Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Child-Centered" Killed by Repetition

Before becoming a technology integration specialist and edtech consultant I was a classroom art teacher. In many ways I still am. I do miss the studio classroom, the materials, immersion in hands-on learning and creative expression. I also miss teaching about art history, theory, and philosophy. Every time I walk into an art room to assist an art teacher with a tech need I feel a strong longing for my old line of work and a deep sense of envy for those who have managed to keep their art programs going.

Andy Warhol (1975) Electric Chair (BW)

One of my favorite topics to teach was on Pop Art and Postmodernism and not at all for it's aesthetic attributes. Pop Art and Postmodernism are largely about concept. The concept is more important than the actual work. In fact, one of the defining features of Pop Art is repetition and repetition for the purpose of rendering it's subject meaningless. The image that most art textbooks use to illustrate this concept is that of Andy Warhol's screen prints of the electric chair. Taken by itself the image of the chair, an instrument of the ultimate capital punishment, is enough to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. But Pop Artists discovered, when you repeat the image over and over the viewer loses the emotional response and instead is left with nothing. The repetition becomes the art, not the image, not the meaning that the image carries, only the meaninglessness carried by repetition.

This effect is true in other areas of our lives and society, not just the visual arts. Perhaps the most dangerous place for the effect of repetition on meaning is with language. Words loose meaning with repetition just as Warhol's images do. This happens every time a term shifts from an authentic and meaningful usage to the status of "catch phrase" or "buzz word." We see it in the political discourse displayed by politicians and pundits but we also see it in education. So many meaningful ideas are lost through the creation of buzz words out of the language used to describe them. As a result, we often hear terms thrown about hap-hazardously and used to describe things that they don't really mean.

One of the most unfortunate terms in education recently to undergo this effect is the phrase "child-centered." "Child-centered" is a term whose concept it represents is beautiful. It represents an environment, an activity, or thing designed around the needs of the child rather than the needs of the adults and in schools the term refers to an idea of putting the needs of the student ahead of the needs of the teacher, administrator, policymaker, taxpayer, etc. In many ways the concept the term "Child-centered" is anti-Taylorism. It is an unequivocal declaration that the ones we server are actual human beings, organisms and individuals as opposed to products in a factory model of education.

But, the term has been used and reused to the point where it has lost it's meaning. Through over use and repetition the term became open for redefinition and today, I fear, the term is used by people to describe whatever it is they want it to describe. When I hear an educator or administrator use the phrase "Child-centered" today I really cannot tell what they mean and what they mean can just as well take adult needs and objectives as primary focus and "centering" them around the child. Are we putting the child in the center to serve that child or putting the child in the center of all the crap we are going to do to them? The term being up for grabs I fear it has now been hijacked, assimilated by the Taylorist Cult of Efficiency.


Aaron Grimm said...

I think you make a really good point. I can go to a "traditional" ed conference and hear the same words at the AERO Conference ( and hear words like "child centered." My favorite is the buzzwords like: accountability, reform, personalization... when actually, they are doing none of these things as you mentioned. "Reform" is the word I will not use in my lexicon to describe what I believe schools need to aspire to. Reform is heading back down the path in which we have already traveled, one which we know is a dead end.

Thanks for your thoughts.


Carl Anderson said...

Thanks for the feedback Aaron. My goal over the next two weeks is to take write a post about a different education buzzword each day. I think "Accountability" will definitely be on my linguistic hit list.