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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Do We Recycle and Sometimes Misuse Educational Words?

By Peter DeWitt — June 01, 2017 5 min read

Today’s guest post is co-authored by Thomas R. Guskey, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky, and Peter DeWitt.

A few months ago, Peter wrote a blog suggesting that certain words in our educational vocabulary should be banished (read full blog here). It was inspired by the idea that people often use the same word, but the way they use it conveys a very different meaning. For example, “We need to use this program with fidelity.” To some it means, “ensure those implementing the program include all critical, defining elements,” while to others it means, “make sure everyone complies and uses it!”

Peter stressed this is important because the words we use to describe our work communicate a great deal about our profession. Words that bring people together in collaborative efforts to help students offer many positive implications, while those that push compliance ... or a different meaning for “fidelity”... denote a more negative outlook.

Recycled and Misused
Another development we’ve noted is the new and unprecedented use of words from agriculture and mining to describe educational phenomena. This occurs not only in common analogies and metaphors, but in the basic language educators use to define their work.

What makes this particularly odd is that with our society becoming more knowledge-oriented and information-based, we would anticipate the influence to occur in the opposite direction. In other words, we would expect these societal changes to prompt those in agriculture and mining to use more of the language of educators.

But that rarely occurs.

Making matters even more baffling is the fact that educators have long lamented agriculture’s undue influence on education, especially in the structure of the school calendar. It seems a bit hypocritical to complain about the influence of agriculture when it comes to the way we organize the school year, but then use agricultural words to describe modern educational processes. Strangest of all is that these new words and phrases are used to describe things we have been doing for decades in education.

What words?

Here are a few examples of agricultural and mining words and expressions frequently used by education authors and consultants today:


  • Every year in education we now have a new “crop” of teachers entering the profession.
  • At one time we introduced new ideas, but today we “plant the seeds.”
  • We used to worry about educators being too compartmentalized in their thinking, but today they are “in silos.”
  • New ideas in education used to be adopted and take hold, but now they “gain traction.”
  • Earlier we described learning goals as either broad or specific, but today we talk about “grain size.”
  • Certain aspects of change in education used to require extra work, but now they demand “heavy lifting.”
  • We used to gather data, but now those data are “harvested.”
  • For many years in education we analyzed and disaggregated our data, but today we “mine” the data and are implored to “drill deeper.”

Yes, a few of our examples are a bit tongue-in-cheek. But this change of language to help suit our needs is getting a bit disturbing, and it puts us at risk of losing credibility.

And Recycled Again...
Why do we find it necessary to have new words to describe these seemingly well-established ideas? Has the meaning of these ideas changed so much in modern times? Are we stymied in our progress for want of new terminology? Do we use new words because we misused their predecessors?

Or is this just marketing in our never-ending need to brand ourselves and our ideas?

The kindest answer to these questions is we believe the new words will prompt new thinking about important and time-honored concepts. The presumption seems to be that new words will lead to new interest, new approaches, and new levels of success.

That is what we hope.

The less kind but more likely answer is that by giving these concepts new names, modern authors and consultants can take credit for developing them. Sadly, this does happen. New writers and speakers adopt new names and concepts to make their descriptions appear original, novel, and innovative. Unsuspecting practitioners think the ideas must be new because they have never before heard them described in these terms.

New authors and consultants sometimes cite only recent research to show their ideas are not outdated. Problems occur, however, when practitioners don’t understand that the concept being described has been studied for many decades.

Self-efficacy, for example, is an important educational construct being explored lately, and many educators think it is new. In reality, it was developed and researched by Albert Bandura in the 1970’s. Despite the significance of this hallmark work and its invaluable contribution, many modern authors and consultants today seem reluctant to cite research that is nearly 50 years old.

Although attaching new labels to important, established concepts might enliven presentations and enhance individuals’ reputations, it can lessen the value of what is being communicated. In many cases, it also diverts attention from the vital work at hand and detracts from sincere efforts to make improvements. It exemplifies the logical fallacy of “a distinction without a difference” and often leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding. As philosophers and poets have told us for centuries, “Just because you give something a new name doesn’t change what it is.”

In the End
We have challenging work to do in education. That work requires knowledge of what are truly research- and evidence-based practices, purposeful effort, and unceasing commitment. Changing the vocabulary we use to describe that work doesn’t make it any easier or improve our success. And ignoring that the work was long-established before new authors and consultants started using it doesn’t help either.

Let’s use new words when they are needed to enhance our understanding or bring added clarity to our purpose. But let’s not change our words in order to make false claims of originality or the meaningfulness of contributions.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants, and we should not forget that. Many brilliant people came before us and provided a foundation for us to build upon and continue to develop. Renaming ideas in order to brand and take credit for them disrespects that contribution and detracts from the likelihood of our success.

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.

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