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Education Opinion

Response: No Shortage Of Education Buzz Words

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 22, 2018 22 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What education “buzz words” are most over-used?

In Part One, Rita Platt, Dr. Douglas Reeves, Jennifer Borgioli, Melissa Eddington, Mike Janatovich, Mandi White and Tara Dale shared their buzz word nominations. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rita, Doug, Jennifer and Melissa on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

Today, Megan M. Allen, Debbie Zacarian, Joe Hendershott, Russel Tarr, Laura Greenstein and Robert Jorczak share their thoughts on the subject. I’ve also included many comments from readers.

Response From Megan M. Allen

Megan M. Allen, NBCT, EdD, is the Director of Partnerships for the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the founding director and developer of the Mount Holyoke College Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership. She likes to nerd out on education topics on her Ed Week blog at An Edugeek’s Guide to Practice and Policy and @redhdteacher:

Parts of this writing originally appeared in Megan’s blog for the Center for Teaching Quality in April of 2015.

“We will engineer authentic action-items in data-driven schools.”

“We will streamline revolutionary decision-making within the core curriculum.”

“We will strategize innovative functionalities through cognitive disequilibrium.”

No, those aren’t statements created by a team of “eduformers” after pouring over data, research, and discussing solutions to fix the latest reform disaster. And no, those statements aren’t easy to understand. And don’t worry if those statements seem nonsensical...they are!

Here’s why. Those are statements created by an education jargon generator, found here. (Caveat: It’s a time-suck, but great for a chuckle.)

In article several years ago, Alia Wong of the Atlantic wrote that there is so much education jargon in our conversations, that the message gets buried (and many times waylaid). And sometimes it makes education reporting so, well, boring.

This got me thinking about edu-speak, teacher voice and the media, and we teased the subject out a little bit more in #edugeekchat at the beginning of the month. But I wanted more. I was intrigued. I now had the thought on permanent simmer in my brain.

What is the most over-used edu-speak? What are we hearing too much of, but everyone seems to have a different definition?

So I did a little informal research through social media.

Ladies and gentlemen, here the top 17 pieces education jargon you may never want to hear again (countdown style), from the informal and punchy research lab at Mount Holyoke Programs in Teacher Leadership.

  1. Rubric
  2. Choice
  3. Problems of practice
  4. Solutions-based
  5. Text dependent
  6. Low-performing
  7. Assessment
  8. Reform
  9. Common Core
  10. Evaluation
  11. Value-added
  12. Best practices
  13. College and career ready
  14. Accountability
  15. Rigor (my personal least-favorite)
  16. Achievement gap

And the winner, thanks to the response of 40 teacher leaders across the United States (drumroll, please)...

  1. Data driven.

Another word I would add to this more recently that is rubbing me the wrong way: Transform. As in we don’t need reform of education, we need to transform. Why is this overused and bothering me? Because people don’t really mean transform, but are just plugging it in for reform. Overused. Taking away its meaning. Making me cringe when I hear it or see it.

What words do you feel are overused? And what does that mean for those who feel they have lost control of the meanings of the words?

Response From Debbie Zacarian

Debbie Zacarian (debbie@zacarianconsulting.com) is known for her work in advancing student engagement and achievement. She is an education consultant and the author of many books, including two co-written books from which this response was drawn: Teaching To Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress (ASCD, 2017) and In It Together: How Student, Family, and Community Partnerships Advance Engagement and Achievement in Diverse Classrooms (Corwin, 2015):

One of the most common buzzwords used in education is best practices. Take a minute to go to the World Wide Web and use whatever engine you are comfortable to do a search of the term, best practices in education. What are you likely to find? --Millions and millions of databases from this one key word search. There are so many best practices in our field that we should be asking ourselves- is there really such a thing?

In Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, educational scholars Andy Hargraves and Michael Fullan define best practices as an existing practice that has been widely shown to be effective. Indeed, we do have many valid and reliable bodies of research about practices that have been shown to be effective. But, does this mean that using them in our own classrooms is a guarantee for success?

Let’s look at an example. A middle school school science teacher designs a unit of study based on what it is that she wants students to know and be able to do by the end of it (also known as thinking backwards). Drawing from her state’s science standards on climate change, the course text, and her knowledge of best practices, she designs the unit to include the following overarching question, “Why is the absorption of carbon dioxide important to our planet?” She posts the question on the board, reads it aloud to her students, and asks them to talk with a partner about what they think that the question means. In response, many students stare vacantly at the question and then their teacher. She quickly realizes that her students are not familiar with the term ‘absorption of carbon dioxide’. She then has them refer to the science text and takes time to explain the concept. Once this is done, she then checks for understanding (another best practice) and realizes that the students continue to struggle with the meaning of the term. Using years of teaching experience, she then walks up to the board and quickly changes the question to “Why is the Rainforest important to our planet?” She shows them photos of the rainforest and a map of its location. Students begin to make meaning of the term Rainforest. With her support, they begin to explore why it is important. She then sends them home to ask their families about its importance. Students return the next day to share what their families have discussed. If you were to meet with her and ask her what a best practice is, she would say, as many of us do, that it’s a guidepost of a promising practice that she adapts based on the needs, concerns, and ideas of her students.

While the term best practice is highly used, we have to think about it as a way of teaching that has been found to be promising when we use our own professional craft to make it work based on what we know about our particular students (their personal, cultural, social, and world experiences), our classroom environment, and the goals of any unit of study that we teach. A best practice should never be a prescribed one-sized-fits-all approach. This is especially true given the dynamic diversity of our students and the ever-changing evidence based findings that will surely point us in new and exciting directions about what shows promise for our students’ success.

Response From Joe Hendershott

Joe Hendershott, Ed.D., has a diverse background in education as a teacher and administrator. He is president of Hope 4 The Wounded, Inc., an educational consulting organization dedicated to providing trauma-informed training for professionals and school districts working with wounded children PK-12+. He is a published author on the topic (Reaching The Wounded Student, 2008, and 7 Ways to Transform the Lives of Wounded Students, 2016) and offers a 16-Hour Online Wounded Student Certificate Course. More information can be found at www.hope4thewounded.org:

I believe one of the most over-used buzz words in education today is the term “at-risk.” Unfortunately, this label has become a catchall for every child that appears to be struggling in education, but in many instances, children are beyond at-risk and need different types of interventions to be in place.

Before I go further, I absolutely believe we have at-risk students. The term “at-risk” was originally developed to identify students in jeopardy of falling behind academically/dropping out of school based on situational criteria (poor grades, sporadic attendance, family dynamics, socioeconomic factors, English as a second language, low performance on tests, etc.). At-risk means that something adverse might happen, so strategies are put in place to prevent negative outcomes. Most schools have excellent interventions in place that are preventative in nature to keep these students on track to find academic success. However, I believe that we have students that are beyond “at-risk.”

According to one survey on adverse childhood experiences by the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), almost half (47.9%) the nation’s children have experienced at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma. In 2006, I began using the word “wounded student” to create a differentiation to help professionals working with children to see that some children do not fit into the “at-risk” category based on the fact that they have experienced some type of childhood trauma. Merriam-Webster online states, “Trauma is the Greek word for “wound.” Although the Greeks used the term only for physical injuries, nowadays trauma is just as likely to refer to emotional wounds.” In my book 7 Ways to Transform the Lives of Wounded Students,” I define wounded students as “children who have experienced or continue to experience emotional and/or physical traumatic events. This has a profound impact on their physical, emotional, and/or spiritual identity as well as their ability to function in the classroom and in life.”

Further, “There are certainly similarities between at-risk and wounded students, but interventions for the at-risk population of students are usually based on risk factors making the student susceptible to negative outcomes. In contrast, interventions for wounded students begin with the awareness that these children are not in danger of something happening to them; something has happened to them. They have crossed over from being at-risk to being a casualty of their circumstances. For many wounded students, that very trauma becomes the lens through which they view every person and circumstance. As educators, we must acknowledge that wounded students have already experienced trauma, develop an understanding of the impact of trauma on a child’s brain function, and become intentional with the way we seek to connect with and accommodate these students to give them the best chance at making it.”

Wounded children can certainly fall into the at-risk category, as well, but what I found as a practitioner and what I hear from practitioners all over the United States is that many times, children that have or are experiencing trauma have the potential for academic achievement. Often, their negative behaviors and hopelessness stemming from their traumatic experiences are the obstacles to their academic success. By identifying wounded children as such and implementing trauma-informed practices into our schools, we can develop an understanding of the way trauma impacts a child’s behavior, self-esteem, relationships, and performance in the classroom. In doing so, we can create emotionally safe learning environments where learning can take place and hope is restored.

Response From Russel Tarr

Russel Tarr is head of history at the International School of Toulouse in France. He is also the author of www.activehistory.co.uk and www.classtools.net and organizes the Practical Pedagogies Conference:

Evidence-based practice

This term has been seized by those keen to promote a ‘back to basics’ approach in terms of putting content rather than skills back at the forefront of the curriculum. Using the work of particular educational researchers they conclude in general that ‘traditional’ teacher-led instruction is the most effective means of imparting a body of knowledge. My concern is firstly that education involves more than simply content acquisition. Moreover, retaining that knowledge involves a level of student engagement - a word which the ‘evidence-based’ crew regards with undisguised contempt. But the complex reality of daily classroom teaching is that that educators have to be sensitive to all sorts of other delicate factors relating to the dynamics of their particular cohorts at particular times, occasionally even so far as bearing in mind the time of day or week the students are being taught. So the idea that there are clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of teaching isn’t therefore something I an ever buy into - especially because these arguments (“progressive v. traditional”, “knowledge v. skills” and so on) tend to be conducted with such vitriol, go round in cycles every generation or so and most teachers realise that they are usually false dichotomies anyway when applied to the reality of the students they work with.

Digital Natives

A phrase used to describe students by teachers who seem to think that the ability of the younger generation to operate technology with frightening ease means that they know how to do so safely and with discrimination. Given legitimate concerns about the need for online safety in an age of super-viruses, social media exploitation and fake news, the phrase ‘digital natives’ belies a dangerous degree of complacency and does our students, and our role as educators, a profound disservice.

Differentiated Instruction

A term absolutely laudable in intention, but which too often boils down to asking hard-pressed teachers to produce extra classroom materials and lunchtime support sessions to compensate for the fact that their classes are too large and too diverse for personalised attention to be feasible. If governments and governors are serious about differentiation, they should provide the cash which enables smaller class sizes and professional teaching assistants. If they are not prepared to do so then “differentiated instruction” is just jargon.

Flipped Learning

“Watch this video at home, take notes, and we’ll discuss what you learned next lesson”.

Knowledge Organisers

Detailed summary sheets revising key topics. Useful? Yes. Innovative? Nope.

Response From Laura Greenstein

A lifelong educator, Dr. Laura Greenstein has served as a teacher and school leader, professor and professional development specialist. Her passion for excellence in assessment is evident in her numerous books, articles, and blogs on the topic:

The Overreach of Formative Assessment

Every profession, including education, has created jargon that sounds strange to outsiders. Consider these educational words: cognitive disequilibrium, metacognate, and intersegmental. Even educators who use the words formative assessment every day may misunderstand the significance and value of this overused word that has been used to describe everything from standardized test scores to classroom activities.

The term, attributed to Michael Scriven, Benjamin Bloom, and others, has been expanded and clarified since its emergence in the 1970s to include the following indicators.

  1. It is a process - not a one-time measure, occurrence, or activity.
  2. It is purposeful and supportive of learning intentions and success criteria - not a random event or required action.
  3. It is embedded into teaching and learning such that students are engaged in the assessment process - rather than an add-on or afterthought at the end.
  4. It provides learners with actionable, task-oriented feedback - not just a “good work” sticker or comments such as “you’ll do better next “
  5. The insights into learning are used by both students and teachers to improve learning - not simply scores returned to students or used by teachers for grading.


The insights gleaned from formative assessments are used to identify misunderstandings, make adjustments to teaching and learning, and inform next steps in support of progress.

Can you distinguish which of the choices in each set are not formative and which are more closely aligned with the indicators of formative assessment? Talk with your PLC about their thoughts. You can contact me through the www.assessmentnetwork.net if you have questions or ideas to share.

Set 1

a. Mr. Wynn gives a selected-choice vocabulary test on Friday as required of all grade level teachers. Students receive their corrected tests on Monday.
b. Ms. Raymond has students use the required vocabulary words in a narrative of their own choosing as long as the words are correctly spelled, accurately used, and clearly defined.

Set 2

a. Mrs. Jackson is so pleased when students are engaged in formative strategies such as exit slips, correcting wrong answers, and summarizing with graphic organizers.
b. Mr. Em embeds questions into videos using EdPuzzle where he can immediately check for understanding. He also encourages students to annotate their quizzes with explanations of their answers. He uses this information to modify his instructional strategies.

Set 3

a. Ms. Chen uses rubrics for a peer review of projects. Her rubrics are aligned with the learning intentions and describe progressive levels of achievement. Students receive their peer reviews and then reflect and make use of feedback.
b. Mrs. Lopez asks peers to observe each student’s project presentations, then write a note to the presenter telling when what they liked and didn’t like about the project. Based on this, the presenter self-scores their work.


What previous understanding was affirmed for you?
What new understandings or practice will you take away?

Thanks for the numerous researchers including John Hattie, Linda Darling-Hammond, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, Joan Herman, James Pellegrino, Lorrie Shepard, and Royce Sadler have contributed to our understanding and effective use of formative assessment.

Response From Robert Jorczak

Robert Jorczak has taught at all levels in addition to being an instructional designer and educational researcher. Dr. Jorczak is the author of Beyond Buzzwords: Why Some Ideas Fail to Improve Instruction (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017):

For education in general, one cannot read a research report without encountering mention of 21st century learning and skills. As is often the case with buzzwords, the meaning of that phrase varies from author to author. One definition claims that work done in this century requires more higher-order thinking, such as critical thinking) and therefor requires more higher-order learning.

Proponents of this definition cite global competition or rapidly changing technology as causing a need for improved learning. Why global competition requires more critical thinking is unclear because global and local economic competition is not new. Economic competition has always benefitted from better thinking. While technology grows more complex, many tasks (including business and job tasks) have been made easier. Repairing and maintaining technology, for example, has become more modular, making repair and maintenance tasks simpler.

Another proposed difference is that we work more in groups and therefore social skills have a greater importance than in previous centuries. Humans, however, evolved as social animals living in groups over hundreds of thousands of years. Social interaction has always been a key part of successful human behavior. Good social skills and higher-order thinking have been required in previous centuries to solve quite complex and thorny problems. Perhaps we see past problems as simpler because many have been solved. Our ancestors faced very complex problems and needed clever thinkers just as much as we do.

The biggest problem with this buzz phase, however, is that a need does not imply a solution. Even if 21st century problems require more critical thinking, metacognition, or social emotional learning; that need does not imply that we can achieve those improvements via a change in educational standards or instruction. We have the same brains as humans from 100,000 years ago. New needs are not going to make our brains better. Teaching higher-order skills is notoriously difficult and lengthy and we do not have instructional methods that are sure-fire means of improving students’ higher-order thinking. What we need to teach in the 21st century is knowledge appropriate to the problems of this century, which is exactly what previous centuries needed. Practically speaking, educators need to have up-to-date learning goals.

A buzzword frequently used in relation to instruction is active learning. This phase actually includes two buzzwords. The word “learning” is often used when educators really mean instruction. Most definitions of active learning are about instruction, which is a designed activity intended to promote specific learning. The use of learning instead of instruction is thought to somehow show more focus on the student. To be clear, educators should strive to say what they mean rather than what they think sounds better ideologically.

Various definitions of active learning can be found, but a common idea is that active processing requires that students do something physically. That suggestion is a bit illogical. Even conditioning and rote learning require activity of some kind. So learning often labeled passive is in some sense active. The exception is observational learning, a major human learning method. The explicit learning reflected in most learning standards most often requires conscious processing that can be quite active mentally rather than physically. So, it is really mental activity that accounts for non-motor learning.

That “active” learning is a superior instructional strategy seems odd given that humans uniquely learn so much from reading books or watching videos, with no action from the learner or interaction with an instructor. Instructors would do well to attend to how their efforts support and promote mental processing of information rather than how their instruction is active.

Responses From Readers

Pamela Broussard:

Not single words, but expressions. “What’s best for kids” and “we look at each child individually” if it is only used in speeches but not in daily decisions. I heard them so many times in so many situations, but when the time came to make a decision, the exact same decisions were made for every student every single time. It got to a point these phrases sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. Fortunately, I am now in a school where it is truly practiced. Unfortunately, I found it is more of the exception than the rule in many educational settings. Great sayings, they just need to be applied more!

Bill Ivey:

I’d totally sign on to your last sentence about a lot of buzz words. For example, I’m sick to death of “growth mindset” because, though if actually interpreted correctly and done right, it makes sense and it works, it is not always interpreted correctly nor done right, and that opens it up to attack for a whole variety of rationales.

Cheryl Henneman Mizerny

Mindset, Rigor, and Grit. I even wrote an article about it because it frustrates me so much.

Thanks to Megan, Debbie, Joe, Russel, Laura and Robert, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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