Monday, 2 November 2015

Deep, man!

'lightning never strikes twice.'

'What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.'

These sentences both sound really profound while being nonsense, and nonsense that can very quickly be identified as nonsense. In both cases a few seconds of thought would be enough to show this. The word 'lightning rod' and the existence of lightning rods is not a contested issue. Lightning rods exist and are placed on the side of tall buildings precisely because lightning often strikes the same spot (tall things) repeatedly. Similarly it's not hard to think of things which while not killing a person would definitely not leave them any stronger. Ebola, spinal injury or brain damage are a few examples. And yet, like the bizarre 'it's the exception that proves the rule' despite making no sense and this fact being apparent to anyone with normal mental capabilities, these phrases continue to be used

One place they're particularly prevalent is on any social media platform that teachers have discovered. Social media + education has led  to the rampant proliferation of what Carl Hendrick calls, 'the scourge' of motivational posters'. Little nuggets of 'wisdom' about teaching usually plastered over the top of an inspiring landscape or picture. Alternatively the quote appears next to a famous figure (Einstein is a popular choice) who probably didn't actually say the quote in question. They're so prevalent they've inspired a satirical section on Shaun Wilden and Lindsay Clandfield's TEFL commute podcast

The internet is awash with these edu quotes and they come In a few different flavours. There's the ego-bolster: memes about how hard teaching is and what under appreciated heroes teachers are.On a side note, it's interesting that such a large number of these memes exist. If you google, 'doctors are heroes' or 'even 'firefighters are heroes' you get far fewer memes than you do for teachers.  Next, there's the heart warming type usually including the word 'heart' in the quote and a picture of a heart somewhere. And finally there are the deepities.

Deep deepities
The word Deepity was coined by Daniel Dennett. He explains it (see video) thus: 

The example he goes on to quote is 'love is just a word'. He makes the point that saying love is just a word is either false (it is an emotion, a condition or  way of explaining a phenomenon) or it's trivially true (yes its a just a word, like pain or joy or sadness, but why even say this?). Other deepities include 'beauty is only skin deep', or there is no I in team'. I am inclined to add the phrase 'everyone learns in different ways' into this category. If it means 'everyone has a preferred way of studying' then *shrug* who cares? If however the implication is that learning, as in the process that occurs in the human brain differs among people, then that would be truly earth shattering as "the architecture of human brains varies very little among adults or among children” (Long 2011:375). 

It is perhaps not at all surprising that we find NLP cornering the market in these kinds of pseudo-profound edu memes, after all, reproducing form without bothering about the substance is kinda NLP's thing. Here are a few examples that I've collected over the years:

‘[1]What you believe to be true either is true, or becomes true.’ 
‘[2]All behaviour has a positive intention’ 

‘[3]There is no failure in learners, only in the teacher’s intervention’ (Millrood 2004:29)

‘[4]There is no such thing as reluctant learners, only inflexible teachers’ (Winch 2005).

'[5]there is no failure only feedback' 

The fact that these statements have appeared (and continue to appear) in print in teacher training publications is hard for me to understand. Not only are these quotes, after a minute of consideration, obviously not true, in many cases they seem to absolve students of any responsibility and lay everything at the teacher's feet. what kind of masochist believes that a [4] reluctant learner must be the fault of the teacher or that [3] any student failure is the teacher's fault?  And the notion that 'all behaviour has a positive intention' seems indefensible until you notice that NLP experts helpfully redifne the word explaining that 'positive here, does not mean good so much as goal driven.' In other words, people do things for reasons. Behold! An earth-shattering truth reduced to banal triviality. 

Fish Trees
He didn't say this 

My most hated of all 'edu memes' is the infamous fish tree meme. I hate it for many many reasons. Firstly, Einstein didn't say it. Secondly if everyone is a genius then no one is a genius. 

This quotes is wheeled out usually in opposition to standardised testing or in calls to rethink education. Climbing a tree is unfair for a fish because a fish can't climb a tree. It follows, supposedly that this is just like how maths tests are bad for those who are not mathematically gifted. Yhe 'take-away' is supposedly that a fish doesn't have the ability to climb a tree and some kids don't do well at maths, and so tests are evil, right? This poster seems superficially deep, but why would  teachers ask students to do things that they were physically incapable of? I could rant on about this quote for a whole blog post but I'll direct you to this one by Todd Pettigrew instead

Credit: Carl Hendrick
It seems odd that actual discussions about teaching and learning have, in some parts of the education world been replaced with pithy saccharin soundbites tweeted and retweeted ad nauseam. As Carl Hendrick notes. these kind of posters show "a culture that privileges the media-soundbite over critical reflection" Ironically, the same teachers who insist on the importance of critical thinking and creativity as the very pinnacle of a good 21st century education are often the ones thoughtlessly reproducing these edu memes. 

My 100th Blog post. For this occasion I wanted to write something clever, deep and satirical. I couldn't do that so I just wrote this instead. Thanks for reading. 


  1. Another NLP no-brainer: 'The map is not the territory'. Umm. Yes. OK.

    1. ah but 'the map becomes the territory' doncha know!

  2. I can only respond with this profound and extremely well-known quote: "Any criticism of Facebook memes is criticism that I can live without." ~ E. Presley

    1. I think you'll find that was also Eisnstein. tsk tsk!

  3. Congratulations on your 100th blog post! Here's a small present :).

    1. Thanks Zarina (M?)

      It's a good post and good advice for me. I'll try to keep it in mind more when I post. Thanks.

  4. Surely the art in sharing aphorisms, wisdom, quotes, etc is in: 

    a) coining them
    b) not digging out cliches, but apt and lesser known quotes
    c) not having them stand alone, but as a springboard for further reasoning

    Would you agree with that Russ? Would you agree that to do the above and to share literary references is actually a sign of erudition. Otherwise it would seem just a subjective bias against people sharing wisdom in general— arts which are as old as the hills and practised by history’s greatest thinkers.

    Not everyone is as cynical as yourself and Scott Thornbury. Cynicism really closes the doors and I don’t really think it’s fair knock people for trying to promote wisdom and metaphors just because they don’t suit your tastes. Of course you can take things too literally... I think many people are aware of that and are perhaps not as stupid as you give them credit for.

    And if these twee memes add something to people’s thought processes and teaching practice then perhaps they're not all bad. You know what, another thing that is as old is as the hills is gatekeeping: elites accusing people of vulgarising the language and simplifying it. I'm sure there was similar reaction to Tyndale's Bible. How dare these plebs attempt to ape our infallible understanding!

    Maybe it’s a bit more fair to live and let live with this stuff.

    1. Hi Luan,

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I don't mind people sharing literary references...not sure it's a sign of erudition or not but it could be. They might just be trying to show off, if you catch my drift.

      I think you're being a little unfair in suggesting I'm cynical. Skeptical, yes, cynical no. I wouldn't knock someone for promoting wisdom, but quite a few of these sayings, as I tried to show, are not really wise at all. Do you think we should encourage people to promote 'pseudo-wisdom'? Do you draw the line somewhere?

      Your final criticism is a hard one for me to understand. You seem to be accusing me of elitism and linguistic gate-keeping. firstly, I don't see the relation between these quotes and language use and secondly, this blog has consistently railed against elitism in language:

    2. Well honestly Russ, who made you the high judge of mirth, wit and wisdom? Yes many of these memes may be trite but I also feel you're taking them way too literally — being almost as obtuse as some of the memes themselves. It's like pulling apart jokes. They never work if you do that, but one thing that makes jokes work is that there is always a grain of truth in them. Aphorism, chiasmus, metaphor and verse are ancient arts because they make people think in alternative ways. To do that they have to be both brief and novel.

      Satirising the proliferation of twee memes is all well and good, but that doesn't mean the genre as a rule is bad or pseudoscience. It's just means there's a lot of crap floating around. Like I said, the art lies in the poignant ones that get people thinking. As a rule, they may be trite, but they're harmless enough and criticising them comes down to a matter of taste and tone. You can refute the point made in the meme but it's also necessary to note that the point may well have some validity. Very often this outweighs the literal take on it.

      Personally, I think it's important to understand that education and much of what people do in life is predominately an art, not a science and thus is it really right to sneer at people trying to make a point in this way?

    3. Hii Luan,

      point taken. Maybe I shouldn't treat these too seriously. The NLP ones i do take issue with, the others just seem a bit silly but harmless.

      I was a bit confused when you wrote that the meme may be something that can be refuted but that it will have some validity which is beside the point and outweighs the point. Forgive me for being thick but isn't that a rather inefficient way of communicating things?

      As for education being 'science not art' well, I'm not sure what that has to do with this post but may I direct you to this post?

    4. I think you’re right. It is a over-simplification. Teaching is both, but that’s why I say in this post below that the two belong together. Yet that it’s important to view teaching as primarily an art. In other words, that practice and the human element ought to take precedence over research and theory. I feel this is lost on a lot of people

  5. I think what frustrates me the most is that not only are the webosphere and academia contaminated, but these kinds of vacant motivational aphorisms have penetrated the curriculum of teachers’ colleges. I’m reminded of a didactics class in which the lecturer brought in a heart-wrenching story about a Teacher Who Made a Difference™ claiming that “it could be real” (Needless to say, a quick Snopes check proved otherwise). So much of teacher-education has become about students’ emotional well-being (Which is a good thing, in moderation) that it’s easy to get sucked into these feel-good statements.

    In any case, I’m very glad to have discovered this blog. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one skeptical of the system!

  6. Hey Avital,

    sorry it took so long to reply to your comment. The older posts don't always seem to inform me when someone comments. Do you I think perhaps teaching has been re fashioned by such things as low wages and Hollywood into something that is not so much about learning but more about 'feels'. Forget knowledge, stand on your desk and shout 'Captain my captain!' Expression, inspiration and creativity are all buzz words but where are these things without knowledge? What can we create if we don't have any materials to create with?