Friday, June 16, 2006

Blueberries . . . Soft Semantics

Continuation of my discussion with Dr. David Thornburg:


I think that you are getting caught up in "soft semantics."

Whether you want to admit it or not, education has a set of products. defines "product" as:

1. Something produced by human or mechanical effort or by a natural process.
2. A direct result; a consequence: “Is history the product of impersonal social and economic forces?” (Anthony Lewis).

As ethereal as you want to be about education, educators do a great deal of work and they have products. The question arises when we try to define how these products are measured.

Should we use tests? Sometimes.
Should use Porter-esque rubrics to evaluate projects? Sometimes.
Should we use attitudinal surveys? Sometimes.
Should we just talk with the students to see how they feel? Sometimes.
Should we interview parents to understand their perceptions? Sometimes.

There is a plethora of opportunities for evaluating the success of the educators in achieving their goals of producing their products (whatever they may be.)

Creating a positive educational environment is the key to developing a learning situation where students can succeed. This environment is filled with intangibles but it is still developed by the educators (these include the classroom teachers as well as the administrators, staff, school board members, parents and community members.) Much like going to your Japanese restaurant, the school and classroom teachers try to provide a successful experience to all who come. It works for some and doesn't work for others.

Having taught for 6 years in a dropout recovery program in East Los Angeles, I know something about systems that don't work. I also know about finding and creating systems that appeal to the students that don't "fit in." In every case, there is a product that we are trying to create. That product is not the student but the student's ability to succeed in the world in later life. We can't follow the student into later life to measure our success, so we identify the skills that we believe are necessary to succeed, we find ways to measure the success on a more immediate basis.

It is a problem when we don't feel that we can measure our success in achieving our goals in the classroom. Usually educators say that this is because we don't want to be told that we didn't succeed. If we can't find ways to measure our success, we will have no way to be able to compliment ourselves when we have successfully created our "product."

Thoughtfully yours,



  1. David Thornburg1:43 AM

    Dear Leigh,

    Well put, my friend. I agree that the second definition from the dictionary (the result being the product) makes sense and, in my cumbersome way, I was waddling in that direction (while still maintaining that the pedagogy and curriculum (definition 1) are major).

    In any case, I assume we are agreed that the children, themselves, are not the "products" of schools excepting, perhaps, for those conceived there.

    Thanks for keeping the thread alive. This would make a great panel session at a conference. Are you in? Anyone else on this list wanting to play along?



  2. Anonymous6:37 PM


    It appears that I am a month late for this provocative discussion. I was immediately reminded as I read through the previous posts of William James’s demarcation between tender-minded and tough-minded positions. Emotional connotations aside, James’s point was to separate positions that do and do not integrate necessary consequences.

    In the case of Dr. Leigh Zeitz’s statements concerning the importance of measurement: (1) measures always exist in relation to something and (2) measures measure what they measure, meaning only inferences and hope grant them any further credence. An example of something in which a measure exists in relation to is the goal to which it is assigned. A goal, however, is frequently only as good as its means. For example, if one wishes to identify success in education as “the student's ability to succeed in the world in later life” means an identification of further goals for “later life” in order to measure such success.

    Confusing examples aside, the point is that when goals are identified they do not exist in a vacuum but in relation to it means of attainment, whether explicitly stated or not, and other possible necessarily related goals. In closing, one either accepts the possibility of a success-less educational system due the problems surrounding goal naming, moves on and defines “success” on individual terms based on individual criteria or refuses to accept the context dependent nature of goals (and all language, including definitions) to feel success in terms of untenable, truly “soft semantics.” It could be said, therefore, that I neither agree with nor disagree with any of the previous posts in total, but wish to enter into this lively discussion from a different point of view.




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