Seven Common Educational Terms to Reconsider

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The time has come to rethink some of the most common terms we use in education circles. Some of these terms are applied as shortcuts to convey an assumed common understanding. Others are used to make us sound up-to-date and professional, but upon examination they clearly have outlived their currency. Still others risk conveying an unintended meaning if the recipient is unfamiliar with the context and takes our words at face value.

Consider that many of us still talk about 21st Century Learning, yet we are approaching the beginning of the third decade of the new century. In fact, students entering college this fall were born after the beginning of the new century. If what we are trying to convey is that we need to ensure learning is current and prepares students for success in the 21st century, we would do better to use a term like future ready learning that is not time bound or out of date.

We still hear teachers talk about how important it is that they cover each topic and skill contained in the curriculum as though coverage is that same as learning. Obviously, this term is a euphemism for teaching. Teaching is also not the same as learning. Just because something is taught does not mean is has been learned. We need to shift our language to focus on what students are learning and how we know without hiding behind what we have covered.

Often educators talk about what is best practice as though by employing these practices we maximize the probability that learning will occur. Yet, best practices applied indiscriminately and inappropriately are no more effective than any other practice. In fact, best practices only become effective practice when they are matched with student readiness to learn. We need to move our language beyond what might be useful in some situations to focus on what will be most effective in the current time and context with our students.

Rigor is a popular term when educators talk about presenting work to students that causes them to struggle. Yet, just being difficult does not make something worth learning. Students need learning challenges that are also interesting, worthwhile, and purposeful. Rather than focusing on rigor, we might put our energy into presenting learning challenges that offer vigor. Students deserve learning that is stimulating, energizing, and challenging.

When students fail to learn on the preset timeline established by our lesson plans, a pacing guide, or the assessment schedule we often call them slow learners. While on its face this term might sound descriptive, in practice it too often is shorthand for unskilled, poor learners. Of course, there is no universal right pace for learning. We set schedules for learning based on the time necessary to teach a concept or skill and our estimate of the average time students will need to perform the learning related tasks we assign. Research shows that learning tasks with which we struggle and require more time often result in deeper, richer learning. In fact, if given adequate time, learners who are behind pace may become very proficient and successful learners. Unfortunately, we often assume that learning quickly is the same as learning well. Yet, we know that learning that comes easily and quickly is often forgotten just as quickly. Being a fast learner is not necessarily synonymous with being a good learner.

We also need to rethink our use of the term remediation. Remediation is something we do with contaminated soil. It is a treatment to fix someone or something. When we describe our efforts to intervene and assist a student’s learning efforts as remediation, we risk conveying the message that the student is the problem when the problem is as likely to be that they were not taught in a manner or with a strategy that worked for them.

While we are at it, let’s be careful about labeling groups of students as high ability. All we can know is a student’s past performance. There is no way to know a student’s real ability. Some students perform exceptionally well in a predictable, adult directed, academic world, but flounder in a less predictable, more autonomous environment. Conversely, we have students who struggle with the structure and narrow focus of traditional classrooms and later flourish when they leave school and are asked to learn and perform in a less structured environment. In fact, what we may be seeing as “high ability” and “low ability” is highly contextual. Unfortunately, when we place these types of labels on students, they believe what we say. We can diminish dreams and undermine confidence that will have a lifetime impact without any real basis in the broader context of life. 

What other educational language pet peeves do you have? How do you see the language we use to describe students and our work having an impact on the lives and success of students?

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