Why We Need New Symbols for Education – a Powerful Speech by one of our Boston Presenters

We wanted to share with you this great speech given by Deb Socia, Executive Director of OpenAirBoston, at one of our last Iconathon events held at the MIT Media Lab on September 3rd. Along with our other speakers, Deb did an amazing job of explaining how the symbols we designed for Education will make an impact. Thank you to all who participated!

Hi! My name is Deb Socia and I have just begun my 33rd year as an educator.  I have held nearly every job in my field – from teacher to curriculum specialist to program director to principal.  In my last role, I was the founding principal of a 650 student middle school in the Grove Hall section of Dorchester.  We developed and implemented a 1:1 laptop program which led me to my current role – figuring out how to ensure equitable access to hardware, training and low cost internet – for every member of our community

Like all professions, education has more than its share of jargon.  Take student assessment, for example.  Assessments can be authentic, competency based, constructivist and cooperative.  They might be developmentally appropriate, cross-curriculuar, innovative, inquiry-centered, and integrated.  They could involve higher order thinking, be multidisciplinary, open-ended, and technology-enhanced.  No kidding.

Putting aside the jargon, just think of the alphabet soup of acronyms and initials we use:

Students can be labeled ELL, ESOL, ESL or LD, CP, OCD, ADD, ED, and therefore need an IEP that specifies PT, OT, or ST, which of course is required by IDEA and ADA.

Teachers need to prepare students for MCAS, PSAT, AP, ACE, IMP, NAEP, and of course STEM careeers.  All of which is of course monitored by DESE and NCLB who will announce whether or not a school made AYP.

We hope our students get to participate in OST, AVID, TGH, and maybe even PBIS and that the teachers receive enough PD to create effective SIPs and DLPs and SLOs.  And of course, we really want parents to join the PTA.

And we wonder why the vast majority of people feel as though we are speaking in a foreign tongue!

And guess what!  I have used all those jargony terms, acronyms and initials on multiple occasions within the past six months!  And I know better.

We all need to learn to say what we mean in plain, everyday language or we run the risk of alienating those who most need to understand us.

That is why I am SO excited about this project.  If we had universally known, free and downloadable icons for many of our school based programs, activities, and spaces, imagine the impact.  Imagine the ways in which your work can contribute to a person’s ability to be more independent and confident.

In particular, imagine what it would mean to the parent of a child with a significant medical condition to see the icon that indicates “nurse” in every school her child attends?

Imagine the Mom who has just moved to this country from Somalia – unlikely to read, write, or speak any English – but who can easily interpret the symbol for Main Office in all of her children’s schools.

Do you remember being 13?  As you may remember, adolescence is a very difficult time to be “different” and not being a fluent reader is a very painful and exclusionary experience. Imagine how helpful it is to the child who is learning disabled to see the sign for cafeteria and then to know she is heading in the right way to get their lunch.

Imagine the pride on the part of a student with a cognitive delay when he can identify all the areas of the school that he frequents.

Imagine an autistic student having a pass to go to the gymnasium and that the pass in his hand is an exact copy of the symbol on the doorway to the gymnasium.  Imagine even further that it could be color-coded.  Or maybe even three dimensional to further enhance the sensory experience – leading to even more independence.

And the need for clear, simple and recognizable symbols is not just for folks whose circumstances lead them to have difficulty with reading or comprehending.  People who know me well are quite aware of my personal inability to find my way from anywhere to anywhere, regardless of the number of times I have traveled the same path.  I would love the reinforcement of having recognizable symbols support my efforts.  Verbal directions are not exactly helpful to me.  If I asked someone facing me how to get to the nearest wi-fi hot spot and they said “go down the hall and turn left”, I would get to the spot down the hall and wonder whose left?  Mine?  Or hers?  Every day when I get to work I have to think…which button on the elevator will get me to my office?   An intuitive symbol would make all the difference.

What you do here today matters. School staff may try to accommodate all of the folks who may need such tools, but first of all, they know very little about design and second, they are unlikely to find a way to ensure universality of use across a school and district, allowing for the all important consistency of experience for families and children.   I love that your work can lead to shared experiences for teachers, parents, and children – in and around schools and with educational tools.

Your work has powerful potential.  I am proud to be here to encourage you, to congratulate you, and to thank you.

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