools with little opposition or concern. Being good at technology, we are assured, is crucial if we wish a comfortable future for our children. If they stand a chance at a dotcom job, so the reasoning goes, then they will need to be good at technology.

Definitions help to sell product. They carve out territory. They help to establish turf. They focus the spotlight. They shape budgets and priorities. And they sometimes distort planning.

During the past two decades, schools have spent billions of dollars on new electronic technologies with the hope that these tools will live up to the impressive list of promises advanced by their makers, yet there is slim evidence that these investments have paid off in ways that approach the projections, predictions and promises of the technology lobby.

If we use the term “technologies” more broadly to include all those tools we have fashioned to help us to achieve various goals, we end up considering everything from books and Post-It Notes™ to questions, questioning and tape recorders.

This broadening is consistent with good instructional design, since we should be starting with a focus upon learning goals - what do we want the students to learn and understand?

Only after settling upon goals would we turn to the choice of tools and strategies. How can we best orchestrate learning to bring about the insight we seek to nurture?

Pedagogy (the smart choice of strategies to promote learning) combines with instructional design to develop a lesson that introduces students to content and thinking challenges in ways that are efficient, productive, engaging and enlightening.

If we want them to understand acid rain, we might employ water gathering technologies like recycled cans from the kitchen or we might have them use the telephone and effective questions to interview a local scientist. Perhaps we will show them how probes can measure the pH of rainfall and create data sets worthy of analysis by spreadsheet. If important records of past trends exist on paper, we have our students mine those data warehouses with the fervor of infotectives intent on converting data into information and then insight.

A good designer puts the horse before the cart, selecting tools relatively late in the game, keeping them in perspective.

Sadly, bandwagons, fads and marketing campaigns seek to reverse the planning process, putting cart before horse, filling a school with laptops, for example, before knowing what they are for and how they might best make a difference in learning.

Technology in the singular becomes a cause, a passion, an orthodoxy and an end in itself. Next thing we know, we have true believers, crusaders, cheerleaders, prophets, futurists and disciples shouting down from various pulpits, mountain tops and crows nests announcing the millennium while pointing to Nirvana just over the horizon. We are told to climb aboard, get with the program, open our wallets and lay aside our qualms, our skepticism and our judgment. If we are modern and forward thinking, we will buy the technology package hook, line and sinker.

But discerning school leaders will be too smart to swallow this hook. They will refuse to adopt or purchase technology for the sake of technology, turning instead to clever use of technologies chosen for their effectiveness and appropriateness rather than their trendiness.

It is not always easy to swim across the currents of fashion as national associations and interest groups line up with vendors and futurists to promote the bandwagons and “get the message out.” It often seems like we have a Greek chorus chanting that message.

“Get with the future. The future is now. Get with the program.”

If someone were selling the Brooklyn Bridge, we would chuckle at those gullible investors, those rubes taken in by the flimflam artists, but network bridges, routers and servers were scooped up in the roaring technology nineties with a fervor reminiscent of speculators rushing to buy Yukon claims in an earlier century.

Hardly a week goes by without some new gimmick, some new toy, some new panacea appearing with great fanfare under the banner of what has become more of a slogan than a planning concept - Technology.

By reducing “technologies” to TECHNOLOGY, the cheerleaders, the marketing maestros, the vendors and their strategic partners have narrowed our focus, led us off course and distorted the design process.

“Are you technologically literate?”

Unfortunate question. A distracting question, in fact, since technology probably does not merit inclusion in a list of literacies, as we will consider in the next section. A technology is a tool, not a type of information or a genre. It does not deserve a seat at the table with media literacy, artistic literacy, visual literacy, cultural literacy, numerical literacy or a half dozen other literacies that all share a focus on the interpretation of some category of information.

“Are you tech savvy?” is a much better question. From this question follows a string of perfectly reasonable follow up questions.
  • “Do you know how to select the right tool for the job at hand?”
  • “Do you know how to saw when the tree starts to pinch the blade?”
  • “Do you know how to distinguish between foolish and promising new technologies?”
  • “Have you held onto the classically effective tools?”
  • “Have you laid aside the rusty old relics of former times that no longer serve you well?
  • “Do you know the most effective ways to find what you need using an index, a search engine or an interview?”

If we ask, instead, if someone is technologically literate, we elevate tool use to the level of comprehension, interpretation, inference, problem-solving and thinking, thereby diverting the attention of millions of teachers away from their primary responsibility: showing young ones how to make sense of their world and all the complicated information genres that bombard them, seduce them and confuse them.

We surely want all teachers and students to become technology savvy in the sense mentioned above, but we should hold literacies in even higher esteem, affording them seats of honor and making them our chief focus.

The use of the singular, in this case, TECHNOLOGY, can be singularly disappointing, controlling and damaging. Thoughtful educational leaders and policy makers will not be captured by this semantic ruse, will not step into the spring-loaded word trap and will keep their minds open to a rich and varied assortment of technologies.

The Power of Words - LITERACY

We live in a world where there is
more and more information,
and less and less meaning."

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981

Equipping the young to search for and make meaning is paramount in these turbulent times.

Those who would limit us to LITERACY and NUMERACY are actually guilty of cultural theft - subtle but profound - as their narrow focus excludes consideration of many rich veins of information and insight while imposing a bleached and emaciated perspective.

Imposing the singular in this case is akin to fixing blinders on teachers and students alike.

There are more than a dozen literacies worthy of serious attention, but the use of LITERACY and NUMERACY is restrictive, choking off proper attention to the other types.

Each literacy refers to the challenge of wringing meaning and understanding from a type or source of information. We should apply the term information literacies to subcategories of information:

  • artistic literacy
  • media literacy
  • ethical literacy
  • visual literacy
  • numerical literacy
  • text literacy
  • social literacy
  • cultural literacy
  • natural literacy

We employ text literacy for understanding words and paragraphs in print whether appearing upon sheets of paper, upon computer screens or upon the walls of ancient temples. We utilize numerical literacy for interpreting data collected on paper, in spreadsheets, on an abacus, or in online databases. The focus of literacy is on understanding and interpreting various types of information. The tool or medium on which a collection resides is secondary and incidental.

In many American school districts these days, the NCLB testing juggernaut has created an obsessive concern with LITERACY and NUMERACY, imposing a punishment scheme on those schools that cannot demonstrate AYP for all groups on just those two elements. Forget about science for now. Forget about citizenship and the arts. Those are not being measured. Those are not required until later.
Sink or swim.

AYP - Acceptable Yearly Progress - might more aptly be called “At Your Peril” as federal bureaucrats end more than a century of local control of education with an autocratic regime that rewards those that stick to the basics and teach to just a few tests.

Literacy is about wrestling understanding from chunks of information, whether those chunks be numerical, textual, visual, cultural, natural or artistic. A citizen is illiterate if only capable of reading and counting. The ability to understand a wider range of information types is what makes for an enlightened citizenry and a vibrant society.

In the past we have associated narrow educational agendas with totalitarian regimes like the former USSR where educators were expected to indoctrinate rather than educate. LITERACY in the singular is incompatible with American traditions and democratic norms, as it restricts the thinking, the perspectives and the purposes of educating the young in ways that are ultimately mind numbing and anti-democratic.

LITERACY in the singular is well suited to prepare the young to flip burgers or occupy low wage jobs at the bottom of the economic pyramid as they learn to follow orders, scripts and patterns imposed by their superiors.

“Yours is not to question why. Yours is but to do and die.”

Drill and practice comes to America in a bold new format.

The Power of Words - RESEARCH-BASED

Almost all scholarly research carries practical
and political implications. Better that we should
spell these out ourselves than leave that task to
people with a vested interest in stressing only some
of the implications and falsifying others. The idea that
academics should remain “above the fray” only gives
ideologues license to misuse our work.

Stephanie Coontz
Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B2 (October 21, 1992)

The insistence on so-called "research-based" planning and purchasing can impose a kind of blindness upon schools and their leaders.

We end up doing what is easy to study.

We end up learning only what powerful bureaucrats want us to know.

Those who set the rules for what qualifies as "research-based" have the power to open and close doors by their definitions, casting light only where they want it to shine and ignoring important truths discovered by observation, consideration, experimentation and trial.

We end up buying products from huge companies who can afford to do studies (and own testing companies). We are told not to buy other products that seem worthy but lack the veneer of research data that matches the rules set by the powers above.

  • We narrow focus.
  • We treat students like widgets and hamburgers.
  • We oversimplify.
  • We cheapen.
  • We miss the point.
  • We avoid the magical, the majestic and the truly inspirational.
  • We teach by script, by drill and by practice.

And once again semantics prove powerfully controlling, dictating how we work with children according to politically motivated prescriptions.

Taking Back the Language

What can school leaders and teachers do in the face of these semantic games and weapons?

The first stage is awareness. We should encourage broad discussion of these issues and these strategies at conferences and in our professional journals. We must “get the word out” about semantic weaponry and the agendas lurking behind word choices.

In this case, the educational emperor is too well clothed. Policy is often cloaked in words and terms that hide its true nature. We would be better off if we could strip away some of the layers of marketing, spin and misinformation so that the body politic would be revealed in its naked reality.

This article demonstrated how semantic awareness is a critical component of information literacies, but awareness will not suffice. Educators must act on their awakened sensibilities to take back the profession from those who seek to divert it for political reasons not consistent with democratic norms and values.

Action? Ultimately, educators must vote for representatives of both political parties who support a strong and richly defined curriculum delivered by a vibrant public system of schooling. They must also vote with their dollars by selecting those programs and products that will deliver such a rich curriculum.

In some respects, the so-called war on terror has obscured the cultural wars that are proceeding at a rapid pace behind the scenes. Domestic policy advances or retreats with little public discussion or disclosure. We face a decade of difficulty and darkness unless we speak up and speak out in defense of sound educational practice.

When considering this challenge, educators are hampered by a long tradition of dispassionate, balanced behavior that may prove unsuitable and inadequate for times characterized by less civil strategies. In that respect, we are uncomfortable with the prospect of doing battle with ideologues and polemicists who seek to transform the way schools work in this nation. We tend to view such tactics as unsavory and unprofessional. We are understandably reluctant to take off the gloves and combat the forces that work against our better instincts and interests.

At some point we must cross the line from disengagement to engagement if we hope to salvage the best elements of our enterprise. We need not fight fire with fire or embrace the use of unsavory tactics. We should be able to defend sound educational practice by making the case forcefully and eloquently with words that do us proud.

This is, after all, ultimately a war of words. Since surrender is not a viable or a worthy option, the time has come for a graceful form of counter insurgency.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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