A very important aspect of education is the way in which information is presented. If we present things in a very disorganized and haphazard way, students tend not to learn as well as they would if we present things more clearly. Clarity is not the only facet of presenting information to consider. Categorization makes a big difference, it shapes the ways students form understandings.

There is not a single right way to categorize information (hence the existence of so many different taxonomies within the same subjects), but different groupings can lead to very different learning outcomes. For example, let’s say a teacher presented students with a list of previous political leaders like this: Pol Pot, Benito Mussolini, Kim Il-sung, Jozef Stalin, George W. Bush, Adolf Hitler, and Saddam Hussein.

It is factually true that all of these people could be considered political leaders at one point in time. I would not argue against any one of those figures being classified as a “previous political leader.” However, this grouping results in another kind of categorization. There is a pattern of genocidal behavior that is clear in this list, and including Bush as a member of it is making a strong implication about his character and actions. An implication, I would argue, that is misleading and wrong to make.

If I were to present information like this, it is likely that it would strongly affect the ways my students thought about Bush. (FYI My students are <16, S. Korean, and live in S. Korea.) It might not even be a conscious thought, it might just become a feeling of an association in their minds. But that association isn’t the most accurate one for me to be building in them. Bush really wasn’t like Hitler and I shouldn’t present him as if he was, even subtly.

It is very difficult to find hidden implications in the way we, as teachers, categorize information for our classrooms. I wrote about this when I discussed the hidden curriculum. The “find your own biases” game is a hard one to play. However, a list of examples does present something you could analyze fairly easily. One can look at items on such a list and note what other features those items have, besides fitting the original list. It might turn out that one of these things really doesn’t belong.


Note: I read something that prompted me to write a post about it. As I started writing, it quickly got out of hand. Instead of just addressing that thing, it evolved into an entire post about values in education, another post about the hidden curriculum, and now this. I was really going to actually talk about the original source here, but I had one more related point that I wanted to argue first. (Basically, at this point I am writing four posts about one word in one sentence somewhere that I think shouldn’t have been there, and I haven’t even gotten to that sentence yet.)

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.

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