Recently, the world was saddened and shocked by the suicide of beloved actor and comedian Robin Williams. What particularly struck me while meandering through the ensuing social-media commentary is the use of euphemism, especially around the subject of death, epitomized by the now-near-legendary tweet from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (“The Academy” on Twitter): “Genie, you’re free”.
While euphemism has a definite role in dealing with difficult subjects (like death and suicide), it started me down a trail of thought about how these linguistic shape-shifters are also used freely by advertisers, media, and government. Not one to subscribe to every conspiracy theory that comes along, I understand that the use of euphemism isn’t inherently nefarious, but is usually used to increase the user’s influence.
Such a language shift is happening in the Out-of-School-Time world today, and it’s a language morph that we, as the field, need to take seriously. I am talking about the current near-ubiquitous usage of the phrase “Expanded Learning.” This phrase has brought the OST world to a significant fork in the road, and the resulting choice will alter the landscape of not only what children and youth of the future will do in their afterschool hours, but will fundamentally affect how we, as a culture, think about the nature and basis of our system of education in the United States.
Back in 2009, President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan floated a proposal to extend the total time American students spend in school — both in terms of a longer school day and a longer school year. Using the fear-based language of an America “disadvantaged” compared to other nations in terms of smarts, they laid out their case, and, as one might guess, were met with opposition from almost every corner (teachers, parents, students, state governments). The proposals proceeded with very limited, scattered and scaled-down responses from schools.
It is at this point that we began to hear the phrase “Expanded Learning” creep into the out-of-school-time lexicon. If the states didn’t have the political will or stomach to bear the additional disapproval of the citizenry around lengthening traditional schooling, then they would sneak it in the back door and co-opt out-of-school-time.
I mean, on the surface, who would oppose such a grand-sounding idea as “Expanded Learning?” Everyone is for learning! Everyone is for expansion! Even dyed-in-the-wool traditional OST Youth Development programs could get behind this, right? Now that the idea of a longer school day was couched in the phrase “expanded learning” to oppose it would seem as though you were trying to hold kids back and make America more stupid than the media and government fear-mongers already want you to believe we are.
The fact is that quality out-of-school-time programs had already been doing “expanded learning” for years. As early as 1990, these expanded learning principles were already being honed and scribed by the pioneering professional clearinghouses of the day (National Institute for Out of School Time, National School Age Care Alliance, California School-Age Consortium, among others). The emerging OST field was ripe with opportunity and growth, mainly because they were uniquely positioned to combine social-emotional learning with cognitive learning in an informal learning atmosphere.
So, what’s the difference between now and then? Simply this: back then, “expanded learning” was couched in the nurturing arms of the “whole child” paradigm borrowed from quality preschool education platforms. In the growth days of OST, “expanded learning” was balanced with an understanding of the social, physical and emotional needs of children and youth and driven by philosophies straight out of the playbooks of the “giants” of child development: Montessori, Erickson, Bandura, and others.
Sadly, today, “expanded learning” is driven by our government-fueled fear of inadequacy which has turned intelligence into a global competition. It is funded in a way that threatens to drive youth-centered philosophies over the cliff and into the ocean of history. Many would argue that our schools are broken or in some serious need of reinvention. My position is that it makes no sense to try and reform a misfiring education system by dragging the OST world into a new “expanded learning” paradigm that would open the door for similar dysfunction during after-school hours.