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Call me a pedantic semantic, but “America“ does not belong to the USA nor should the names be used interchangeably.

I reflected on this at least twice [1] [2] in the past. I only had the benefit of inputs from the people I interacted with when I lived in the US. Now I also have this informative and funny video.

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The Map Men took a jaunty walk down history to explain why politicians in the US did their best to obtain a map that first labelled the Americas “America”. The US conveniently overlooked how the label of “America” was on what is now Brazil.

Sidetrack: If the US needs a name more apt, I would borrow one from the list provided by the Map Men — The Land of the Rising Gun.

Now “America” is practically synonymous with the USA. This ignores the fact that there are so many other countries in “America”.

A linguist might ask: If common use has redefined a word, why fight against it? Mine is not a linguistic or semantic argument. It is a philosophical and practical one.

For example, assessment is not the same as evaluation; gamification is not the same as game-based learning; the flipped classroom is not the same as flipping learning processes. I leave my previous reflections to define these terms and phrases for me.

The words we use can create shared meaning or sow confusion. I would rather do the former as part of my philosophy of teaching. We then act on what we understand and believe, i.e., there are practical consequences.

For example, a poorly informed instructional designer might develop a learning package that “gamifies” learning with a multiple choice quiz that rewards students with extrinsic rewards if they complete this assessment outside of class.

If this designer does this for an edtech company that sells the package as game-based flipped learning, they are selling lies. These lies become more common and acceptable if they are not challenged.

I might seem pedantic about semantics on the surface. But dig deeper and you will discover that my objections have pedagogical roots.

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I do not need to go very deep in this reflection. It is appalling how companies and states in the USA resort to extrinsic rewards and motivation to get more people vaccinated.

Cognitively I understand how this is a strategy to push the numbers closer to herd immunity. But I also understand how this rewards those who were hesitant or reluctant earlier. I understand that those who get vaccinated now might do so for the wrong reasons.

I understand the difference between asking “What is in it for me?” vs “What is good for all of us?” I understand that doing one (relying on rewards and self interest) is easier than the other (educating all about the public good). I understand how this shapes a people and defines context. 

I also understand how/why media companies highlight the negative to grab attention. But I also understand there are elements of truth in what they tell and sell. Ultimately, I understand that when you treat people like small children, it is hard to take those people seriously even if they claim to grow up.

Two days ago, I reminisced on my family’s time in the USA. Yes, the USA, not America.

Earlier this year, I explained why I insist on using “the USA” instead of “America”. My fuel then was a combination of geographical technicality and social inclusion.

Now I have more fuel in the form of YouTube videos. “America” is tainted — selective lenses from the press and social media bubbles sometimes sow doubt and disunity about These United States.

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The videos above portray the USA that I knew and experienced. This was the combined efforts of individuals and communities that operated on kindness, hope, and basic human decency.

Are they the minority? Yes, perhaps. But when you add all the minorities up, you get a majority. When you join these separate jigsaw pieces, you get a more complete picture of united states and the United States.

The USA is not just a function of its current leadership, its movies, and its broadcast media. It is about its people and what they do. Like every other country on earth, there are nasty and ignorant people there that get a lot of attention. The good ones go about their daily business without glory.

Shift your gaze and focus on the good to get a more balanced and accurate view. It is not disunited America; it is these United States of America.

This article would like you to believe that students in the US are motivated by extrinsic rewards to do well in tests.

According to the article, a team of academics from the US and China conducted research on the math abilities of students from both countries. The students took a “25-minute test of 25 math questions that had previously been used on PISA”.

The treatment groups were given “envelopes filled with 25 one-dollar bills and told that a dollar would be removed for every incorrect or unanswered question”. The incentive was to get as many questions right as possible to receive the highest monetary reward.

Source: National Bureau of Economic Research

According to the article:

  • The incentives did not significantly impact the students from Shanghai, China.
  • The students from the US were more likely to attempt more questions and get more answers right with incentives.
  • The incentivised US student performance was equivalent to a PISA finish of 19th place instead of the actual 36th place out of 60 countries.

The researchers concluded that poor PISA test results could be due more to apathy than a lack of ability.

Tests like PISA — which have no impact on students’ grades or school accountability measures — aren’t taken as seriously as federally mandated assessments or the SAT.

All that said, the article ignored another important trend in the data: The less academically inclined students — see School 1 Low and School 1 Regular — did not do as well and were not as motivated even with incentives.

While this seems obvious even without the benefit of data, this casts light on the largely non-transparent method of how students are selected for PISA.

In OECD’s 2015 report, China was represented by Macao, Hong Kong, and special combination of Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Guangdong (B-S-J-G). China was in the top 10 for math and science test results.

Both the comparative study and the China selection results raise questions about the selection of students for the PISA tests. For example, this Forbes article asked if PISA results could be “rigged” as a result of such selections.

If officials make disproportionate selections from rich cities, then suspicions of bias are valid. Students with higher socio-economic status have more opportunities in schooling and have access to better resources than those propping them up in the lower rungs. Such students are more likely to do better in tests.

There are guidelines for selecting students for PISA testing. However, there is seems to be enough wiggle room for officials to get creative (see Malaysian example in the Forbes article).

Officials wanting to boost rankings can manipulate the selection seemingly within guidelines. For example, imagine a system with 100 schools. All 100 cannot participate for pragmatic reasons, e.g., students are not available or unwilling, resources are poor, scheduling is inconvenient, schools see no benefits, etc. So the officials resort to stratifying the random sampling of students. This means selecting certain schools within each band, i.e., low, regular, high-performing.

Officials might select students the higher performing schools from each band or maximise the sample for the potentially highest performers while minimising the selection from the likely lowest performers. In all cases, the students are still randomly selected from the pool, but there is stratification of the pool by bands and percentages.

This practice is not transparent to the layperson or perhaps even the reporters that write news articles. But the PISA results are lauded whenever they are released and policymakers make decisions based on them. Should we not be watchdogs not just for the validity of PISA tests, but also for how students are selected to take them?

I have read about the pushback against “personalised learning”, particularly in the USA, for a while. The latest is this article, Teachers’ Union Faces Backlash Over Publication on Personalized Learning.

It might seem strange that attempts to help learners are met with resistance from the people at the frontline of helping them. The rhetoric, and perhaps the possible reality, is that computers and corporatised solutions threaten the jobs of teachers.

The actual reality might be that there are other factors that reduce teaching positions, e.g., shrinking budgets, poor test scores, political mandates.

Singapore’s reality was and is our low birthrate. As a former faculty of Singapore’s only teacher preparation institute, I saw the demand for teachers plateau and now see it in gentle decline.

When I started educating teachers 20 years ago, I would hear preservice teachers occasionally remark during our ICT classes how computers were going to replace them. That did not happen then and ICT is not the cause now.

We have yet to “personalise” learning in the mainstream Singapore classroom as much as edtech vendors might like. We do not have computerised standardised testing like many schools in the USA.

Our personal and personalisable technology is stealthily hidden in students’ bags, locked away in carts, or white-elephanted in labs. ICT is still like good-to-have bottled water and not must-have tap water.

Our edtech vendors are thankfully not as aggressive or creative as enrichment tuition agencies. The latter offer a different sort of personalisation: Exchange money, drilling, and sweat for better grades, never mind if you actually learn anything.

So in the USA and Singapore, we have depersonalised personal learning. It is corporatised and mechanical ICT in the USA; it is the avoidance of meaningful ICT and being test smart here.

My blog entry two days ago about lazy writing received a large and disproportionate number of views from the USA. I wonder if this was because I insisted that “America” was not synonymous with “the USA”.

I shared some incomplete thoughts on this issue about three years ago. In that reflection I shared what I experienced as a Ph.D. student:

“America” has become synonymous with the “United States of America”, but they are not the same thing. When I was a graduate student in the US, I met a Venezuelan, Chilean, and Brazilian who pointed out that they were proud Americans too. South Americans to be precise. The same could be said about those in Central and North America.

Technically speaking, anyone from the Americas is an American. North America alone has native Americans, Canadians, US citizens, and Mexicans. Why should US citizens have exclusive rights to “American”?

If you are not convinced, then consider what happens at rallies and sporting events. The crowds chant “USA, USA, USA!” and not “America”.

When I was pursuing a Masters in the USA, one of my mentors told me a story about his wife. She was indignant about something at an airport and insisted on being treated properly because she was an “American”. My mentor corrected her and pointed out that they were US citizens.

Like most people before that, I saw no difference between “American” and “US citizen”. If I had not been in graduate school, I would have brushed off the distinction as trivial. My then Masters mentor and interaction with fellow Ph.D. students taught me to be a more critical and inclusive thinker.

I realise that not many share this perspective. You might say that I am nitpicking or that everyone else says otherwise. I say that precision is important and that the majority is not always right. Teaching this distinction is a gateway to questioning norms that are based on ignorance or indifference.

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