What’s in a definition?

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If you dismiss the applicability of evidence to education on the grounds that it is ‘phallic‘ or ‘positivist‘ or whatever, then what else can you draw upon to support your position? One answer is to borrow authority from others.

Sometimes professors invoke Dewey and Vygotsky in hushed tones. Another tactic is to reference regulations and teaching standards to support, for example, a flawed model of differentiation.

A curious recent example has been the use of the definition of decode in the Australian Curriculum by phonics skeptics. In 2018, Misty Adoniou, Brian Cambourne and Robyn Ewing used this definition to throw shade on a proposal to supply school children with ‘decodable’ texts. Decodable texts are early readers with a controlled set of grapheme-phoneme relationships – the relationship between letters or sets of letters and their corresponding sounds – so that children are not asked to read any words that contain relationships they have not yet been taught.

More recently, David Hornsby relied upon the same definition of decode in a podcast that was later critiqued by Pam Snow. The Australian Curriculum definition of decode used by Adoniou et al. and Hornsby was:

A process of working out a meaning of words in a text. In decoding, readers draw on contextual, vocabulary, grammatical and phonic knowledge. Readers who decode effectively combine these forms of knowledge fluently and automatically, and self-correct using meaning to recognise when they make an error.

This whole language definition of decoding, with its use of multiple cues (ie anything but phonics) was presumably put into the Australian Curriculum by someone who agrees with the Adoniou et al. and Hornsby side of the argument and so invoking it is entirely circular. It doesn’t prove anything.

However, in an interesting development, the definition of decode in the Australian Curriculum has now changed to:

A process of efficient word recognition in which readers use knowledge of the relationship between letters and sounds to work out how to say and read written words.

Will the views of phonics skeptics change accordingly? I doubt it, but it is amusing. If the Australian Curriculum was an authoritative source previously then why is it not an authoritative source now?

Perhaps we should get back to basing our arguments on actual evidence.


12 thoughts on “What’s in a definition?

  1. Michael Pye says:

    Have you heard of Agrippa’s trilema Greg? It defines three foundations of knowledge one of which is circular reasoning.
    This was why Socrates was so keen to argue premises and definitions in order to explore and control an argument. I know you can find definition arguments tiresome but they appear to me unavoidable.

    • I think it is reasonably important to have clear definitions of technical terms like ‘decode’. For instance, I have spent time clarify the definition of ‘explicit teaching’ in order to point out that the kind of explicit teaching that is supported by the evidence is neither lecturing nor something that can be incorporated into inquiry learning.

      However, the vast majority of definitional arguments I encounter are used as a way of avoiding conceding a point. For instance, when my article for the Chartered College’s Impact magazine was rejected, the College tweeted that none of the reviewers had taken issue with my opinions. When I released the reviews it was clear that they had. Rather than concede the point, supporters of the College then started questioning the definitions of ‘taking issue’ and ‘opinions’ etc.

  2. Michael Pye says:

    I agree with you. The trilema illuminates why this happens. As you have said before we can only think with what we know (or easily accept arguments that we recognise) add in an inability to deal with dissonance and the way people react is very predictable. Socrates focused on making people question their own definitions in order to get them to reconsider their arguments. I agree it’s annoying I am arguing it’s an unavoidable part of communication that we can be prepared for. The trilema is sometimes named after baron Munchausen in reference to pulling himself up by his own hair. It is the legitimate basis for a belief in the subjectivity of knowledge though the key is that it only applies to our initial assumptions. Your example shows this, the definition of decoding used logically leads to a specific answer so arguing about that definition is essential and I would say practically unavoidable.

  3. I think arguing definitions is generally a sign of a waste of time. Discussing them is worthwhile, you are either clearing up what you mean or what they mean.

    But once you find you are debating a definition someone is either trying to suggest you mean what they want you to mean or that a word must mean exactly what they want despite it being commonly used in other ways.

    In Greg’s case someone is suggesting a third party is using “opinion” in a way most people would not expect. Perhaps it is worth asking why they are being so charitable but it is a warning sign that most likely they are not asking themselves that question and won’t.

    • Michael Pye says:

      Harry consider the issue in general rather than with a specific case. We all think we are right and the other side wrong. If an argument is anchored in logic (even partially) than the definitions used will matter a lot. This is not being charitable it is simply a factor in communication. When I ride my bicycle i have to deal with a lot of bad driving but by understanding other peoples behavior I can protect myself and manipulate the outcome. I obviously also get mad a lot and swear though that rarely makes me feel better and it certainly doesn’t help me stay alive. Please consider reading about the trilemia as it is illuminating that this problem has been so well known for so long. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Münchhausen_trilemma

      • I am not saying definitions don’t matter. Just that when they come up you are either clarifying because you want to ensure everyone is referring to the same thing or arguing because one party wants to insist some party uses or was using a particular definition. My claim is when it is an argument it is usually a waste of time.

        I don’t see the trilemma as an exciting an idea as you do. All good arguments rely on some axioms – my memory is not so imperfect, the laws of physics won’t change radically overnight and so on.

        All good philosophers will agree both that nothing is absolutely certain and that the sun will rise tomorrow is a very good bet.

  4. It’s great to see the definition revised in the Australian Curriculum, but nothing has changed in the Victorian Curriculum leaving David Hornsby and friends to continue on their merry way misleading thousands of teachers.

  5. Michael Pye says:

    Harry the trilema is obvious that’s the point. The recognition that this issue has been studied for so long can be powerful though. When you seperate clarifying definitions from arguing about them you are really distinguishing between audiences, it is obviously more please try to debate with someone who agrees, or at least understands your point.
    While it is irritating arguing with someone who is using a different definition, that you feel is ridiculous, but that disagreement is at the heart of your different conclusions.

    We all give up trying to convince people, who we don’t believe are worth the effort, but if we insist on not arguing the definition than we are the ones deciding not to engage in logical discussion (I don’t care if they are as well, we are responsible for our behaviour not theirs). I would rather encourage us to admit that we have really given up on the argument due to frustration (which is often reasonable). In summary we are confusing a symptom for the cause.

    • To what end are you arguing a definition? It is just what we mean by some combination of sounds or letters. If you and I want a word to mean different things what is important is that I understand what you mean not that I agree with it.
      Take “direct instruction” I could argue based on the dictionary definitions of the two words that this involves no questions or practice but is a one way dialogue where someone gives very direct instructions. But that is not what Greg means and he is quite clear what he is referring to. I am not going to change what he is talking about by arguing what the words should mean to him.

  6. Michael Pye says:

    Stan you missed the point. When people acrimoniously argue they often don’t understand each others point (which is based on their assumptions which often rely on definitions). I often talk about explicit Vs implicit teaching to my colleagues and defining ideas matters. If you can get someone to understand that most traditionalist teachers prefer the term explicit than you sidestep, or mitigate political counter arguments, if you can get a constructivist to realise that cognitive science agrees that students need to think about ideas to learn them but that can be done through well chosen examples than you are more likely to convince them to reconsider or shift their position slightly. By not respecting and understanding the other person’s position we become the problem. This doesn’t mean agreeing with them or embracing subjectivity but it does mean accepting that the other person is thinking about the issue differently because their assumptions and knowledge base is different. You also have to factor in that your position might need modifying.

    • Yes I missed the point. I thought we were arguing the value of arguing definitions but in an ironic twist it seems we don’t agree on what that means.

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