Stop Being Bad with Names

Stop Being Bad with Names

“I’m terrible with names.” It seems like a very common statement. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. I’ve always prided myself with knowing people’s names and yet I’ve never been as intentional as I ought to be.  There have been 3 sources that I’ve found recently that have addressed this theme to the degree that it’s now become a personal mission of mine to pay better attention to people’s names. 


The first is a reading of a classic book by Dale Carnegie “How to Win Friends and Influence People” The book, while focused on business, offers some simple, timeless truths about relationships. Most of it seems like common sense but the depth and specifics stated in the book are great reminders not only for business folks but anyone who works with people. 
Specifically the chapter on names. Here are a few quotes:

“Most people don’t remember names, for the simple reason that they don’t take the time and energy necessary to concentrate and repeat and fix names indelibly in their minds. They make excuses for themselves; they are too busy.”

Of course, I could go into a whole diatribe about busy. But I’m also guilty here. I need to make a better effort. 

“…the average person is more interested in his or her own name than in all the other names on earth put together…. Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

This is pure science.  Hearing your name activates unique brain activity that can have hugely positive results. Conversely, not knowing someone’s name can signal a lack of interest in that person. I’m not saying that’s always the case but in the same way being late is often a sign of disrespect, so is not knowing someone’s name.

This led me to a second source. ‘It means something’: When to correct people who get your name wrong
Typically newer immigrants to Canada and the US face this all the time. Lazy people, myself included, who just want a name they’re familiar with want others to change their name to something easy. Sadly immigrants and anyone with a unique name most often comply. This article is about a girl upset with her name and how often people struggle with it. Like many, she is uncomfortable with others discomfort and her solution is to anglicize her name. Her mother’s response is spot on;

“Aduba argued no one at school could pronounce her name. Her mother replied, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

That one hit home. I’ve been guilty of this one. After reading this, I visited my daughter in Toronto and met her roommate “Cher”. I knew that wasn’t her name and asked her what her given name was. She said “Sayitia” but quickly went into an explanation that excused anyone from using her name because it was hard to pronounce. I wrote her name down and said it back to her 3-4 times till I got it right. When I call my daughter now I ask “How’s Sayitia”? She thinks it’s a bit silly but I just determined that if her parents gave her that name, she ought to be able to hear it once in a while. Selfishly in this instance, it’s about my own learning as much as anything but hopefully, it will remind me to do better particularly with more challenging names. 

Finally, the last source is a bit of research I came across a few years back and have incorporated it into a few keynotes. Alan Levine first made me aware of this study

The study essentially tracks the lives of 1st graders to becoming adults. They all are from the same school and had 3 different 1st-grade teachers. The students who had the greatest success as adults were from one particular teacher. Among many things, one very specific difference was noted: Of the students from the 2 classes with lesser success, less than 50% remembered their teachers’ names. 105% of those in Miss A’s class, the teacher who had more success, remembered her name. The reason it was more than 100% was that students who weren’t even in her class thought she was their teacher. 

Eliminating the words rigor and busy from our educational vernacular are perhaps my most proud contributions to education. I want to add “I’m bad at names” to that list as well. I have some work to do on this I hope you’ll join me.

Going Gradeless

I’ve written and presented on assessment many times in the past 2 decades. The trend in education is clear: Most people, if not all, believe grades are a poor representation of learning and yet many can’t figure out how to either de-emphasize or get rid of them entirely. My current grading gig is with Wilkes University. I play the game but I’m clear with my students from the onset I don’t value them at all. To that end, I’ve shifted to full-on self-assessment. Unless someone is completely delusional, whatever grade they justify, they get. I’m not interested in quibbling over a few points here. As graduate students, I’ve yet to find any that are delusional. To that end, my course and I believe any teaching comes down to 3 questions:

What do I know now I didn’t know before?

What can I do now I couldn’t do before?

Why does it matter?

That’s it. For the most part, grades have not been an issue in my teaching. Yet I know so many still struggle not so much from a philosophical perspective but a practical one. I can’t speak to all the barriers that exist so here are several schools and districts who are making this shift. I promised to share them so here they are:

I would be remiss if I didn’t add the great work from our late colleague Joe Bower who championed the gradeless classroom.

What Do You Mean by “Knowledge”?

One of the most frustrating things in education is the tendency to have conversations about ideas and issues when we don’t share the same definitions. We also make false assumptions about what others believe. We spend a lot of time talking past each other. Add to that a tendency to create false dichotomies and instead of working toward understanding and meaning solutions, we follow the ugly trend of today’s political world and polarize people.

Among the topics and questions that fall into this trap include:

I acknowledge that I’ve simplified these debates and those invested in them would likely argue my statements themselves are flawed but you get the gist. One of the challenges falls in how we define things. It’s always a good idea to begin any discussion with the question: “And what do you mean by _____________”

Certainly, the idea of inquiry learning has gained traction worldwide in the past decade, largely because of the Internet. I used the term “inquiry learning” to refer to an approach that allows the learner more agency and choice as well as an expectation that the learner will demonstrate understanding and competency through a variety of measures that extend beyond tests but include but aren’t limited to models, papers, videos and presentions. Access to information means memorizing is less important than it used to be. Acknowledging that this shift means we might need to change how we teach is the work of many people including myself. Criticism suggests that this belief means knowledge isn’t important. While this debate lives in many places I’d like to address a recent tweet and article from Brian Aspinall.

https://twitter.com/mraspinall/status/1080429330151333889

It takes guts to acknowledge critique and I like that Brian wasn’t afraid to share this. I respect his right to ignore it and while there are reasons to fully dismiss his critic, I think there are a few conversations worth having here:

  • What’s difference between knowledge and information?
  • Is the research definitive?
  • Is anyone really advocating for one pedagogy over another?

While much of the article is somewhat sarcastic and disparaging, the author raises some interesting points that warrant discussion. In the article, Bennett writes,

What’s contentious about the edtech evangelists is their rather uncritical acceptance of constructivist pedagogy and utopian belief that “students learn by doing’ and require minimal teacher guidance.  A few, like Brian Aspinall, are ideologues who believe that “knowledge is readily available” on the Internet, so teachers should reject teaching content knowledge and, instead, “teach and model an inquiry approach to learning.”

https://educhatter.wordpress.com/2018/11/05/edtech-evangelism-where-are-coding-evangelists-leading-us/

I know Brian and I know he doesn’t “reject knowledge” or teaching it. What I think needs to be discussed here is the difference between knowledge and information. I would argue that inquiry requires information but leads to knowledge. You can be informed about a topic or concept but that doesn’t necessarily make you knowledgeable.

Let me attempt an example. I’m fairly informed about politics. I read, watch and listen to various outlets and pundits. I know a lot but I would hesitate to say I’m knowledgeable mostly because I’ve not participated in it other than to vote. That’s not to say you have to be involved in something to be knowledgeable but without getting your hands dirty, it’s difficult to consider yourself knowledgeable on most topics. Golf, on the other hand, is something I feel very knowledgeable about. Not only do I spend time reading, listening and watching all aspects of the game from instruction to architecture to equipment to the PGA tour but I play the game as well. I’m not a great player but I know it on a level that those who don’t play or play sparely can’t understand. I feel I could speak with virtually any expert on the game and have a intelligent conversation. My understanding of the game would likely be because of a personal inquiry approach. It certainly required and continues to require information but it goes way beyond that.

So yes, we need content and perhaps today more than ever we need high quality content. I’ve not met anyone who argues this point however I do see some who see no value in textbooks or core resources. This is indeed a dangerous idea as it suggests that the knowledge and expertise of others aren’t important. Textbooks and core resources are supposed to be memorized but used to help create personal knowledge and understanding. What Brian and others, including myself, would say, that content isn’t enough. Content, without context and inquiry isn’t knowledge, it’s information. Most of the advocates for a more content heavy, memorization laden curriculum might cite test scores. Even if they can cobble together data, my argument has always been that tests are great at measuring short-term memory, not necessarily learning. Frank E. Smith from The Book of Learning and Forgetting which might be the best book on learning ever written says this:

Forgetting occurs when we are unable to commit our learning to long-term memory. In the official view of learning, this comes from not being able to understand the content being studied, and only cramming the information for a given task or assessment.

This is by no means a deep analytical review of either Bennett’s article or the bigger issues at play. But it’s these exchanges or critiques that allow us to learn. Here are my reflections:

I think as educators we need to be more precise with language. We see those outside of exchanges toss out terms without knowing the nuances and implications. At the same time, educators are often guilty of this as well. Let’s get in the habit of asking “And what do you mean by __________?” I think it would save us a lot of time and frustration.

2018 Year in Photos and Video

Once again, it almost didn’t happen. Not only have I been less diligent in my photo a day effort but realizing this year’s photo has been dominated by my new love made me thing it would be too boring. Then my wife reminded me how boring other years have been with golf and conference images.

If you doubt how boring those other years were check out the previous 10.

2008
2009
2010 (aka, the year I tried something crazy)
2011
2012
2013
2014
2015
2016
2017

After reading Alan’s annual post I was reminded that it’s not about a streak but a meaningful method to document life. It works for me. I will say the challenge was much greater in the first 4-5 years before mobile phones. Using a camera was sometimes awkward as well as it was far less automated in terms of uploading. Back then, my focus was to be mindful of my world and try to capture things some may find routine. While I still try and practice that, it certainly has become harder after 10s of thousands of photos later. Travelling lots makes this easier. This year was all about Harriet and I have no interest in justifying that to others. There are a number of appearances from my friends, family, colleagues and my network but Harriet was the story of 2018 and if you have 17 minutes maybe you’ll understand why. Get in contact with this corporate video production Sydney for more information.

Digital Citizenship: Where Are We Now?

This tweet was initiated by a few folks who are very smart and who do really good work. 

Katia  I am Stronger

Jennifer  Social Ledia

Bonnie  Experience Required: Walking the Talk in Digital Teaching & Learning

All of their work as I said I believe is really important and you would do well to follow them and their work. Smart people indeed. They offer a positive, useful way of understanding media literacy. However, looking at this from another perspective has me thinking that we’ve adopted a bit of an “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Or “this stuff isn’t going away, let’s make the best of it” or “you can use technology for good or evil, let’s focus on the good” At one time or another I’ve likely used these phrases and even presented on them. However, I do see myself questioning this to some degree. Mostly because there’s somewhat of a conciliatory message that’s being shared. The message that might be being lost here is the overall negative impact and force that we are facing. This perspective is not only born out of my own experiences but certainly the research bares it out. 

I think a couple of things are really important to consider. First, technology is not neutral. I still hear people speak as if it’s just a matter of how we use it. My graduate advisor Rick Schwier, still one of the smartest people I know, helped me understand this very early. If you need convincing, read Postman or McLuhan. If you don’t know who they are, you have some catching up to do. In fact, stop reading this, go read something of their work and come back. Essentially every technology has a bias or intended way to use it. Without question, the apps on your phone and social media, in general, want you using it all the time. While knowing this is critical, it’s also critical to understand that most people aren’t able to fully outwit its inherent power. 

smartphone addicted school teenager boy close up photo


Secondly, things have changed. I’m generally a pretty optimistic person and I think that’s a particularly useful disposition to have in education. Education should be about hope and possibilities. However, when I think about social media and technology in general, I’m seeing less hope and possibly than I did a decade ago. When many of my contemporaries were exploring these spaces, we did so with a child-like innocence to test the waters of what these spaces might offer. The notion of “followers” did not play a role. Communities were smaller and intentions were less clouded with ulterior motives and interests. Like so many things, the Tragedy of the Commons has infiltrated these once-emerging spaces of newness and possibility. While some might be thinking, “it’s all in how you use it or who you connect with” I’m not so sure. Social media is always a weird mix of ideas and people. That’s part of its appeal. But the belief that you can simply filter out the things you don’t want to see is naive or at least getting more and more difficult to do. These spaces allow for any conversation. People might say “I only follow people who only talk about x” Yet as humans, we don’t fully compartmentalize ourselves. While we might talk about education most of the time, we can’t help but talk about other stuff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in fact, I like that but that also invites many unwarranted ideas and conversations to cloud that space. Even if you’re fully able to talk only education, the lack of nuance and emphasis on branding can create a very unsatisfying experience.  For young people, the number of example of suicides related to technology is worth talking about. The research around added stress is worth exploring with students. 

I’ve seen my own children and other teens and young adults recognize the toxic nature that social media exudes. I don’t know of many who don’t see this. Yet, most just live in this and try to filter out what’s important and yet inevidentably get caught up in gossip, political battles of misinformation and feelings of inadequacies. These pitfalls are nearly impossible to weed out of one’s feeds. All of my kids, all between the ages of 20-31 have deleted at least one major social media space: either Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. They don’t regret this choice. 


I suppose what I’m really asking is: 
“What are the trade-offs?”
“What do we potentially gain and lose?”
“What would happen if we taught kids about social media and media literacy and suggested that abstience is an option?”


Let me share a few ideas about how we might think about digital citizenship moving forward. 

  • Continue to think of it as citizenship and not digital. 
    • Spend time reflecting on what it means to be a good citizen. 
  • Cite examples of positive and negative use of technology and social media
    • Get very comfortable with the nuances and reserve judgment. Let kids decide what and if social media has value and where its problematic 
  • Talk about mental health and technology 
    • Explore the research on the brain and stress
    • Engage in experiments of restraints and disconnection
    • Include the adults. This is not exclusively an issue for kids but an issue for everyone 
  • Think carefully about any policies you enact
    • Don’t make it punitive. Even if you conclude you think mobile phones are a distraction, focus on the benefits for students. Allow them to recognize it as a distraction. This isn’t about control but it should be about informed choices. 
    • Be okay with teachers having different policies. Not every discipline warrants the use of technology. If a teacher doesn’t see value, don’t force them to use it. Conversely if a teacher does see value don’t restrict them. 

The closet analogy I can make here is sex education. This isn’t a topic that was always explored in schools. For years it was seen as something outside the purview of K-12 education. When it was introduced, abstinence was the sole focus. Today there is less judgment and more of a focus on providing all the facts and options. While many would adopt the “We know you’re all going to have sex anyway, so here’s how to do it safely” as the dominant approach, I would argue that abstinence likely offers better outcomes for many. I don’t know anyone who said: “I wish I had had more sex when I was a teenager”.  As adults, we know how powerful and amazing sex can be in the right context but we also know the potential damage and problems it can create and the fact that many young teenagers are ill-equipped to handle the consequences. 


So I wonder if moving forward we’ll see a shift in our approach and attitudes towards technology and social media in schools? What changes or at least nuanced tweaks do you think are missing from the current narrative? Maybe this is exactly how many are approaching it. My concern lies with those of us who have experienced the benefits of social media in the past and are struggling to acknowledge it’s not the same as it was a decade ago. There was certainly more innocence, hope and wonder that came with connecting with strangers. As always these are my ramblings, I’m sure others disagree or have alternative views. I’d love to hear them.