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Education Opinion

Response: We Could Live Without These Education Buzz Words

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 19, 2018 20 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

Buzz words.

Every profession has them, including education. And many get over-used.

This series will examine what they are, why we have them, and if we should using other words/phrases, instead.

Today, Rita Platt, Dr. Douglas Reeves, Jennifer Borgioli, Melissa Eddington, Mike Janatovich, Mandi White and Tara Dale share 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.

My most disliked education buzzword is “data-driven.” I written and shared a lot about it at The Best Resources Showing Why We Need To Be “Data-Informed” & Not “Data-Driven.”

You might also be interested in The Best Glossaries of Education Terminology.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, consults with local school districts, and writes for We Teach We Learn:

I have come to hate some of the latest buzzwords in education.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching and learning. I consider myself as open to new ideas and I act accordingly, where change is concerned. I often stay up most of the night talking (and sometimes arguing) about issues in education with my husband who is also a teacher. Oh, yeah, I am an “edu-dork” to the extreme.

But I hate these buzzword (and phrases) and here’s why.


“Founded on an accumulation of facts that have been obtained by research.”

This term is used to sell or support every possible program or opinion. It has become meaningless. For those of you, who like me, really read copious amounts of education research I challenge you to do two things: 1.) Don’t say “research-based” or “research-supported” unless you have the actual research in hand! 2.) When someone tells you that something is “research-based” ask her or him to show you the research.

Oh, it’s going to make some folks mad, but, for heaven’s sake, don’t say something is “research-based” if you can’t produce the evidence that it is.


“Instruction, schoolwork, learning experiences, and education expectations that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging.”

I like this definition. What I don’t like is what it’s come to mean. Rigor too often is code for arbitrarily defined expectations that seem to be intentionally placed above a child’s actual ability. Rigor has replaced the infinitely better concept of ZPD and for the life of me; I cannot understand how we teachers have allowed this to happen. Rigor should be defined based on an individual’s learning needs. But it is not. Stop supporting this corrupted education meme. Stop saying “rigor!”


“Faithfulness to obligations, duties, or observances.”

As all practicing teachers know, what it really means is “follow the script” or “do” the program exactly as intended. First, if we consent that our students are individuals and as such have differing needs, the idea that we would buy a program or a curriculum and teach it with “fidelity” is an egregious one at best.

Second, it’s a great excuse to blame teachers when so-called reform efforts don’t work. IE: The new reading program showed no effects? The teachers didn’t use it with fidelity!


Career and College Ready

“The content knowledge, skills, and habits that students must possess to be successful in post-secondary education or training that leads to a sustaining career.”

Hollow phrase. Read my diatribe against it here. Or, don’t read it and suffice it to say that there aren’t many great careers to get ready for and college costs a small fortune.

So, that is the edu-speak that I wish would fade away into the ashcan of history. But, for now, I’ll just smile and nod my head when someone tells me that they can show me the latest “research-based, rigorous program that promises career and college readiness for every student in my class if, and only if, I teach it with fidelity.”

Response From Dr. Douglas Reeves

Douglas Reeves is the author of more than 30 books on education and leadership. He blogs at CreativeLeadership.net and Tweets @DouglasReeves:

At the risk of stepping on many toes, I would nominate three terms: “formative assessment,” “21st Century Skills,” and “brain-compatible” as among the many over-used terms in education. Many educational systems administer periodic tests and, because those tests do not occur at the end of the year, they are labeled “formative.” A better label would be “uninformative assessment,” because these tests are seldom used to inform teaching and learning. As James Popham famously said, it is not the content of the test itself that makes it formative, but rather how the test is used. Unless the test is used by teachers to make immediate changes to improve instruction and learning, then call it anything you want - just don’t call it “formative assessment.”

“21st Century skills” is a term that has become ingrained in mission and vision statements and used as a justification for many ill-advised technology acquisitions. It’s time apply some critical thinking to that term, particularly since critical thinking, along with communication, collaboration, and creativity, is often on the ever-growing list of 21st Century skills. My grandfather received his teaching license in 1906, and I wonder how many enthusiastic lectures he had to hear about “20th Century Skills” because the new century would require critical thinking, collaboration and the rest. A careful student of Socrates might note that these skills have been valued since classes were held in the Lyceum. Educators and policymakers would be wise to check the breathless enthusiasm for practices that are heralded as new and innovative. The pervasive myths that today’s students have different brains because they are “digital natives” and that they don’t need to study as much because they can Google everything represent the precise opposite of the critical thinking and creativity that students really need in the 21st Century.

“Brain research,” as the term is commonly used in professional development conferences, has only two things wrong with it - it’s not about the brain and it’s not research. Some of the most popular theories, such as the left-brain right-brain dichotomy, have been thorough debunked, and yet they retain a sacred place in the cannon of advocates masquerading as researchers. Real brain researchers, such as those working in the Cognitive Science Lab at MIT, are modest and circumspect in their claims. The sample sizes are small and the research is preliminary. While there has been enormous progress in the use of techniques such as Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, the research is emerging and conclusions are tentative. Just as, slowly, educators are discovering that “learning styles” is a myth, they should also examine critically claims that a particular technique or technology is “brain compatible.”

Response From Jennifer Borgioli

Jennifer Borgioli is a Senior Consultant at Learner-Centered Initiatives, Ltd. where she supports teachers, schools, and districts with designing assessments that capture evidence of student learning in ways that are meaningful for students and teachers. She also assists districts with auditing or reviewing their tests and assessments in order to better support balanced assessment systems. Her Twitter handle is @JennLCI:

I’m fascinated by jargon and happily began rattling off words in response to this question. About ten words in, I realized I’d just listed words I’d recently come across. 20 words in, I discovered I didn’t know what made a word buzz versus remain mute. In truth, education nomenclature is a messy, jumbled, chaotic soup without a clear line between acceptable professional jargon and buzz words.

Take, for example, the word curriculum. It seems like a mundane word, free of noise. However, it’s used in exasperated blog posts by teachers explaining the flaws of the “Common Core Curriculum” that sit only a url away from posts detailing why the CCSS aren’t curriculum and it’s wrong to suggest they are.

Then there’s rubric, a word that has a no buzz to my ear; only the clear sound of a tool that supports learner-centered practices. At times, I’ll see someone describe a rubric they found in glowing terms and after opening the document, I pause. The tool is indeed a great resource but it doesn’t match the definition of a rubric as I know it. Yet, it’s reasonable to ask me, “according to whom? Who gets to decide what counts as a rubric and what doesn’t?” Alas, I won’t have an answer because we don’t have a shared text with established definitions for a large swatch of our vocabulary, our Tier III words, as it were.

There are plenty of examples of attempts at establishing a shared lexicon (for example, the Glossary of Ed Reform, ASCD’s guide to terms relevant to their publications) but EdWeek had to spend several days and thousands of words to defining the phrase formative assessment. Diane Ravitch advocates for EdLingo BINGO as a way to deal with “useless words that fill the air” and Carol Dweck had to write a lengthy text explaining what “growth mindset” is and is not.

For teachers working with Dr. Dweck, mindset is a part of their professional vocabulary. To a teacher who has only read about it on a blog post, it’s a buzz word.

Doctors and nurses have the “Physicians’ Desk Reference and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary.” Psychologists have the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” Lawyers have a government-sanctioned “Glossary of Legal Terms.” Teachers have Google.com. Education simply doesn’t have an American Medical Association or Judicial Branch saying, “This word? It means this.”

This doesn’t mean we’re helpless in face of untethered words and phrases. Rather, the flexibility allows us to push back against all terms - not just those that feel buzz-y or like re-branding. For example, if someone advocates “data-driven” teaching, we should have no qualms about asking what kind of data. Or, what are the data used to drive and what makes data-driven different than differentiation?

This suppleness allows our vocabulary to adjust with our understanding of teaching and learning. Thirty years ago, multicultural education was a catch-all term that tried to capture the dynamics of a mostly white teaching force teaching an increasingly diverse student population. Today, our thinking has shifted and so has our language. Anti-racism or culturally competent teaching aren’t buzzwords; they reflected our deeper understanding of learner-centered education.

There has never been, and will never be, a shortage of education buzz words. This is likely a consequence of being a profession that’s 3.2 million strong with no authorizing body to define terms as well as communication gaps between researchers and practitioners. My hunch is, though, there’s more to gain by holding each other accountable for all the terms we use rather than focusing on just the new ones.

Response From Melissa Eddington

Melissa Eddington serves as an English as a Second Language educator in Dublin City Schools (DCS). Eddington will be beginning her 18th year of teaching at the start of the 2017-18 school year. She started her teaching career in the Logan-Hocking School District as a kindergarten teacher. After moving to central Ohio, Eddington continued her teaching career in Columbus City Schools before joining DCS in 2007. As a nationally connected leader, Eddington has helped personalize their instructional practices to better meet the needs of their students, families, and communities:

A friend calls you up and says they have an interview for a teaching position, they ask for advice and you happily give it. You say something like, “Don’t forget to use some of these words during the interview: personalized learning, 21st Century Learners/Skills, grit, rigor, growth mindset, brain breaks, STEM/STEAM, standards-based, formative assessment, and more.” Buzzwords may help in the interview and make you sound intelligent but do we really know what they mean when we rattle them off?

My favorite buzzword is 21st Century Learners/Skills or more simply creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication. New flash...we have been in the 21st century since 2001 so do we really need to keep repeating this phrase?! We should have been incorporating these skills in our classroom for almost 17 years already since our students need these stills for their future professions. If you feel like you haven’t mastered the four 21st century skills, they are now offering professional development (www.p21.org).

Another favorite buzzword of mine is Growth Mindset, which is most researched by Carol Dweck. Schools use this two word phrase likes it’s going out of style! Dweck says, “Too often, students live in the ‘now’ rather than the ‘yet’ - they focus on their limitations rather than their potential (2016).” I am not discounting the idea of growth mindset since we need to teach our students to see potential in themselves, but we overuse the word!

Brain Breaks always needs to be on a list of overused buzzwords. According to an Edutopia article by Dr. Lori Desautels, Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University, “A brain break is a short period of time when we change up the dull routine of incoming information that arrives via predictable, tedious, well-worn roadways” (2016). I have a problem with this: “DULL” and “well-worn roadways”. As educators we should be providing a stimulating classroom environment with new “roadways” for our students to travel in order to learn effectively. I do agree with the need for frequent breaks for attention span reasons and so does my friend, Justin Schleider, a physical education teacher from New Jersey. He says in his blog post titled, “Send “brain breaks” to Extinction!”, “the more we move the better it is for our brains. This is why I am publically petitioning @gonoodle to get rid of the term ‘brain break’. I believe that brain boost would be a much better term that will encourage people to move and make time to improve their learning.”

Teachers love buzzwords because they carry weight, but are we really understanding them? How about we become better at understanding and putting these words into practice rather than just repeating words to sound hip and cool.

Response From Mike Janatovich

Mike Janatovich is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. He is currently the Principal of Leighton Elementary School in Aurora, Ohio. Janatovich believes that educating the whole child is critical to ensuring academic success and is an advocate for supporting middle-level learners. Connect with Janatovich on Twitter @mjanatovich:

In my opinion, some of the most important and powerful educational buzzwords are the ones that are most often over-used. I say this because they most often are used incorrectly in an educational setting.

The first buzzword is “growth mindset"and it is one that I see all over the place and many times over-used in our schools. Anywhere you go, you will hear about educators that have growth mindsets and who teach their students to have growth mindsets. In most cases, they simply are just using the phrase, not implement the action the way it was intended as Carol Dweck wrote in her book Mindset. Kids are hearing that they need to have a growth mindset, but are they actually being given the opportunity to develop one? Are we actually fostering a community of learners that allow for mistakes to occur and for students to self-reflect? In most cases where teachers are developing “growth mindsets”, I don’t think we are there yet. Some educators have changed their vocabulary that fits into a growth mindset, but they have not changed their actions and I think this can be detrimental to student learning and growth. Very quickly, the extremely powerful term, growth mindset, will be looked at by some educators as not being effective. There will be a large number of educators that said, “we tried that and it didn’t impact kids at all.” That is why I say that the action of a growth mindset is more important to model and develop in our schools, then just learning some new vocabulary.

Another buzzword that I think is overused is PBL. If you ask educators who use PBL in their classroom what PBL actually stands for, you will probably get 48% who say project based learning, 48% who say problem based learning, and 4% who honestly does not know. Personally, I do not get caught up in the language of what it is called, but most of the time, PBL gets used to describe what it is not. Teachers will assign a “project” to students to complete and call it PBL. Another teacher will give students a problem to solve that only has one answer, and call it PBL. Neither of these are PBL. Bottom line is that it comes down to the learning. Personally, I do not care what it is called as long as it is authentic, engaging, opened-ended, and connected to the real-world. It is these opportunities that true PBL creates for our students, and we must make sure that this is the experience that students are getting when teachers are implementing “PBL” into their classroom.

As with all educational terms, I hope we as educators model learning for our students. We can learn all the vocabulary in the educational sphere, but if we don’t put it to action, we have not done anything to make ourselves better. Buzzwords may come and go, but the impact of them when they are in action will stick forever. As educators, we need to “over-action” buzzwords to impact kids, not just overuse them.

Response From Mandi White & Tara Dale

Mandi White earned a Master’s of Education in Special Education from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. In 2007, she moved across the country to begin her teaching career in Phoenix, Ariz., as a cross-categorical resource teacher for 7th and 8th grade students. Mandi began her new position as an Academic and Behavior Specialist in July of 2017.

Tara Dale is a high school science teacher in the Gilbert School District in Arizona. Previously she’s taught 7th grade science and U.S. history in Phoenix. She was recognized as Kyrene’s Educator of the Year at the end of her second year teaching and then two years later was honored with the Science Foundation Arizona’s Innovation Hero Award. In 2014 she was named Arizona Teacher of the Year Ambassador for Excellence. She travels the state advocating for Arizona’s teachers and students with her work at Educators for Higher Standards, Student Achievement Partners, and Arizona Educational Foundation:

Over-Used Buzzwords in Education

Rigor and Engagement. Administrators tell us all the time, “Have rigor and be engaging.” Rigor and engagement are essential tools for a successful classroom but administrators and teachers use them without truly understanding their meaning. To make these rigor and engagement meaningful for teachers and students alike, we must understand their intention and implementation.


Barbara Blackburn, an educator and author, says in her book Rigor is not a four letter word, that rigor creates an environment in which each student is positively affected. Blackburn’s key word is ‘each’.

  • Rigor is when EACH student has high standards set for them, regardless of their socio-economic status, skin color, sexual orientation, religion, language, IQ, etc. All students are expected to learn and teachers don’t lower their standards for any student.

  • Rigor is when EACH student receives the support they individually need in order to meet the teacher’s high expectations. Not every student learns the same so EACH student will require different tools and resources to be successful in a classroom.

  • Rigor is when EACH student can demonstrate their learning at high levels. After EACH student learns what is expected by using necessary tools, then their learning is proven in some manner (formative or summative assessments). Assessments can be in any form but must be demonstrated so there are data to analyze.

The concept of rigor holds teachers to high expectations because it requires teachers to know EACH of the students, provide all necessary tools to match their individual needs, and identify a way to assess for learning so that EACH student can demonstrate success. If rigor existed in every classroom, EACH student could potentially learn at high levels. Teachers would no longer excuse a student’s failure. You would no longer hear teachers in their lounges say, “if only his mom made him do his homework” or “if only he would go to sleep at a decent hour so that he could stay awake in class.” Instead teachers would perceive EACH of their student’s individual circumstance as a hurdle, not an excuse so they better support EACH student and provide for an environment where learning is expected, not excused.


In your mind picture a classroom full of engaged students. What are they doing? What aren’t they doing? Many teachers picture a set of quiet students, dutifully listening to the teacher talk, oftentimes lecturing about their curriculum. But this may not be engagement. Just because students are listening doesn’t mean they are thinking.

According to some educators, engaged students track the teacher by making eye contact and listen. But we argue that true engagement is deeper than this. When students are truly engaged, they are critically thinking about what they are learning, which doesn’t necessarily happen by making eye contact and listening. It’s like when you read something and at the end of the paragraph, you know you read it but you don’t remember anything about the passage. You read it (you made eye contact and you were listening to the words in your head as you read) but you didn’t think about it critically and now you have to go back and reread the passage.

There are hundreds of strategies educators can leverage to create an engaging environment that requires students to critically think about content. Anything that is higher in Bloom’s taxonomy requires students to think critically, such as analyze, argue, describe, evaluate, estimate, predict (with a justification), summarize, construct, destruct, design, etc.

Although rigor and engagement are buzzwords in the current educational climate, once you dig deep into their meaning and purpose, you realize they can change classrooms to increase the learning for EACH child by engaging them through critical thought. Rigor and engagement are powerful tools that every teacher should wield in their classroom.

Thanks to Rita, Douglass, Jennifer, Melissa, Mike, Mandi and Tara for their contributions!

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