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High School Connections Blog by Head of High School Steve Soden

Learning to Construct Meaning in the Digital Age

In a recent twelfth grade IB English class I visited, Mark Childs’ students gave presentations on the impact of euphemistic language and how the meaning of language can be altered and used as a tool (or weapon) for changing how people think. These presentations demonstrated the students’ ability to make sense of language and find what the writer truly wants the reader to think. My immediate take-away: I have a tough time imagining a skill more important for high school students than this.

In a very real way, our students inhabit, and will inherit, a world very different from the one their parents and I inhabited when we were their age. Language has been used to influence people since the dawn of, well, language. With the advent of the internet, and the constant access to information that comes with it, it is imperative that students learn to evaluate what they read and hear. So, while Mr. Childs’ students obviously understood the texts they read, he asked them to take their understanding one step further and apply it to real-life examples.

We have all heard words phrases like “24-hour news cycle” and “clickbait,” but I wonder if we have paused long enough to consider the impact of these realities on how our children make sense of the world around them. When we do not take the time to reflect on the language we read and hear, however, we cede control to those who do.

The students’ presentations were given through the lens of George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” There is some irony in this, as the term “Orwellian” has been used euphemistically by politicians from all parts of the political spectrum. In fact, this is Orwell’s point: when language loses a specific meaning, it can be used to dictate thought.

As I listened to these presentations, I was struck by the students’ awareness and understanding of the power of language, and so I walked away from the class feeling confident in their ability to navigate the world that awaits them. They took the time to consider what politicians and advertisers want us to think when they use carefully chosen language. As an example, one of the students chose to examine the phrase “tax reform,” which connotes something completely different than what takes place in practice. Yet, it seems to be a central talking point in nearly every election! The question, then, is whether the average voter is able to sift through that language and make a truly informed decision.

Educational reformer John Dewey’s philosophy was based on the idea that a primary purpose of education is to prepare students to be contributors to a functional democracy. Like it or not, our children now live in the era of “fake news,” where they will be forced to put their skills to use on a daily basis. This is not a reality that awaits our children in the future; it is reality now. We are preparing our students to exist in a world where savvy consumers and evaluators of information will be rewarded and those who are unequipped for such realities will be taken advantage of.

To borrow an age-old idea (later adopted by Spiderman): “with great power comes great responsibility,” and graduates of MCDS will have an extremely powerful tool at their disposal. They will know how language can be used to construct—and destruct—meaning. They will have the ability to resist undue influence, but they will also have the ability to influence others. Thus, I am confident that they will take with them not only the skills learned in class, but the values put forward in the IB Learner Profile. As evidenced in English class, our students have great power, and it may be the greatest gift we can give them.

2 Comments

  1. Steve: You are right — Language since Day One has been used to influence, persuade, manipulate, etc. The connection between language and thought and action is a connection that all participants of a democracy need to not only know or understand; rather, they must actively uncover and unravel this connection as they are doing in Mr. Childs’ classroom. Thank you for sharing!

  2. I agree, Steve, that this kind of awareness of how language is used ranks at the top of what we want students to develop in high school and beyond. Time and again, researchers – and thoughtful employers – stress the importance of critical thinking and effective oral and written communication skills as the basis for personal and professional success. Exercises such as the one you described hone these skills elegantly. Kudos to you and your colleagues.

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