Empty Words And S.T.A.T.

“Language is a weapon of politicians,

but language is a weapon in much of human affairs”

–Noam Chomsky


In his classic dystopian novel 1984, novelist George Orwell imagines a totalitarian state that has co-opted not just basic freedoms, but spoken language, as well.  The state has blended, twisted, and recreated words, dubbed newspeak, that have the effect of removing all meaning from a term, so the actual meaning behind the word cannot be analyzed. Examples include “doubleplusgood” as an indicator of superiority, and “unperson” as a term for an enemy who has been eliminated or erased. In his own essay on his masterwork, Orwell explained, “newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.”

Such abuse of clarity is not confined to the fictional world, however…our own government is a noted purveyor of such terms (consider “extraordinary rendition” of terror suspects, or illegal kidnapping), and the business world of Silicon Valley has created enough newspeak to fill a dictionary. As an example, consider the word leverage. Up until the 1950s, the meaning was largely about the force one could gain by employing a fulcrum. After being co-opted by Wall Street to describe a company’s debt-to-equity ratio, it has been increasingly applied by business leaders and technology companies (and now BCPS administrators) to imply a sense of gain, such as “using technology to leverage learning.” The word leverage has become meaningless in this context; its usage is no longer intended to be precise.

Another popular piece of newspeak is disrupt. The original meaning is to cause a disturbance or interrupt, such as when a toddler might throw a tantrum in a restaurant, or a teenager blast loud music at three in the morning. This word has also been co-opted, largely by Silicon Valley and business interests (and again by BCPS administrators), to mean to radically change a model by offering a new product or service. Such connotation, however, carries an inherent rhetorical fallacy or error: just because something is new does not mean it is actually better (known rhetorically as “an appeal to novelty”).

A more apt label for this type of twisted language is “weasel words,” a term that was coined by Theodore Roosevelt.  Such words are used by those who wish to avoid being clear or direct, often to deflect scrutiny or cover for a lack of actual knowledge–in effect squirming away from the point without saying anything of value or depth. The leadership in BCPS is increasingly adept at this type of language, especially those administrators responsible for the STAT laptop computer initiative. Consider first the phrase that creates the acronym for STAT: Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow. It is truly meaningless—accessing tomorrow is an impossibility today, unless one happens to have precognition or a time machine, both of which do not exist. However, it is also inevitable because indeed tomorrow will come.  Rhetorically, the phrase is also a false appeal to novelty; the implication is that “tomorrow’s” new technology, or advances, or whatever the future brings, will be inherently better or more advanced than today, and students need to be ready for it.

Another oft-abused phrase by BCPS leadership is 21st century learning or 21st century skills. From strictly a grammatical point, 21st century is a noun, not an adjective. Construction problems aside, this concept is so vague at outset as to lack all meaning. Learning today, in the 21st century, is no different than learning that took place in the 20th century, or the 19th, or the 13th, for that matter.  Tools available to teachers have changed somewhat, but the human ability to learn (and the functioning of the human brain) has not. Even the amorphous idea of new skills that might be needed for the 21st century is flawed; the basic skills necessary for socialization, employment, and even democracy have not radically changed, though businesses with products to sell or administrators with agendas to push would like you to think they have.

Other words that are similarly getting the meaning drained out of them are innovative, rigor, grit, and collaborative, just to name a very few. Why does the administrative leadership in BCPS use such terms? It is certainly not to clarify or clearly define their points. In absence of clarity, one can only assume it is to give the appearance of substance to the STAT laptop initiative that, in reality, lacks a research base, pedagogical purpose, and fiscal rationale.

Take the time to read the Twitter feeds or press releases of Dallas Dance, Ryan Imbriale, or Mychael Dickerson.  You’ll see plenty of empty phrasing, such as “powerful collaborative PD” and “micro-credential professional learning” (Imbriale), “innovation is on the way!” (Dance), and “globally competitive students” (Dickerson), a favorite BCPS catchphrase that presents no real content (competitive in what? And why does that competition matter?). Attend their speaking engagements, or watch their videos. Listen carefully to what is being said. Is it clear? Is it concise? Does it withstand critical inquiry? Or are you left with the sense that words were spoken, but nothing of substance was offered.

This behavior is not restricted to spoken language, either. Under Ryan Imbriale’s leadership, his office has changed its name two times in the last three years. The original title was the Office of Instructional Technology, which was responsible for exactly what its name states. In 2013-14, it was changed to the Department of Digital Learning, and in 2015-16 it was adjusted to the Department of Innovative Learning. This subtle change in wording was clearly intended to erase all trace of “technology” or “digital” from the title, likely to further deflect attention from the laptop focus that underpins the STAT program. “Innovative” in this context has no veracity, unless the office is genuinely devising new and more creative learning methods, rather than pushing prepackaged digital programs via BCPS One.

In using imprecise language, the BCPS leadership is largely echoing the companies and corporations whose conferences they attend and that stand to profit from the unquestioned growth of the STAT initiative. Consider this recent gem from a Pearson Education press release describing personalized learning (also a favorite empty term of Dance and Imbriale), which raises weaseling away from meaning to a high art: “we can better leverage the rapid changes in our culture and breakthrough innovations in personalized learning to address the gaps in opportunity.” Another recent example comes from a McGraw-Hill press release praising STAT (and its use of the Engrade online learning platform), which quotes Imbriale engaging in classic newspeak: “our kids have the capability and capacity to experience relevance in the classroom. Engrade gives us the leverage to take that next step.” Somewhere, a composition teacher weeps.

Our school leadership and administration must be held to a higher standard for thought, language and clarity. We do not need the model of 1984 to know that misuse of language is a tool of distraction to prevent discussion of the genuine issues at stake—infrastructure, air conditioning, experienced teachers, smaller class sizes, responsible leadership, and effective pedagogy.


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