Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Confusors - Derailing Discussions about Teaching, Technology, and Reform

I've written a couple times in this blog about confusors, but my 2009 essay on the topic was on a web site that has now disappeared. I've resurrected it here and updated it.

We can't improve teaching, our uses of technology and the ways we organize academic work unless we can talk about it.  But such conversations often become more like bull-rings when participants don't notice they're using a common word or phrase to mean different things.

"Teaching," "learning," "assessment," "campus," "liberal education," "general education," "learning goals," "cost-savings," "MOOC," "course redesign," "competence-based education," "online learning," "flipped classes," and "adaptive learning" are just a few examples of the linguistic traps, that I've termed confusors      
For example, two people might get into a bitter argument about regional accreditation of institutions. But the argument turns out to be a waste of energy because they don't actually disagree about anything substantive; they've each been unwittingly using a different definition for "assessment."
I’ve been in a couple pointless arguments about lectures and active learning. One discussion turned out to be a waste of time because, while we actually agreed, we hadn’t noticed our conflicting definition of "lecture." The other wasted quite a few minutes of our lives because we hadn’t noticed our clashing definitions of “active learning.”  
Click here to see a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education charting multiple definitions of some widely used ed-tech terms.  
Any confusor has two defining characteristics:
  1. A term has more than one widely used definition (e.g., "teaching" can mean that an expert is explaining something, or it can refer more broadly to any action of an expert that is designed to help someone else learn). During the moments when a professor is silently watching students discuss an issue, is the professor teaching? The first definition says 'no,' while the second says, 'yes.'
  2. When people fail to notice that they are each using different definitions for the same term, unnecessary arguments or confusion can easily result.  Perhaps just as dangerous in the long term is when participants are lulled into thinking they agree on a point on which they actually clash.  Many people might agree that continual improvement of teaching is important, but when a faculty development program is at issue, they might realize for the first time how dangerously they differed on what "continual improvement of teaching" means.

Click here to see a list of confusors with their conflicting definitions.

To have more productive conversations about teaching and its improvement, what terms and definitions do we need to add to this list? Please add comments below or email me at ehrmannsteve at 

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