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Size Matters and Stealing Can Be Good

Long ago, my Granddaddy said that the best things said are said with precision and brevity. His learning objects often were Shakespearean: “He who steals my purse steals trash…” (Othello), and “Neither a borrower nor lender be…” (Hamlet).  Today our compulsion to communicate with words and video, and the technology and social demands driving it, favor clarity and brevity if we hope to be effective teachers and leaders. Even scholars use social media to augment conclusions from findings published in scientific journals, generally paragons of neither brevity nor clarity, to get word of their work out.  Today’s proliferation of tweets, twits, twerps, and blogs demonstrates our cognitive preference for clear and rapid sensemaking of what we read, see, and hear (see Klein, Moon, & Hoffman, 2006a, 2006b).

I’ve always been a less-is-more kind of guy. Keep it simple but, if detailed complexities are required, knock yourself out.  Consider Columbia sociology professor Gil Eyal’s (2013) 44-page article advancing the idea that, for several decades, highly contextualized knowledge socially transmitted among numerous professional and lay groups helped form an enormous treatment culture around autism. Arguing a point of view about complex issues often justifies a few thousand words.

Presumably Eyal needed all of his words but most of us don’t.  Granddaddy said one precise word is worth 100 amorphous ones. Years later, in an editorial for Education Week, then Boston University education dean Edward Delattre wrote: “Words and phrases used repeatedly without reasoned consideration are inert; powerless to capture reality; doomed to obscure truth, complexity, and subtlety; and therefore destined to mislead those who take them as substitutes for thinking” (Delattre, 1997, p. 36). Little precision and lots of parroting characterize much of the literature produced these days. Our conversations are worse: lots of acronyms, lots of banalities (hearing, “in terms of” makes my skin crawl), and lots of insular “club” phrases (“He’s a Tier 2 kid, he definitely needs to be IEP’d.”) isolate rather than unify us across our professional communities because people outside our exclusive clubs probably don’t understand what the hell we’re saying.

This is unfortunate in two ways.  First, the reader’s effort is for naught since s/he takes little away from the brief connection s/he has had with you the writer.  Worse, you have not given the reader an opportunity to steal from you (see Brown & Duguid, 1996).  Learning theorist John Seely Brown and his colleagues advanced constructivist theory with their work in “situated cognition” (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1985, p. 32), wherein they regard learning in the absence of useful application and enactment contexts as suspended in molasses. British mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, called knowledge imparted without regard to context “dead knowledge…(and) inert ideas” (1929, preface), and “scraps of information never connected or utilised” (Whitehead, 1929, p. 64).

In contrast, Brown and colleagues view learning as highly contextualized around the learner’s engagement in his or her own problem-solving and his or her intuitive urge to “steal” what s/he needs to know in order to solve the problem or perform the task. We teach and write expecting learners and readers to absorb the world as we view it but, instead, they assimilate the information as imparted, and either dismiss it or accommodate it to the specific contextual demands they face.  We don’t typically know what those demands and accommodations are.  Granddaddy would say that, to assume we do or can, is arrogant, egotistic, and perhaps even narcissistic.  Instead, our responsibility as writers and teachers is to be precise and succinct, allowing learners to do what they do because, then, they are free to steal what they need from us without fear of lock-up in the jail of wordy obscurity.


Brown, J.S., & Duguid, P. (1996). Stolen knowledge. In H. McLellen (Ed.). Situated learning perspectives (pp. 47-56). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Education Researcher, 18, 32-41.
Delattre, E. (1997, January 22). Psitticism and dead language, Education Week, p. 36.
Eyal, G. (2013). For a sociology of expertise: The social origins of the autism epidemic.  American Journal of Sociology, 118, 863-907.
Klein, G., Moon, B. and Hoffman, R.F. (2006a). Making sense of sensemaking I: Alternative perspectives. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 70–73.
Klein, G., Moon, B. and Hoffman, R.F. (2006b). Making sense of sensemaking II: A macrocognitive model. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(5), 88–92.
Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The aims of education and other essays. NY: Macmillan.


Earle Knowlton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education, specializing in human-computer interaction as it pertains to teacher quality and development. He is also Principal Investigator for the Social Tele-Coaching Project, a 3-year research grant funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, that is examining the viability and potency of remote, covert coaching of students with emotional and behavior disorders who are learning the general education curriculum in general education classrooms.

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