Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 22
The Power of Precise Language
By Emily Phillips Galloway, Paola Uccelli & Christina Dobbs
ast month, former Presidents Barack Obama
and George W. Bush separately issued bipartisan calls to abandon divisive language. Both
railed against the current polarized nature of
our nation's political discourse-which, in the
past year, has been lacking in nuance and filled
with racial invective, gender insults, and other
hate speech. Characterized by binaries, this
language constructs our nation as a conglomerate of factions.
In such a climate, some educators may shy away from discussing controversial issues with students, especially when, for many
of them, the political has become deeply personal. But educators
should recognize the power-and opportunities for student empowerment-in these discussions.
Words can be used for disagreements without being divisive.
Language is a formidable tool for helping us make sense of the
world around us, allowing us to explain to others what we think
and feel, and-when we know how to listen-giving us a window
into how others understand abstract issues. Language also gives
us a medium through which to make sense of the current political turbulence and cultural disquiet. There is power in recognizing and labeling instances of racism, sexism, and discrimination.
There is even greater power in giving our students the language
to reflect, to question, and to resist negative voices.
As education professors, we have spoken to many teachers
who are grappling with how to support diverse learners in a
polarized climate. In a survey released last month, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked more
than 1,500 teachers whether the national political discourse
during the first months of President Donald Trump's administration has affected public high school students. Seventy-nine percent of teachers reported that students have
expressed concerns for their family's or their own well-being
because of discourse on hot-button issues such as immigration and LGBT rights, and 44 percent said these concerns
have affected students' ability to focus on schoolwork.
The Southern Poverty Law Center also documented a postelection increase in bullying incidents of children who are
members of linguistic, racial, and religious minority groups.
This behavior is linked in part to a lack of precision in our collective discourse-one that reduces individuals to stereotypes.
Making language a mechanism for empowerment rather
than division begins by honoring the skills students bring
to the classroom and identifying those that are necessary to
teach. Over the last six years, in partnership with three U.S.
public school districts in Maryland and Massachusetts, we've
conducted studies examining the language skills of nearly
7,000 students in grades 4-8. Our research suggests that the
majority of middle school students-regardless of whether
English is the primary language spoken at home-are still
developing the skills necessary to discuss complex issues and
ideas with nuance, to disagree, and to make their thinking
visible to peers.
Even students who are persuasive communicators have
not yet learned language helpful for clarifying connections
between ideas (such as "as a result" and "however") or for disagreeing with others ("some think ... but I believe ..."). This
kind of language isn't just window dressing. It helps students
to say what they mean more precisely, reducing miscommunication and overgeneralization.
If educators wish to turn discussions about current affairs into a powerful learning opportunity, fostering precise
language skills is necessary not only to support the understanding of content, but also to support students to better understand themselves and others. Teaching language builds
students' awareness of language choices and invites them to
consider their own linguistic choices.
We have researched effective practices for developing students' language skills in collaboration with colleagues at
Boston University, Harvard University's Graduate School of
Education, the Strategic Education Research Partnership,
and Vanderbilt University. In classrooms where we have observed discussion of current events using these guidelines,
students demonstrate the capacity to disagree respectfully
and to engage with uncertainty at a time when our country
is witnessing adults' inability to do the same.
One of the most important steps is to introduce a few words
or phrases at a time and purposefully revisit those new pieces
of language. Terms that are transparent to adults often require
explicit teaching to children, such as those that cue thinking processes ("summarize" and "conclude") or signal how ideas connect
("in conclusion" and "on the other hand"). Equally important is
how educators motivate students to use the language they learn.
Students who want to be understood are more apt to try out new
language, but this means that teachers have to give them something worth talking about. It's helpful to begin with a controversial question.
Without Teacher Input,
Ed. Reform Is Doomed to Fail
The time is ripe for a new vision based on the
collective wisdom of the real experts: teachers."
22 | EDUCATION WEEK | November 15, 2017 | www.edweek.org/go/commentary
By Adam Urbanski, Tom Alves & Ellen Bernstein
n the cluttered world of education
ideas, often the most strident or wellfunded voices get the most attention.
Over the last two decades, the national education reform debate has
largely been cast as a battle between
two extremes: On one side are "education reformers" who offer top-down,
market-based solutions to fixing systemic
problems, while the alleged "defenders of the
status quo"-teachers and their unions-are
on the other side.
This false dichotomy of reform versus status
quo fails to capture the rich perspectives of
teachers who believe in education improvements that are grounded both in research and
in their own experiences with successful student learning.
More than 20 years ago, we founded the
National Teacher Union Reform Network-a
coalition of teachers and teachers' union leaders-to promote responsible change in education and in teacher unionism that was responsive to the needs of students. As co-leaders of
this effort, we convened classroom teachers
and teacher leaders from 30 union affiliates
of the American Federation of Teachers and
the National Education Association for open
discussions. At conferences over the next two
decades, we asked participants: How can
public education once again become the great
equalizer to benefit all students, not just the
lucky few? How can teachers use their collective wisdom to strengthen the field? And how
must teachers and their unions adapt to become the leaders of education improvements?
Now, with the nation fixated on privatizing public education, the time is ripe for a
new vision based on the collective wisdom
of the real experts: teachers. The definition
of reform has shifted in recent years to often
exclude teachers' perspectives, but teachers have always been open to improving our
education system in ways that lead to better teaching and learning. We firmly believe
that top-down attempts at education reform
are doomed to continue to fail without input
from the teachers who work with students
The vision of our network's teachers-outlined in a report that the three of us co-authored and released last month-is grounded
in the original purpose of public schools: to
advance the common good and strengthen
democracy. At their best, public schools are
designed to unite students from all races, re-
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - November 15, 2017
Education Week - November 15, 2017
E-Schools Adapting to Transgender Students’ Needs
In Florida, Laissez-Faire Approach to Monitoring Private School Vouchers
New Survey Details Effect of Inclusion on Teaching Time
Are States Changing Course On Teacher Evaluation?
News in Brief
Teaching Parents the Right ‘Questions to Ask’ in Schools
Rising Food Allergies A Challenge for Schools
GreatSchools Expands Its Ratings on Schools
Study: Do Parents Need a Reason To Go School Shopping?
SNAPSHOT: Single-Gender Education
New Mexico Offers Teachers A Seat at Policymaking Table
Repercussions for K-12 From Democratic Election Gains
GOP Tax Plans Could Affect K-12 Aid, Teachers’ Pocketbooks
A One-Year Scorecard for Trump On K-12 Campaign-Trail Promises
A Primer on the Teacher Tax Break
Emily Phillips Galloway, Paola Uccelli & Christina Dobbs: The Power of Precise Language
Adam Urbanski, Tom Alves & Ellen Bernstein: Without Teacher Input, Ed. Reform Is Doomed to Fail
William Sterrett: Time Is a Principal’s Most Limited Resource
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Elaine Weiss & Christopher T. Cross: Education’s Golden Rule
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Are States Changing Course On Teacher Evaluation?
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Cover2
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 3
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Report Roundup
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 5
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Teaching Parents the Right ‘Questions to Ask’ in Schools
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Rising Food Allergies A Challenge for Schools
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - GreatSchools Expands Its Ratings on Schools
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Study: Do Parents Need a Reason To Go School Shopping?
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - SNAPSHOT: Single-Gender Education
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 11
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 12
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 13
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 14
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 15
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 16
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - New Mexico Offers Teachers A Seat at Policymaking Table
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 18
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - GOP Tax Plans Could Affect K-12 Aid, Teachers’ Pocketbooks
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - A One-Year Scorecard for Trump On K-12 Campaign-Trail Promises
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - A Primer on the Teacher Tax Break
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Adam Urbanski, Tom Alves & Ellen Bernstein: Without Teacher Input, Ed. Reform Is Doomed to Fail
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - William Sterrett: Time Is a Principal’s Most Limited Resource
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Readers React
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - 25
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Cover3
Education Week - November 15, 2017 - Elaine Weiss & Christopher T. Cross: Education’s Golden Rule