Where Does This Stuff Come From?

It’s amazing how little we know about the words that shape our lives.

It’s fascinating to me that many of the basic terms fashionable in Vermont education — terms that so dominate my professional life right now, cause me late nights trying to restructure my gradebook, long meetings with coworkers trying to redesign curriculum, and philosophical debates with colleagues and students trying to get our minds around — terms such as “personalized learning,” or “proficiency-based learning,” or “personalized learning plan” — are terms whose origins I haven’t the faintest understanding of.

Suddenly, with the passing of Act 77 in 2013, the word rippled down through schools that everything was changing.  We started throwing around all these new terms, we had to change schools, and nobody knew where any of this came from.

We all thought this was alright.

Question the changes, we did.  But understand where they came from?  We simply didn’t have time.

And yet, five years after this law was passed and reverberated around our state, I find myself curious to learn where it all began.

It’s fascinating.

The other day, during some free time, I began investigating.  What I’m fast discovering is that the story of educational history in the United States is a story of constant churn: of ideas come up with and then quickly employed on huge, vast scales, only to be abandoned almost immediately, only to reappear a decade later under a slightly different name.  It’s a big, glorious mess.  And it’s a lot of fun to untangle.

More than that, I think this is important work.  Many of the terms that are quite literally shaping our children’s futures now in Vermont have quite nebulous origins.  It’s important to study where these “innovations” came from, and who was in the room for their adoption, in order to understand precisely what we’re looking at.  The careful study of history can liberate you by helping you understanding more clearly your influences.  The more perspective you can gain on a reform or movement, the more accurately you can judge or question or modify it.

So over the next week, I’d like to do that with a few of our current educational concepts here in Vermont.  I want to take a deep dive the best I can, to find out where they came from, and why we adopted them.

I’ll start first with “Personalized Learning.”