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Education Opinion

Five Words and Phrases that Sound Different to Teachers

By Roxanna Elden — January 10, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Roxanna Elden, author of See Me After Class, is guest posting this week. Roxanna is a National Board Certified high school teacher and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

Many thanks to Rick for inviting me to guest blog this week. I’ll try to stick to the subject I know best, which is the teacher corner of the researcher/policymaker/teacher communication triangle. It often seems that edu-decision makers and teachers have trouble communicating. Maybe it’s because sometimes we really do speak different languages. At the very least, there are a few phrases in the policymaker-reformer-researcher dialect whose meanings change when filtered through everyday teaching reality. Those hoping for educator buy-in on the next big idea should first consult the translation guide below, which explains some catchphrases and buzzwords that set off warning bells for teachers.

“Failure is not an option": Actually, failure IS an option. Ironically enough, it tends to be an especially popular option at schools with giant “Failure is not an option!” posters in front of the main office.

Research-based: Teachers are all for research. In fact, our jobs include an ongoing struggle to get students to do more (and plagiarize less) research. Outside the classroom, however, “research based” roughly translates to, “You aren’t allowed to point out obvious flaws with this new mandate.” For example, teachers are inundated with research-based instructions about how to group students for learning and what activities address different learning styles. Students, unfortunately, have not read this research. When faced with a choice of assessments, they tend toward the “I want to do the easiest project” learning style. Similarly, when offered the chance to choose their own learning partners, they often group themselves homogeneously by loudness, or heterogeneously by such factors as “desire to copy work from one another.” Teachers must account for these tendencies before we can use peer-reviewed studies to our students’ advantage.

Rigor: If you sit through one of the new district-mandated trainings on the importance of rigor--and I don’t recommend it--you may notice that the concept would be better described as “not sucking at teaching.” Most teachers are on board with this. In fact, some of us have been complaining for years that pressure to replace real teaching with drill-and-kill test prep gets in the way of rigorous instruction. Imagine our excitement when rigor is introduced as a brand-spankin’ new idea in professional development sessions with names like, Unlock the Sunshine! Shedding Light on the Opportunities Created by State Assessment 2.0. Usually, these sessions use PowerPoint presentations to explain rigor as something like “teaching interesting things and expecting students to know stuff.” In this context, telling teachers that rigor is important suggests we’ve spent most of the year training our students to make different colored Play-Doh balls. Good thing we had this presentation.

Status Quo: This phrase is generally used when accusing someone of defending it, and those are fighting words. (“Boo status quo! Hooray (your reform idea here)!”) Meanwhile, the number one piece of inherited wisdom in teaching is the need to be consistent. Imagine, then, the chaos that erupts when class rosters are shuffled three weeks before test day or rival gangs are squeezed into the same high school cafeteria while a school is closed for restructuring. Even potentially positive changes, such as the introduction of a new reading program, have an adjustment period in which the school spends extra money, and teachers spend extra time (and sometimes money) to make the program work as advertised. Most teachers are open to growth and change, but we have also experienced changes so poorly planned, last minute, and disruptive that the status quo doesn’t seem like such a bad alternative.

Paradigm Shift: This term originally referred to discoveries so mind-boggling that they threw science’s fundamental beliefs into sharp new perspective. Here are some moments in history that might be appropriately described as paradigm shifts:
• “Lo and behold, Copernicus, you might just be right about the whole ‘Earth orbiting the sun’ thing. Sorry I called you a heretic. No hard, feelings, right?”
• “So, diseases are caused by tiny organisms we can’t even see and that can be killed by antibiotics? Then what am I doing with these leeches on my skin?”
• “You win, Columbus, we didn’t fall off the edge of the Earth after all.”
Now, the term paradigm shift is used to suggest the groundbreaking importance of statements such as this:
• “As you can see, we’ve rephrased box number sixteen of this evaluation rubric to include the phrases rigor and research-based. Plus, we added a graphic of a smiling apple waving a flag that says, ‘The status quo has got to go! Failure is not an option!’”

As a result, the term paradigm shift has undergone a shift of its own. It has become a code word in any presentation that means, “You can stop listening now.”

--Roxanna Elden

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.