The Snake Oil Education Pandemic

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” – George Orwell.

In the early weeks of Covid-19 school disruption, our common language was simple and clear: we need to keep learning going; we can’t let students down. Then, like a pandemic of its own, a new contagion emerged. “So, are you concentrating on Synchronous or Asynchronous?”  On top of everything else, this verbose language was dumped on parents. The use of complex, ornate language is often at its worst in education.

When I was a teenager, Synchronicity was the final album released by my then favourite band, The Police. Synchronicities are, by their very nature, emotional, not intellectual. Synchronicity is about chance, coincidence, intuition. As a word choice to describe virtual or distance learning, it is a curious one. It might as well have been dubbed Zenyatta Mondatta.

The psychologist, Carl Jung, coined the concept of synchronicity, the notion that events are meaningful coincidences if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. When computing pioneer Seymour Papert introduced his Logo programming language, his vision was for students to learn at their own pace, free from the synchronous constraints of a classroom lecture. For Papert, and others, this represented a profound liberation, a massive ground shift from teacher-centred classrooms to student-centred learning. 

At its simplest, synchronicity means doing something at the same time. In the educational context, synchronous learning occurs when students are engaged in learning simultaneously. Asynchronous learning is the opposite of synchronous learning. The teacher, the learner, and other students are not necessarily engaged in the learning process at the same time. This is, at best, a curious, tech-focused, rather than learning-centred way of thinking about the learning process. The distinction contributes significantly to the parental belief that children are incapable of learning in the absence of a teacher. If that’s not happening, learning can’t be.

The brave new world we find ourselves in has proven fertile ground for the more-is-better mentality, the view that good enough is really not good enough, despite the reality that the entire world has largely been under siege. The fact is, of course, that a substantial amount of quality learning when schools are in session has always been “asynchronous”. 

There is no mystical language required when we consider meaningful learning, just quality relationships between students, teachers, and parents. We should beware of educational jargon. Too often, it signifies the sleight of hand of the dubious magician, the false marketing of the edtech industry, or the unfortunate attraction to mumbo jumbo of those who should know better.

Perhaps we will understand it in the context of trauma in time to come, but somewhere along the way during our Coronavirus crisis, the voices of chancers, bluffers, and the entitled took centre stage. Long after there is a vaccine for Covid-19, I suspect this phenomenon will remain our greatest challenge in education.

I am most profoundly troubled by those who fail to consider, let alone begin to understand or appreciate, what teachers have been doing throughout this unprecedented time.

Powerful learning is about the respectful, supportive relationship between students and teachers, regardless of the context. If we have learned anything from the inordinate pressure that teachers, students and parents have been placed under during these Covid days, one would hope it might include a pledge to end the snake oil pandemic of educational jargon.

Photo credit: Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash