This is part of a larger series about Introducing Depth and Complexity
I think that 👄 Language of the Discipline was my second-most-misused prompt of Depth and Complexity. It’s a perfect look at how simply “using the icons” is not our goal. Rather, we should always make sure that Depth and Complexity is pushing students deeper into content.
I’d just take the spelling or vocabulary list from my textbook and plop the language of the discipline icon next to it. But this doesn’t change a thing. Adding an icon on a worksheet doesn’t push students deeper.
Instead, let’s think about what the language of a discipline is all about.
What even is the 👄 Language of a Discipline?
Any field has a set of language that experts use in order to communicate quickly and clearly.
- If you watch an operation, the surgeon blurts out some term, holds her hand out, and a nurse finds the exact tool needed. Everyone in that room knows the language of their discipline.
- Cooks in a kitchen know a set of words and phrases that help them get their jobs done efficiently. Each knife, pot, and plate has a specific name.
- When a police officer hears a code on her radio, she knows what that code means immediately and can respond appropriately.
- As teachers, we have a rich set of language that often includes lots of acronyms: IEP, ELL, RTI and even some numbers-only vocabulary like “504.”
If we don’t know the language of our discipline, we look like complete novices.
Imagine if your doctor told you that your “big leg bone” was broken, or a police officer pulled you over and said “you didn’t flash that thingy when you moved like that,” or a waiter told you the special was “some bird parts put in hot oil for a while.”
If they don’t know the right language, it’s like they don’t know anything. It’s simply impossible to talk about a topic properly without using that discipline’s language. If you’re using emoji for your icons, the 👄 lips are perfect.
Please Define “Discipline”
First! You have to explain what “discipline” means in this context. It’s not “a punishment for breaking a rule”, but rather “a field of study.”
This is actually a fantastic example of the need to define our language before we get started! I once had a student teacher who was troubled by all the talk of “discipline” at our school. She did not realize that discipline has multiple meanings. I wonder how many students and parents made the same mistake but never said anything about it. Words that are obvious to one person can be a mystery to others.
You can introduce Language of the Discipline to students by pretending no one knows the names of anything in the classroom. How confusing would the school day be if we had to describe everything every time? What are terms we use at school to help us communicate quickly and easily?
Likewise, students’ hobbies have essential language. Allow them to share words and phrases that they must know in order to even get started with something they enjoy. Bonus points if this term has another, more common meaning! Example: in basketball, the “key” is a particular spot on the court, not a tool to open a lock.
It’s worth talking to students about the danger of assuming that people know what a specific word means in a specific context. When we don’t define our jargon, we’ll have conversations that run parallel, but don’t actually connect. I wrote about this problem in education.
You could simulate this problem by having different people think that “pencil” means slightly different things. Pencils, pens, crayons, and markers are all very similar, yet also wildly different. Imagine saying “marker” and half the class assumes “Washable Crayola marker” and half assumes “Permanent Sharpie marker.” We’d have a big problem!
We have to all agree on what language of a discipline means before we can use it effectively.
Taking It To Content
Student interests are an easy bridge to start spotting essential language in any field at school.
- In math, words like “product” and “factor” help us to discuss an equation. Symbols are also examples of the language of mathematics. If you don’t know what + or % or ∫ mean, you can’t even begin to communicate.
- Studying a map requires knowing the language of cartography: compass rose, key, longitude and latitude, and perhaps elevation. We also need to know the symbols on a map.
- Even PE has essential language. Boy it would be hard to play basketball well without knowing language like: free throw, three-pointer, foul, dribble, and key (a different meaning from cartography and also not the thing in your pocket!)
- Stories have essential language. I often use The Giving Tree to introduce the prompts. There are two levels of language in a story:
- There’s the language that the author chose. Words that are important in the story. The word “boy” is essential to The Giving Tree, for example.
- Then there’s the language of story-telling; words like setting, plot, rising action, climax, theme, and so on.
As you begin a lesson, consider what words, phrases, acronyms, and symbols your students need to know in order to effectively communicate. This is the language of the discipline you’re teaching.
Always Raise The Thinking
Like any prompt of Depth and Complexity, the purpose is to change our students interactions with content. Our kids should go deeper than before. This means staying away from the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Do not just ask “What is the 👄language of this discipline?” Do not just have kids define words. Climb Bloom’s to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize.
- Compare and contrast the same words across multiple disciplines.
- Evaluate the relative importance of five words.
- Judge which word or phrase has changed the most over time?
As I’ve written before, just using depth and complexity isn’t enough. We must make sure that we’re really pushing students to new levels of thinking and understanding.