Differentiating Language

This post was partly inspired by Greg Thompson’s excellent blog post about purpose, context and audience. I have often mused about the role of language and how confusing it can be even when we speak what appears to be the same language. Let’s bounce!

What happens when discussions on twitter about teaching and learning develop into disagreements about what particular terms and indeed individual words mean? What usually happens is that people cling tenaciously to their personal definitions and little is resolved. You also find that some people will change purpose from one tweet to another. It may be something that is peculiar to social media generally but especially on twitter.

The purpose of a twitter discussion can swing from 1. Establishing a position. 2. Confirming if definitions are compatible. 3. Personal insults because definitions are not compatible. It’s not uncommon for this to render your viewpoint as irrelevant because one person is saying oranges are called oranges, and one person is saying oranges are navel oranges. There appears to a rough set of rules that don’t clarify anything. I’m not sure if Wittgenstein meant that when expressing the view that the vagueness of ordinary usage of language is not a problem to be eliminated but rather the source of linguistic riches. It is misleading even to attempt to fix the meaning of particular expressions by linking them referentially to things in the world.

It’s all a bit of a game at times and one I’m certainly guilty of playing from time to time. Like the rules of a game, Wittgenstein argued, these rules for the use of ordinary language are neither right nor wrong, neither true nor false: they are merely useful for the particular applications in which we apply them.

There has been lots of discussion recently about the term ‘differentiation’. There have been some excellent articles on what differentiation is and what it isn’t. There has also been something of a hue and cry to arrest those who have any problem with differentiation, without understanding that what differentiation means for one person is not the same definition as another.

“A teacher who differentiates instruction proactively plans and carries out varied approaches to content, process, and product in anticipation of and response to student differences in readiness, interest, and learning needs.”

Carol Ann Tomlinson

I don’t have a problem with that definition, as good as I’ve heard to be honest. But for many educators, those varied approaches would include using learning styles, multiple intelligences and ability grouping as examples of their differentiation. I’m currently working with a first year teacher who used multiple intelligences as one example of how he would use differentiation in his teaching and was roundly praised for it by his lecturers. I personally don’t think multiple intelligences are at all useful, but for many teachers they are definitely part of the differentiation equation. So before I make the statement that “Not all differentiation is good”, I need to establish what definition I am using, what I’m not using, and what definition I disagree with. (It’s pointless disagreeing because ownership of another definition is not mine to take).

In my previous blog post I spoke about differentiating less in my class. There was an excellent reply from Corinne Campbell who believed from what she had read that I was differentiating just fine. It struck a chord with me. It’s often just swings and roundabouts. (To clarify, I mean ‘Six of one, half a dozen of the other’ when I say that.)

I’m going too spend far less time challenging and asking questions on Twitter; the lexical tangle has worn me down. I have no ownership of others definitions and I need to respect that. I hope this has made some sense, if it hasn’t, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter.

Lets turn to the master, who always makes sense:

“I think perhaps the most important problem is that we are trying to understand the fundamental workings of the universe via a language devised for telling one another when the best fruit is.”

Terry Pratchett

If you have read this far, thank you and well done.





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