Musings on the Importance of Vocabulary

Information is no longer a commodity us pedagogues dole out in the information age. Because of this phenomena, there is an argument for an entirely skills-based, experiential approach in any discipline, because, who really needs to know the periodic table anyway? The labs are way more fun. Don’t even get me started on calculus. I will even go so far as to (subtly) question my own beloved discipline. The French Revolution, par example… do our students really need to know 1789, or even about the Third Estate’s woes (read 99% here) to have successful lives? There is the lovely trivia question: What do Robert Frost, Matt Damon, William Randolph Hearst, Bonnie Raitt and Bill Gates have in common? They are all Harvard dropouts.  However, this trivia is misleading.  Too often (in my short career of professional development) I have heard this trivia used in idealistic educational presentations by consultants, thinkers, innovators bla-bla-bla.  It inevitably leads to the justification of “throwing out” the textbooks, chalkboard, pencils, tests, standardized tests in favor of experiential, skills-based learning. While I am not fan of the SAT, and you may be reading “curmudgeon” between the lines of this diatribe, I think this trivia, and how it is used by orators, is one step too far. Read: baby with the bath water. Remember all of those Crimson Tide dropouts, well I assert they had already obtained the vocabulary and the skills needed to be successful.

I had an epiphany about vocabulary today, when I pointed to “bourgeoise” to highlight it as an  important vocabulary term and my I my team-teaching partner subtly asked me to clarify (for the students’ benefit) if I when I used the term vocabulary today, I meant the same thing when I called a certain group of words  key terms yesterday. I had a moment of “well duh” in my head and then remembered I teach young cherubs of fourteen and thanked her.

Here is my central problem with experiential education and skills-based education (no offense to Thoreau): while students will most certainly remember the words that they needed for “the experience”, will they grow in their vocabulary? Will they “expand their horizons”? My one truly “experiential course” I can apply here was called “Snow Science”. An avi I course taught by my northern New York college in Jackson Hole, WY….need I say more. However, I really do understand and remember how to dig a snow pit and analyze the snow pack. I remember the science behind the snow, what conditions to look for to test the slope etc. This is remarkable as it was years ago and science is not my area of success. My horizons were expanded quite literally from being on top of a mountain, but I can’t say they were expanded intellectually. There is the argument that those skills I learned in my experiential course, were necessary for survival, which is perhaps why I paid attention. Survival skills aside–experiential education has proven to have very strong results, and it definitely merits a place in our educational system.

As someone who is striving to be a 21st century educator, and design curriculum that is relevant for my students, the road block I come up against in teaching history is a guilty conscience that I occasionally practice “old school” history. I require them to commit some things to memory….I feel like I could be shunned from the online teachers union (if one existed) for that statement. No one would follow me, and this may not be re-tweeted. Those people who have asked the question… “why do they need to know about the French Revolution?” Why do they need to remember terms, and people and connections to things? Is it just to make them pseudo-intellectuals? To make it so they can understand one full-length article in The New Yorker as adults? Why do they need to know about Robespierre and the Reign of Terror?” Well primarily, it is because of the adage: “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” ~Edmund Burke. This is a worthy adage, or (new vocabulary word here) apothegm, more than worthy in fact. It is one of the many reasons I believe in history education. But that is not my point.

Information does not only come from the bastion of knowledge of the teacher anymore. My students, to whom I am currently attempting to meaningfully teach the French Revolution, can Google “french revolution” (and even spell it wrong) and, in .17 seconds have access to 177 million sites touting information on events in France in 1789. Using the past to understand the present is the essential goal, however they can not do that without the vocabulary they need to memorize. Can you learn french with memorization? Can you study A Tale of Two Cities without impressing on students new vocabulary? Can you speak without knowing words? Vocabulary whether of the scientific nature, the translating nature, the literary nature or the historical nature is essential. As we expand vocabularies of our students, we are also expanding their ability to practice those skills we simultaneously need to teach them. Rote memorization should not be the only method, but we can not throw the concept of committing something to memory away with the card catalogs.

Technology has allowed us to stop teaching how to use a card catalog and how to alphabetize, because when you need to know what a word means, it is yours in few keystrokes and .11 seconds of patience (my search of apothegm). In short, we still need to integrate technology, and throw out antiquated parts of our educational system. However, let us not throw out the Socratic method, essential to learning critical thinking, let us not throw out learning vocabulary.

I know this may your moment to say “well duh”…no one is really going all out and throwing it all away. But I fear that is the trend. Last week, I asked my students to read aloud primary sources. Their vocabulary level truly shocked me when I asked for words they did not understand. I had made a poor assumption of some really smart kids. Reading aloud is another pedagogical tool that gets a bad rap. Kids struggle with it. However, it is a great way to slow students down long enough to let the baffling vocabulary sink in. It is ironic that I am touting this, because I hated when we read aloud in class; I was a faster reader and so it was boring. But, it is not boring if you do the voices.

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