The ridiculous horseless carriage When the language we use limits our understanding

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.

Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf ‘s insightful quote about language and thought has always struck me as one of the most accurate descriptions of the limitations of human thinking. Anyone who has learnt a language other than their own understands that speaking another language allows you to understand, not only what foreigners are saying, but also the way they think and the reasons for their actions.

Speaking a foreign language therefore allows you shift from one paradigm – one way of thinking – to another.

As people we are all limited by the way we think and are sometimes unable to see beyond our thoughts.  As teachers and educators, however, we should aim to understand such limitations so that we are able to overcome them.

But we are not always successful in doing so, especially when it comes to teaching and learning with new technologies. Thinking inside more familiar paradigms makes us see the world as it was, rather than as it is. Thinking inside these paradigms is what makes us mock the tweeting teacher and the texting teenager.

New technologies have changed the nature of work and business by revolutionising the way we communicate. In doing so, they are challenging the way we do education. As teachers and educators we must endeavour to learn this language so that we are able to understand the needs and expectations of today’s students, how they think and why they act.

For example, inside the old paradigm it may make sense to ridicule the youngster tapping furiously into his mobile device and accuse him of seeking instant gratification from pointless social networks. We all know that teacher. We’ve been in that staff room.

However, shift your paradigm and you begin to understand that the that youngster is only indulging is his desire for communication. Social media is the 21st century expression of humanity’s desire and need for communication.

And social media and the technologies enabling it are here to stay, so we had better stop laughing at the ridiculous horseless carriage and start learning the new language of education if we wish to remain relevant in our students’ increasingly digital lives.

What do you think?


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  1. I fully agree. There are some social media sites that I have signed up for, not necessarily to pursue my own interests but more from a perceived need to see how they work and how people (my students) might use them. Others sites have indeed helped me see beyond my own thoughts; without twitter, I never would have made it here.

  2. I agree with this, but worth keeping in mind that some students have been so trained to not use social media as a resource in education, that they only see it as a possible distraction from the ‘traditional’ course. See my post at: on this very topic. Thanks for the post.

  3. I agree with this, but worth keeping in mind that some students have been so trained to not use social media as a resource in education, that they only see it as a possible distraction from the ‘traditional’ course. See my post at: on this very topic. Thanks for the post.

  4. I like your analogy to languages, and completely agree that we need to be educating teachers too.

    In my experience, though, teachers aren’t laughing at the horseless carriage, but doing one of two things. 

    The first group don’t know enough technology to see the horseless carriage to laugh at it.  Distinctions between “Save” and “Save as …” are still not 100% clear.  This I think is a simple lack of professionalism.  Their skills are outdated and as such they can’t engage. 

    The second, and to me far more bizarre, group are those who embrace the horseless carriage for their social life but do not make the link that it could be useful in their professional life.  These are staff who happily use facebook and iphones and goodies like those to hook up with friends or shop, but insist their students use worksheets in lessons.

    In a way, it makes me think that the problem is not technology and learning the language, but professional curiosity and whether teachers are good learners or not.

    1. And then of course there’s the students themselves who, at age 16, having been brought up on a diet of worksheets, pen and lined paper, aren’t able to see how social media can benefit their own education. They are often the first to denounce new technologies as a distraction and a hindrance rather than a help.

      As regards the teachers, I do see where your coming from but I am uncertain as to whether I am ready to call those who are not (yet) seeing the benefits and potential – as well as the dangers and pitfalls – of using new technologies in their classrooms as unprofessional.Many colleagues in the teaching profession do, however, like you point out, remain pedagogically unconvinced about the value of all this newfangled technology. I agree with you that more time and attentions could be dedicated to professional development in many of these cases.

      Thanks for your comment Piers.

  5. The technology is just a tool. The important thing is connecting with people. To that extent I agree with your comment Graham. However, I am interested in the technology itself… but that’s just me! I understand not everyone is.

    Thanks for your comment.

    1. I used to be fascinated by the technology – the language lab in the 1960s and computers from around 1976. But I mellowed with age, and now I am only interested in how the technology can make my life easier or more enjoyable – which indeed it does. My iPhone and my satnav device in my car certainly make my life easier and more enjoyable while I am on the move.

      I am still surprised, however, by the poor knowledge that teachers have of essential tools such as Word, PowerPoint and Excel. For instance, I never write an article or prepare a PowerPoint presentation without using the drafting and organising features of the Word Outliner. And I always use stylesheets when writing in Word. When I was in full-time teaching I managed my students’ mark sheets with Excel and, as director of a university language centre, I used Excel to manage my budgets. But I often see articles written in Word by teachers who still use the space bar to centre headlines or indent paragraphs!

Your feedback and comments are very welcome