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.

On Being Wrong

Socrates utilized probing questions to induce thinking in his students. He used the spoken word and his ingenuity as his core lesson plan. With the advent of Christianity, monks became the conveyors of knowledge. Then, Johann Gutenberg invented the first printing press, and with his invention, the written word spread quickly across Europe. European history textbooks tout Gutenberg’s invention as a critical historical factor in the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses spread quickly throughout Europe because of this invention. Interestingly, John Wycliff had written in the same vein as Luther a generation before; why is he not the central figure of the Protestant Reformation? Well, he never got published. He did not have the wonders of blogs to disseminate his ideas to the masses.

When I taught the Protestant Reformation last year, I used a world history textbook. This text, claimed through its title, to be a history of the world. My students and I discussed what, exactly this means. What is left out, and what is included? We used this video that charts all of the Wikipedia articles, both by geographic location and historic date in less than two minutes to guide our discussion. Each “blip of light” is an article, and you can “see” the historic knowledge of our generation. We acknowledged the uncertain utility of Wikipedia and the dilemma with citing it in the “anyone can edit it” phenomena. However, we found that Wikipedia, is ironically, one of the least biased sources as you can publish in any language from any country–what publishing company can say that?

So back to my world history textbook. It was wrong. Gutenberg was not the first to invent a printing press. It took one, quiet, international girl to have the opportunity to research any non-western, 50-year-old topic, (my parameters) for National History Day to teach me about how I, the textbook, and Western civilization had it wrong. The Koreans invented the first printing press. Check out the website she made here.

As teachers, by definition, we are purveyors of knowledge, through our intellect and our ability to ask probing questions. Socrates did not quite fit this definition; the Socratic method is still utilized famously in law school because it fosters independent thinking, not because it necessarily spreads or shares knowledge.  The monks limited study to the ecclesiastical world; nobles sent their sons to be tutored in monasteries in the Middle Ages. Knowledge was a commodity. Traditional western pedagogy then took a form of even more rigor and discipline at schools like Eaton and Oxford.  In America, and specifically New England, we inherited the legacy of puritanical schools for boys. While my synopsis of western education is trite and grossly oversimplified, in our educational model inherited from the monastic tradition, the teacher is the grand, even sacred, purveyor of knowledge.  The information a traditional teacher is expected to know is awesome in scope.

I think, as many others would argue and have argued, education and the world has been revolutionized by the internet. Thomas Friedman’s “world is flat theory” via fiber-optic cable is a wonderful analysis, but it does not quite address the role of tradition in this new, flattened landscape. In the academic realm, change is slow. Stodgy, old professors who tout grammar and ancient languages are resistant to change. They are not trend setters. Boarding schools cater to college, we are in name, “college preparatory institutes” as such, the logic follows, prep schools are punctuated with tradition. However, I think the phrase “independent” boarding schools is important to note. This independence allows the exercise and experimentation of various forms of pedagogy.

I was asked a question by a student today in class and I was wrong. This litany on education and the shifts were inspired by my error, and is perhaps my coping method with being wrong. To top it off, I was being observed  by the chair of my department. My typical response to a question I do not know the answer to in the age of technology when they are on their computers/smart phones already is “use the resources available to you–google it”. However, as I had just asked the class to close their computers, for some good, old-fashioned, not type-set discussion, my typical response would have been nonsensical. I said, “I am not sure”. Fatal last words.  As I continue to lead the class I was struck with questions steeped with my insecurities as a young teacher: “Did I just lose all credibility?”, “Will I be seen as an idiot to my department chair?”, “What role do I have in the American history classroom if I do not know if the Stamp Act was part of the Intolerable Acts (the question of my demise)?” I breezed through the question, did not let my doubts get the better of me, and told the student I would look into it.

I felt worse than the textbook that had it wrong. I, as a teacher, the bastion of knowledge, simply did not know. However, I really believe, (and this is not just because I want to feel better about my ignorance) that knowledge is no longer a commodity. The internet has fundamentally changed what it means to be a teacher (not an original thesis, but true). It really does not matter if I know the French Revolution started in 1789. It matters that I can explain how the combination of the enlightenment rhetoric, absolute power of the monarchy and hungry people led to revolution. Better yet, it is important that I link the French Revolution to the Arab Spring and while I do not know every dictator that was overthrown by name, I can teach that those revolutions began with a combination of a new “enlightened” rhetoric of twitter, the absolute power of a dictator, and hungry people. I would trade my students knowing and remembering the date 1789 for my test, for them to be able to make a connection between history and the present. I no longer want to try to be a bastion of knowledge, because Wikipedia has that covered, I want to try to be content with being wrong. In many ways, as teachers we need to go back to Socrates, who relied just on his intellect and his ability to ask the right questions to be an influential teacher.