August 01, 2014

Words matter (was What does "brick and mortar" make you think of?)

(Note: I posted a version of this originally on July 31, 2014. It was accidentally deleted, and I was unable to recover the original post. I rewrote the missing parts and added an epilogue at the end.)

The PERC conference kicked off with an interesting talk by Mike Dubson from CU Boulder. There is a great summary of the talk by Stephanie Chasteen over at her blog. The talk was about comparing a traditional large lecture-hall physics class to a MOOC of identical content.

I was struck, however, by the repeated use of the term "brick and mortar” to refer to the face-to-face course. To me, the terminology immediately invoked a business metaphor, with the student as a customer and the professor as a service provider.  I asked the presenter if that was an intentional choice of words, but I don't believe that my question was understood before he chose to move on. (Incidentally, I specifically remembered him using the word "customer" to refer to a student enrolled in the MOOC, but he claimed he did not use that word.)

The use of "brick and mortar" and "customer" to refer to a learning environment reminded me of the advertisement for a faculty position at a college that demanded the candidate be able to provide excellent customer service. David Perry wrote a series of posts on that which you can read about on his blog.

My take-away from Perry's articles was that the words we choose to use have an impact on how we act. If we believe education is more than a business transaction, then we must not use words which make it easier for administrators, students, other faculty, parents and the public to expect that sort of relationship with us.

Prof. Dubson had earlier in his talk stated his belief that education is the process by which our collective knowledge and understanding is passed down from generation to generation. At the end of his talk he concluded by telling us about the elementary school teacher who inspired in him a love for reading. He said that those types of teachers cannot be automated or replaced by a computer. His passionate love for great education was clear.

If the type of teacher that drives great education cannot be automated, then it certainly can't be reduced to a simple transactional relationship that words such as "brick and mortar" or "customer" cue us to think. Nor can the responsibility of passing down the world’s collective knowledge, understanding and culture be simply bought like a box tissues with a click of a button or a swipe of a credit card.

Words matter. We need to be intentional about using them.


I was privileged to be able to co-host a discussion session at PERC which was about how the physics education and physics education research community should be thinking about implementing what we called in the abstract “Competency-Based Assessment” but which goes by many names. I was honored that Eugenia Etkina (and so many other people!!) showed up for this discussion. 

After listing many of the names by which the assessment strategy is called, I had intended to switch to the more familiar “Standards Based Grading” (SBG) name for our session. Prof. Etkina raised her hand and pointed out how we know that grades and grading causes stress for our students and is not at all what we want to emphasize. She pointed out that the standards are measured by assessments. 

I saw immediately the parallel between what she was pointing out to me and what I had been asking the speaker on the day before. Words matter. Even if I don’t intend to use the term “standards based grading” with my students it will better form our thinking if we remind ourselves that we are intentionally taking the emphasis off of grading. In our session we immediately switched to using the term “Standards Based Assessment and Reporting” (SBAR) which I intend to use exclusively going forward.

Words matter. Changing our use of words can be done; we just have to be intentional about it.

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