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Tag: words

Speaking in Clichés

People involved in business and other institutions often communicate in clichés. Insider words and phrases commonly used but vaguely understood, even less so by those on the outside.

Education certainly has it’s share, with many of them borrowed from other organizations. Like many of those in a post titled 17 Development Clichés I’ll Be Avoiding in 2017.

Empowerment – We want to empower teachers, students, girls, parents, principals, and who? But empowered to do what? However you define it, “empowerment isn’t like a light switch; it’s a long and messy process, and it certainly won’t be completed in a workshop”.

Capacity building – The World Health Organization says this is “the development and strengthening of human and institutional resources”, whatever that is. Ask the next person using the phrase if this is what they mean.

Global citizen – In their “Portrait of a Graduate” document, our local school board says every student needs to be one of these. They aren’t very clear on what it means to be a global citizen, or how their emphasis on a testing culture will make it happen.

Do good and do well – I had a principal who frequently used this phrase, and it, or variations, seem to pop up regularly in talks and writings on educational reform. Still don’t know why.

Liaising with key local stakeholders – And various other phrases incorporating the word “stakeholders”. Although, as much as the term is used in education, we rarely seem to include the most important “stakeholders” in the process – students.

Silver bullet – There’s no such thing, and no one should ever ask if whatever it is we’re talking about is a “silver bullet”. The answer is always no.

The writer also includes the phrase “on the ground”. Educational speakers seem to love something similar – in the trenches. Like the classroom is a battlefield and teaching an act of war. Definitely a cliché to be avoided.

So, how many of these clichés are commonly used in your school and district? How many have any real meaning? Is it possible to drop most of all of them from our conversation, in favor of words that have more meaning?


I’ve decided I like the word “kerfuffle”. Wiktionary defines it as “A disorderly outburst, disturbance, commotion or tumult.”, but I have a better use.

It has a very silly sound, almost Seussian, so I think it should be narrowly applied to any kind of pointless or artifically contrived controversy.

The kind of stuff that fills most of the day on cable news.

Defining Yourself

Today Seth Godin discusses the problem with new words, specifically identifiers for jobs, devices and ideas that didn’t exist a few years ago and don’t easily explain themselves.

The iPhone isn’t really a phone, it’s actually not a very good phone at all, but calling it a phone made it easy for people to put it into a category. The category was expanded by the behavior of the iPhone, and now “phone” means something far more than it used to. “What do you mean your phone can’t tell me how far away the diner is?”  Of course, this was an absurd thing to expect from a phone not very long ago.

Mario Batali calls himself a chef, but of course he rarely if ever sets up in a kitchen and cooks meals for strangers at minimum wage. But chef is a lot easier and simpler than a whole bunch of hyphens.

My job title, assigned by the overly-large school district, is pretty lousy, not to mention vague: Instructional Technology Specialist1. It doesn’t come close to explaining what I do.

Better would be “helping educators improve their professional practice through the use of new tools for communication and collaboration (and other duties as assigned)” but that doesn’t fit well into the small “job title” box on a form or into the very brief conversational space following the inquiry “what do you do?”.

In the past few years, when asked to provide a job title/position for conferences and such I’ve been using “Educator. Blogger. Learner. Geek”. Not perfect but it’s a step towards defining myself outside of the small group of people I work with2.

How do you define yourself to the outside world?

I Don’t Want to Teach

Or train anyone. Don’t ask me to staff develop someone (sounds painful). And I’m not even sure inservice is a real word, much less can be used as a verb.

Looking back through my EduCon notes and listen to some of the sessions I missed, this issue of the words we use to describe our professional practice came up a surprising number of times.

More than a few people, both in sessions and hallway conversations, noted how the verbs “teach” and “teaching” have come to mean a one-way dispensing of information by someone called a “teacher”, exactly the approach many of us who attend EduCon are trying to change.

In my little corner of the education world, where we work with adults who work with kids, the verb “train” is frequently substituted for “teach”, a term that seems far more appropriate when talking about dogs and horses. When discussing a rote set of routines to be replicated.

Or we use the phrase “professional development”, which someone remarked (I wish I could remember who) sounded more like we were building a medical center than helping people learn.

Although he wasn’t specially discussing this topic, Seth Godin recently posted about inaccurate labels and why we need them.

As soon as we put a word on it, we’ve started to tell a story, a caricature, a version of the truth but not the whole truth.

The label removes us from reality. It takes us away from the actual experience. But do we have any choice?

Maybe not, at least when it comes to the labels for our current educational structure that we’ve been using for centuries.

However, if we really want to change school to be more of a shared learning process (a continuing discussion over multiple EduCons), we are going to need some new vocabulary to fit.

Any suggestions?

Image from a Studio 360 project to rebrand teaching. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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