Empty Words

We all know that the language that we use is very important.  It is important to choose the right words so that the meaning is clear and understood by the audience, whether it is one of our learners, a colleague or a parents.  I really do believe, however, that there are some commonly used words in educational circles that are used very carelessly and often in a very vague way.  Their meaning is usually unclear and they are unhelpful in clarifying things for learners, colleagues or others.

Mark Knopfler is a guitarist whose style is seemingly effortless.  He was asked during an interview if playing the guitar came naturally to him.  He said that it didn’t.  He said that in practice he was constantly trying to make his fingers go where they didn’t want to go.  Matt Dawson, the England World Cup winning scrum half, was asked if he was the most talented scrum half of his generation.  He simply laughed.  He went on to say that he was one of the scrum halves in his generation that practiced the most.  Both of these people would be described as talented by many commentators.  But was that really the case?

I had the good fortune to talk to the captain of the GB water polo team from the 2012 Olympics.  I asked him which water polo players are most likely to make it to elite level.  He said that those players that have initial success when they first take up water polo hardly ever make it.  He said that they are often overtaken by players who initially could not match their performance.  These early achievers apparently sit back and rely on what they are able to do and they hope that their early superiority will continue as their experience grows, but in the main this does not prove to be the case.  He said that the majority of future elite level of performers are those who do not initially stand out.  They are often people who suffer setbacks.  These are the people who learn that they have to work hard at their sport if they are going to succeed.  Crucially, they often have coaches who can help them to work effectively on improving their abilities so that they are not wasting their time working in ineffective ways.  He said that it was the athletes who were prepared to put in targeted hard work who were most likely to become elite level performers.

If you looked at the team of young water polo players, I am sure that many people would pick on the high performers as talented.  If you looked at the team of Olympic water polo players, I am sure that many people would pick on the high performers as talented – in other words those who lacked talent as youngsters.  There is something not quite right here.  It would appear that talent can be lost, by the high performing youngsters, and gained, by the Olympians.  If talent really can be lost and gained – and the evidence is that it can be – then it is a fairly meaningless and unhelpful concept.

When you think of an intelligent person, what do you imagine?  What are the attributes of an intelligent person?  What is intelligence?  I used to think that I could answer those questions but over time I have realised that these questions do not have one simple answer, in fact they have many complex answers that can vary depending upon whose intelligence is being discussed.  In some cases it may mean that someone has great recall of historical facts; they may be able to solve complex mathematical problems with little obvious effort; or eruditely debating esoteric philosophic ideas. All of these activities could be used as evidence of intelligence but there is no overarching theme that encompasses all of these diverse attributes.  All of these abilities make use of different skill sets and understanding of them is not helped by the concept of intelligence.  Intelligent is, at best, an unhelpful term because the concept is too imprecise and means different things to different people in different situations.

I am certain that teachers often have little idea of how much effort their learners put into their work.  Of course they will know those learners who hardly do anything and those who do far more than required but most learners lie in between these extremes and it is very hard to know what these learners put into their studies.  Some learners put in hardly any effort and their attainment is very good; others put in many hours and their attainment is poor.  Teachers usually do not see how hard learners work, especially outside of lessons.  All teachers ever see is the product of their efforts.  It is very difficult to infer effort from a product.

I recently had a colleague tell a hard working member of my tutor group that his effort was not good enough.  I am certain that this learner was putting in the hours but what he was doing with his time was ineffective.  He did not need to be told to ‘put in more effort’, he needed constructive advice on what he needed to do with his time that would improve his knowledge and understanding of the subject concerned.  He actually needed advice on how to work more effectively and efficiently.  The concept of ‘effort’ is usually unhelpful as it is too often used as a catch all term when more specific help, advice and feedback would enable a learner to make progress more readily.

I have looked at three words that really should be treated with extreme care in educational circles; three words whose meanings are so unhelpful that their use can actually obscure meaning but three words that many people think are full of meaning.  I do hope that more people challenge the use of these words whenever they hear them so that teachers and learners can clarify their own thinking and communicate this thinking clearly to others.

Empty Words