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Bruno: Resolve To Avoid These 5 Meaningless Education Phrases

2971210465_6f81c903d6_n#meaninglesseducationphrases With 2012 coming to a close it's time to start thinking about our resolutions for the new year. I propose that we collectively resolve to remove from our education discussions terms and phrases that are so vague as to be useless.

Identifying such phrases can be tricky. It's not enough that you think that they are "wrong" per se; meaningless phrases are too unclear to be wrong. Rather, meaningless education phrases are phrases that sound so good - but mean so little - that both sides in a debate would feel comfortable using them to defend their positions.

Below the fold are five of what I consider to be the worst offenders in education. Feel free to add your own.

1. High expectations - As I've said before, while people may disagree about what standards for students are most appropriate, nobody actually supports "low standards". If you believe that a particular standard to which we hold students is inappropriate, feel free to explain why it should be different but describing it as "too high" or "too low" is just a way of moralizing the issue without illuminating it.

2. Student-centered - It has become fashionable to describe one's favorite instructional methods as "student-centered", but I have yet to meet an any educator who opposes keeping students at the metaphorical center of instruction.  The real disagreement isn't over whether teaching and learning should be student-centered, but over what strategies best take student needs into account.

3. Data-driven - Every individual involved in education supports using data of some kind to drive instruction and policy-making. What distinguishes your outlook from mine, then, isn't that you prefer to use data, it is that you prefer different sorts of data.

4. Innovative - Every once in a great while somebody will come up with an idea that is clever and new in education - flipped classrooms, maybe? - but in the vast majority of cases educational policies and practices described as "innovative" are anything but. The term gets used to describe everything from KIPP schools to project-based learning, neither of which involves much that hasn't been in use for decades. When people describe an educational practice as "innovative" what they usually seem to mean is that it is a practice they endorse and believe is underutilized. If everyone's favorite educational practices can be considered innovative, however, the word has probably ceased to mean anything. (h/t to Ken Libby for the suggestion)

5. Professionalize - No matter which side of the teacher quality debate somebody is on, they are usually confident that their agenda is the one that will best serve to "professionalize" the teaching profession. Tenure protections, seniority rules, and test-based accountability are all issues that - depending on which side you are on - are either essential to protecting the professionalism of teachers or standing in the way of real professionalization. The only way both sides can be right is if "professionalization" means completely different things to different people. Or nothing at all. 

These are all phrases our edu-discussions would be better without. Leave your own suggestions in the comments, or tweet them out with the hashtag #meaninglesseducationphrases. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)

Comments

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Paul, I *completely* agree with #1, 2, and 3. Every time I hear one of those words, I do a huge mental eye-roll. Each of these meaningless terms is just a euphemism for "good teaching", which continues to be messy and difficult to define. I wish that we could at least start with the assumption that teachers want to be *good* teachers and then take the discussion from there.

Another over-used and ill-defined term: "21st century skills"?

I would however say that the use of the phrase "high standards" actually has been successfully used to combat stereotype threat. I'm not sure whose research it is (Claude Steele's maybe?) - where students of color often feel that the feedback they get is biased (especially from white teachers) and unfair. But when a teacher puts a post-it note on a rough draft which says something like "I have high standards/expectations and know that you can meet them" those students were more likely to turn in revised papers.

Also - I hate 21st century skills too.

I'm certainly no fan of "21st century skills", and I even considered adding it to the list here. What stopped me was that I feel like while on the one hand the term seems meaningless - what're these skills that weren't important in the 20th, 19th, or any other century? - on the other hand I feel like in some cases it's actually specific and meaningful enough, it's just that it's *wrong*. For example, I think in some ways the phrase is fairly clear in assuming that the skills in question are largely context-independent and can be taught in a readily-transferable way. The problem in my view isn't that the phrase is too unclear there, it's that it's just incorrect. So I've got mixed feelings about granting it the hashtag myself. (Others on Twitter were not so ambivalent.)

As for "high standards", Amber, I definitely agree that explicitly letting students know you think highly of their potential is valuable, I think that's consistent with the phrase "high standards" having little-to-no meaning. In the stereotype threat situation using the phrase is primarily about making people feel good - which can be valuable - but if we want it to be meaningful as corrective feedback it probably needs to be more specific, no?

Sure, those remarks were accompanied by a series of comments of specific feedback. Actually the use of the phrase "high standards" in this particular case is used to defuse the feeling that teachers are biased and to give signals to students that they aren't being targeted because of their race. That's slightly different that making students feel good, but in the same vein. In this case "high standards for everyone" means not being racially biased. Maybe teachers could say that explicitly, but then making students aware of race actually causes stereotype threat and people to do worse on papers & tests. It's a way of addressing race without activating stereotype threat. It still may not mean anything explicitly, but at least it does have a practical use, even in a classroom setting.

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