What use are catchphrases?

January 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

This morning I read this post by Jerrid Kruse of Teaching as a Dynamic Activity. Having myself used “21st Century Skills” as a tag in yesterday’s post, yet very much agreeing that the phrase is eye-roll-worthy, I thought I’d put in my two cents about the subject, and explain why I use the term despite my qualms.

Along with “Web 2.0” (did you see me shudder?), 21st Century Skills is a ubiquitous phrase.  The two expressions are not exactly the same–the ideas encompassed by Web 2.0 describe a set of tools, are by definition rather new, and to my knowledge had never been known by any other name, while 21st Century Skills describe a skill set or educational goals, and have in some form or another been around for a long time by various names– but I feel that they are similar enough to serve as two examples of the same phenomenon: labeling.

I had been an avid user of social media before attending library school, but had never heard of Web 2.0.  It took me quite a while to realize what it was that people were talking about. When I did, I didn’t understand the point of putting a label it. All the label seemed to achieve was to act as fodder for pointless blog posts and articles in Library Journal; mind you, not specific or useful information, but just vague allusions to how Web 2.0 would be useful.

In much the same way, I had never heard the term 21st Century Skills before coming to my current position. In discussing the aims of these skills, multiple faculty members pointed out that these “new skills” were no different from what they were already doing, and teaching their pre-service teachers to do. What they amounted to was simply good teaching.

One has to wonder about the usefulness labels at all.  Telling someone that I am a vegetarian often does not accomplish much.  The meaning has been diluted, so that many people have no idea of it’s actual meaning (don’t even get me started on “flexetarians”).

However, the fact remains that buzzwords exist, and that people often feel they understand the meaning behind them. For me, they are shorthand. I use them instead of a more lengthy explanation or definition. When you say “Web 2.0,” most librarians follow your meaning.  Similarly, teachers have a particular idea of what 21st Century Skills encompasses.  Granted, much like “vegetarian,” some may have no idea of the actual meaning of these phrases, or miss the point altogether.  But this is a risk I’m willing to take to use such shorthand in certain situations.

I use my 21st Century Skills tag with mentions of new technology, since really, otherwise, I’d be using it for every single post about teaching ideas, methodology, or other such subjects. My use of the term indicates ideas or or uses of new technologies that will aid the enduring goals of creativity, collaboration, etc.  It may be misguided, but it’s my attempt at proposing the “concrete strategies” that will “promote the goal,” as Kruse puts it.




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