Death to the Acronym

Chris McNutt
July 11, 2019
Educators love acronyms. It’s the key to successful empire in the professional industry; developing a simple phrase to communicate adjectives in a catchy way. But they mean absolutely nothing.

DITCH | PEAK | PIRATE | The 4 R’s | The 4 C’s | The 4 M’s | SLANT | STAR

Passion, Innovation, Technology, Trackable, Relevance, Measurable, Collaboration, Results, Respect, Creativity, Different, Manageable, Hands-On, Rigor, Relationships, Rewards (yes, Pearson actually believes rewards are central to learning.)

Educators love acronyms. It’s the key to successful empire in the professional industry; developing a simple phrase to communicate adjectives in a catchy way. But they mean absolutely nothing.

It’s about time that educators stop embracing acronyms and roll their eyes at its use. It’s short-handed drivel that garners universal attachment no matter what you’re doing:

Obviously, the latter exemplifies more of each of these qualities, but the fact is that I could do anything beyond reading from a textbook and “buy in” to these adjectives. With the intent of acquiring as much money as possible, the education industry can utilize non-disputable truths to sell books and presentations. There’s absolutely no objecting to “collaboration” — but there is objection to specific pedagogy that changes the status quo: critical pedagogy, progressive education, restorative justice.

It’s mind-boggling how much time is wasted at conference presentations and in 1000's of pages in books on outlining adjectives. Adjectives aren’t meaningful without pedagogy. My definition of “rigor” is far different than my coworker’s. “Passion” could be working 24/7 or just loving the job. “Technology” could be working on an iPad or connecting with a classroom in Spain. Even with added context, many works double-down on agreeable phrasing: Passion (Teach Like a Pirate): “Light yourself on fire with enthusiasm and people will come from miles around just to watch you burn!”

This is not to say that there aren’t valuable ideas to learn from these books, nor is there inherently something wrong to focus on being a “creative” teacher. However, without pedagogy it’s all for naught. We’re substituting nice words and platitudes for the hard work of questioning the profession through deep, meaningful ideas.

And there is great work being done with acronyms (e.g. NEA’s overview of the 4 C’s) — but this is rooted in deeper concepts, not the acronym itself. If I develop a “rigorous” classroom, I may have constant check-ins of student work and challenge them to succeed through weekly goals. My neighbor’s room, also inspired by “rigor”, may increase their test bank by 100 questions. If I bring critical pedagogy into the classroom, I cannot come to the antithetical situation as my neighbor who believes in the same philosophy. Our classrooms will have different conversations and set ups, but we’ll both understand the importance of de-centering the classroom and focusing on student voice. Getting to this point is beyond a quick presentation of “hacks” that could make a lesson slightly more exciting, or something different from the mundane PowerPoint — it requires reflection and ample thought.

Pedagogy relies on systemic change. It’s a series of many ideas that inform our practice and challenge our assumptions as educators. It’s based in research and hundreds of years of philosophers and critics. And it’s focused on policy changes that run counter to some institution’s ideologies and existing structures. Restorative justice requires multiple sessions of PD — the entire staff on the same page. Everyone must understand the philosophy, purpose, implementation strategy, and be able to speak knowledgeably on the topic. It’s not easy nor “fun.”

Branded education industry conferences are rife with loud music, special effects, and a slightly-too-loud speaker who “preaches fire” on how to engage children. Rarely will they bring up systemic racism or decolonizing the curriculum. The goal is to sell a product to as many people as possible — publishing a new series of books each year that all essentially say the exact same thing. A few interesting lesson ideas (that are notably just the old lesson, but with a twist!), a couple catch-phrases, cheap room decorations, maybe a graphic organizer, and a lot of anecdotal evidence. Little to no sources.

Switching up your daily routine is fine — as long as you’re tackling the root problems as well. Acronyms are not a substitute for questioning and reflecting. We must seek out and do hard work if we expect any meaningful change to how schools operate. Too many are selling a (toxically positive) upholding of the status quo. Not to belabor the point, but the transformation that occurs when one dramatically uproots the inequities in their classroom — when they acknowledge new perspectives, bring in diverse books, remove extrinsic motivation, make partnerships in the community, encourage autonomous learners, develop solutions rather than discipline automatically, let students act on their ideas — is more than any cure-all being hinted at in embracing an acronym.

Real change requires risk, care, and drive. It’s not easy nor found via rock stars. Educators can lead the charge by reconnecting with their “why” and banding together toward radical change. They can network — physically and virtually — to lead both a silent revolution (in the classroom) to mainstream overthrow (the school, district, and state.) We must refrain from being enamored by instant gratification or developing cynicism that is ingrained in our culture. “Deep questioning” book talks, educators doing “the work”, podcasts with researchers and experts, philosophical after-school conversations — these practices will build the alliance that will topple neoliberal standardized testing and inequitable facilities, not an expensive conference on how important “innovation” is.

*Inspired by Benjamin Doxdator’s recent blog, #BrandEd

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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