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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

I'm Not Against Inspiring Words...

But we need to get beyond the pseudo-idea.

June 18, 2018
 
 

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. – Definitely not Albert Einstein.

What’s in a name? What’s in a name when it’s attached to an idea?

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.Almost certainly not Benjamin Franklin

Education is fertile ground for the inspirational quote. I often spend an inordinate amount of time on trying to find a single, punchy sentence that captures some essential truth about what I’m trying to communicate about education to embed into these blog posts that readers may want to tweet into the world.

Unfortunately, a lot of the inspirational education quotes floating around in the world are fraudulent, made-up, total B.S.

Many of these education-related epigrams are credited to Albert Einstein. Unfortunately, he didn’t say or write most of them. The one at the top of the post cannot be linked to Einstein except in error. 

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,” is another saying often credited to Einstein, but no, he didn’t say it.

But unlike the ladder climbing fish saying, we know the origin of this one. It belongs to William Bruce Cameron, author of Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking.

Cameron is for sure less famous than Einstein, but as an authority on our systems of measurement, particularly as they pertain to education, he’s a seminal figure.

The saying is also undeniably “true.” Any of us can easily think of something that matters to us which cannot be quantified. I happen to believe many of those things are found in education, things like curiosity, enthusiasm, love.

Clearly in some quarters it matters more when the sentiment is attached to Albert Einstein, world historical genius, than William Bruce Cameron, highly regarded academic/sociologist.

John Dewey is another common source of erroneous quotes, including one that for years was one of my favorites: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

It’s a marvel of concision, and until I’d made my way through a significant portion of Dewey’s writing on education and other subjects, I didn’t question it because I believed in it as a kind of talisman, reflecting a philosophy I could employ in my own work.

But even a cursory read of Dewey reveals that for all his wisdom, pith was not his strong suit and the saying simply doesn’t sound like him. A random, representative sample from Dewey’s Democracy and Education: “Our tendency to take immaturity as mere lack, and growth as something which fills up the gap between the immature and the mature is due to regarding childhood comparatively, instead of intrinsically. We treat it simply as a privation because we are measuring it by adulthood as a fixed standard. This fixes attention upon what the child has not, and will not have till he becomes a man.”

Like I said, not pithy.

So does it matter that a Brookings Institution report on personalized learning technology invokes a fake Dewey quote, cited incorrectly

In writing on this Dewey quote and confirming its non-existence, Tryggvi Thayer brings our attention to a different bit of Dewey-authored wisdom: “We get so thoroughly used to a kind of pseudo-idea, a half perception, that we are not aware how half-dead our mental action is, and how much keener and more extensive our observations and ideas would be if we formed them under conditions of a vital experience which required us to use judgement: to hunt for the connections of the thing dealt with.”

I read these edu-inspirations, and think about the ways concepts like learning styles, the marshmallow test, growth mindset, grit, and personalized learning take off and become policy and how an uncritical embrace of these “pseudo-ideas” makes the ground fertile for such behaviors.

They are no better than fads, the Pet Rock and Rubik’s Cube of education (or worse), and I see a link between our (very much including myself) willingness to embrace platitudes as long as they’re agreeable and suggest teaching and learning is something knowable, solvable, rather than an ongoing battle.

It matters. This all matters. It’s some mix of irritating and humiliating when I discover something I believed to be true is in fact not, but it’s an obligation I have to fulfill, particularly when it comes to issues of education.

 

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