February 25, 2024

Confronting a Cliché

Just returned home from speaking at another large international conference where meaningless clichés filled the air and rolled off of people’s tongues. Aside from being boring, clichés oversimplify complex issues and distract us from making forward progress. Clichés are a tranquilizer that retard our thinking and decision-making. Clichés amplify the superficial and form of a vapor barrier around powerful ideas.

Sometimes, the clichés are not even true. Yet, they still manage to become a community standard.

One particularly pernicious cliché goes something like this.

“We all have so much to learn from our students.”

Variations on this theme include:

“The kids are so much smarter than us.”

“My students know so much more than me.”

“They are the digital natives. We are digital immigrants.”

The motivation behind uttering such banalities is likely positive. It acknowledges that children are competent and encourages adults to learn with them.

However, these clichés suggest a power relationship in which all adults (particularly teachers) are resigned to the role of bumbling TV dad while the kids rule the roost. In education, this often serves as a justification for why teachers irrationally fear computers and modernity or appear to have stopped learning.

The cliché diminishes the value of expertise and effort for adults and young people alike.

Let me state clearly that I have no problem learning from anyone or any experience. I love learning with and from children. Nothing delights me more than when we co-construct some meaning. I just don’t go into classrooms thinking I am dumber than my students. I have experience, expertise, knowledge, wisdom, insights and a better Rolodex than they do.

My old friend Branford Marsalis is widely considered one of the world’s greatest musicians. He is also a very fine educator.

In the documentary, Before the Music Dies, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Branford Marsalis was asked to share what he has learned from his students.

This one-minute clip may surprise you.

I look forward to the discussion…

16 thoughts on “Confronting a Cliché

  1. Hi Gary, sorry I missed your presentation at ISTE this year, it was certainly on my list!

    Interesting post. Like you, I find cliches tiresome–they tend to elicit the sarcastic “Really?” from most people who came searching for how and leave with the same old reasons why. However, I find generalizations to be equally as tiresome. And while I have little doubt that Mr. Marsalis is an outstanding teacher, generalizations such as the one he makes are as meaningless to me as the cliches that you write about. Neither of them help.

    With your positive endorsement of him, I wish Mr. Marsalis would have answered what he learned from his kids rather than turning it into another pointless generation bash that helped me absolutely not at all. I am sure that despite his passionate evaluation of the current generation, he has learned something from his students that is more constructive than what he presented. Because not unlike a cliche-laden presentation such as some of those at ISTE, I watched the video and felt a little bit worse about education rather than a little bit better. For me, that is not helpful.

    Again, heard great things about your presentation!

  2. Cale,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond.

    Is it our responsibility to make you feel better about education?

    How do you know what one person learns from another (especially from a short video clip of a stranger)?

    Don’t we seriously devalue paying dues when we pretend that everyone’s opinions or experience are equivalent?

    BTW: I don’t think that Marsalis’ message is devoid of meaning or merely a glib attack on his students. We live in a culture in which Jerry Seinfeld described American Idol by saying, “I’m 17! Why am I not huge?”



  3. Thanks for your quick response.

    I guess when you write in your post,

    “In the documentary, Before the Music Dies, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Branford Marsalis was asked to share what he has learned from his students.”

    I was led to believe that you were highlighting “what he has learned from his students”.

    If your goal was for you to understand what you wrote, you achieved it magnificently!


    PS. It is your job to make me feel better about education. Clearly.

  4. Although stated more bluntly than most educators are comfortable with, Marsalis at least indicates one of the most troubling trends I see in working with teachers: an inability to state the true ability (or inability) of the students they work with related to the subject or skills being taught. When Marsalis said that his students are full of shit, the hidden sub-context of that is that his students have been blown full of hot air about their current status for mastery of learning or demonstration of skills by well intending educators and adults in their lives. And it often is not as blatant as outward deceit and lies told to children, but every time a professional educator withholds their most honest evaluation of a student related to the student’s demonstration of learning, they inflate the ego of students who have no personal barometer of mastery of many skills by which they could honestly assess themselves.

  5. You just said what I have been thinking for so long. THANKS. While I learned a ton at ISTE I was continually disappointed by many, many people referring to us as unthinking educators who didn’t know what we were doing. We were there because we are interested, curious and yes, knowledgeable about education technology. I appreciate your post.

  6. The video, while blunt, does bring up a great point. One of the things I like most about the movement towards standards-based education is that the student has a goalpost by which to measure their own progress. Our school has committed to department-wide rubrics in common language so students can actually see how well they’re doing at the beginning of an instructional unit and how much they’ve improved at the end. Even a student who comes in with the idea that they should be recognized for their innate greatness will have a tough time justifying not improving over the course of a semester.

    Also, love the Seinfeld quote – it encapsulates certain of my students’ attitudes perfectly!

  7. I agree with Katy – we are ready for more meat. I wasn’t at ISTE this year, but my experience last year was similar (and prompted me to write a blog post similar to this a few days ago). Well said, Gary. I appreciate your insight.

  8. Well, I am not one of those teachers who thinks she is dumber than her students. I certainly know more tan they do. What sort of brainwashing of teachers is occurring when the adult not only believes this, but also admits it publicly?! Come On Son!

    As for Branford Marsalis, I agree. Students have been thoroughly brainwashed too. Many seem to believe that no matter how poor their work and effort is, the adults will find a way to raise their self-esteem and give them an award, so they don’t feel badly about not getting an award. I think today’s education, in so many ways, breeds the sort of mediocrity of which Branford Marsalis speaks.

  9. Hey Gary, I am completely on board with the cliche piece…. And I would extend this to include other generalizations. To me, to state that “all students are full of it” is no better/worse than sayings he cliche that all students are digital natives.

    I agree that many students look for the prize when doing things – whether it be praise, or the grade – and this is a result of manynof the things we have taught them… we need to do better with our students and be careful with things like praise and grades (I know, nothing profound here).

    My concern has to do with the “kids these days” mentality as that does little to understand our students and more to create more cliches and further generalizations.

    Thanks for getting me thinking…. Again.

  10. Love the push to be thoughtful and critical, even of the so called experts. I am concerned that without a commitment to on going and in depth conversation, all presentations and videos MUST simplify complex issues. That is perhaps the greatest folly of how we continue to conference with others. Likewise, the greatest hindrance to individual teachers growth is their resistance to a growth mindset and the need for them to continue to learn after being given their “expert” degree. I fear that without the context of your powerful years of conversations, most of my colleagues will simplify that video into an affirmation of their own power within a classroom. They will continue to ignore the facts and research about learning, close their minds and doors to anything they don’t already know, and disassociate all responsibilty for the motivation of learners. Thx for always being a lightening rod Gary.

  11. While I agree with Mr. Marsalis that “grade inflation” is an issue, I also see students working hard and doing amazing things every day. In our district as well as in others.
    I agree that sometimes keynote presentation and other talks degenerate into cliche’s and you are right to point that out. I also firmly believe that there are many great ideas shared and conversations that lead to collaboration and improvement of education, and those should be shared as well. So my question is, what was your “#EduWin” at ISTE? What surprised you? What did you learn? What were the positive stories? Did you find any?
    Too often, the media and we as fellow educators point out the failings of our educational system. Sometimes, it is rightfully so. But we also need to focus on the positive things that are happening, too. I look forward to hearing those comments from you as well.

  12. While I’d be the first person to advocate for a system that empowers learners, I also see the caveat that you raise here. Empowerment borders close to entitlement, they aren’t the same but often times the two ideas merge and that’s dangerous.

    Gary, you and I both share I love for listening to artists describe and share their craft. I could listen to expert musicians and athletes talk for hours about the nuances and thought process and effort that goes into creating quality work or skills. I’m humbled by that. It also makes me respect them even more.

    As educators we need our students to feel the same way about us. Certainly, we recognize we aren’t expert in everything and have the responsibility to connect our students to all kinds of experts but at the core, we need to be able to empower our students and not fuel a sense of entitlement about how awesome they are.

    As a golfer, i’m confident in my abilities but am also quick to point out the vast number of people who are much more skilled than I and revel in the opportunity to learn from them. Seems like the right forumla for learning for students as well.

  13. I appreciate what you say about clichés in general (“Clichés amplify the superficial and form of a vapor barrier around powerful ideas”) and one cliché in particular, the cliché that our students know so much more than we do.

    Michael John Demiashkevich wrote in his Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1935), “An old schoolmaster dedicated his book to all his old pupils, at whose expense, he said, he had learned everything he knew about education. This is either a case of exaggerated modesty or it is a belated confession of incompetence. It is necessary to distinguish strictly between broadmindedness and ignorance.”

    I find a lot of truth in Marsalis’s words, too. He isn’t just talking about kids and their arrogance. He’s talking about a “massive state of delusion” where “the idea of being what you are is more important than you actually being that.” The reality is much harder to attain than the idea–so people are content to live in the idea, so long as everyone is nodding along.

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