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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.

School & District Management Opinion

5 Words That Are Commonly Used But NOT Commonly Understood

By Peter DeWitt — March 14, 2021 7 min read
Common Language
Common Language

Over the last 26 years that I have been in education as a teacher (11 years), principal (eight years) and leadership coach/author/instructor/facilitator, I have noticed that we often have a common language in schools but lack a common understanding.

This can create many issues in schools.

If we are all using the same words but never have taken time to develop a common understanding of those words, we are at risk of talking at each other and not with each other. As a former 1st grade teacher, I have always understood how discussion and dialogue are an important part of learning, especially when it comes to literacy, but as adults, we seem so busy in our day-to-day tasks that we don’t engage in enough deep discussion about the things that matter most. This impacts relationships among adults and students and can definitely create a negative impact when it comes to school climate.

The interesting aspect to all of this is that new words come into our vernacular in schools all of the time, but if we don’t develop meaning around the words, they can become buzz words that many teachers or students hate to hear after a while. Actually, almost five years to this day, I wrote a post about words that educators would like to see banned, which you can read more about here.

In that blog post, I included words like “rigor,” “fidelity,” and “accountability” because those words seemed to be the ones that really set people off when they heard them. School leaders and consultants throw out words like “rigor” but do not always back up those words with true, deep meaning. What we can garner from all of this is that it is more about how the words are used at teachers and students, rather than the words themselves.

5 Words We Must Agree Upon

Right now, we are at risk because of polarizing politics, COVID-19 exhaustion, and a lack of credibility on the part of the people who say the words and those who hear them. So, in an effort to get the ball rolling with this conversation, I wanted to explore five words that need our time and effort.

There are numerous words we use that could be on a list, but this is a short blog and not War and Peace. If you have other words that you believe should be on the list, please add them to the comment section below or tweet to me so others can take part in the conversation.

The five words I chose are below, and they are not written in any order of importance because they are all important. However, they are words/phrases we need to get right in education. They are:

Student engagement - I have heard many teachers and leaders talk about student engagement. At its best, student engagement is when students are developing their own questions and engaged in their own learning, regardless of how important that learning may be to the adults, when they are by themselves or with peers. Sometimes that learning involves passion projects. At its worse, student engagement is seen as time on task, but time on task does not necessarily mean that students are authentically engaged. Trowler (2010) writes,

“Student engagement is concerned with the interaction between the time, effort and other relevant resources invested by both students and their institutions intended to optimise the student experience and enhance the learning outcomes and development of students and the performance, and reputation of the institution.”

Wow. That’s a lot to take in, right? If you read deeper into the research Trowler cites, you will find that not all researchers agree on one definition. So, it’s best when leaders, teachers, and students can engage in dialogue and create their own definition from the research above. Student engagement is a great topic for a school leadership team to explore.

Feedback – Well, we know that many people don’t like this F-word. The reason being that feedback is often one-sided and left for teachers on college-ruled yellow paper where it’s identified what the teacher didn’t do, rather than what they did. Feedback is supposed to be multilayered and goes from teacher to student, student to teacher, leader to teacher, and teacher to leader.

Unfortunately, too many leaders and teachers jump into providing feedback without really developing a common understanding of what feedback is with everyone involved in the process. Hattie writes (2009. p. 179), “Feedback is information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, book, parent, one’s own experience) about aspects of one’s performance or understanding.” What this means is that feedback is not just about a teacher letting a student know how they are doing on an assignment, but it is also about how a student is letting a teacher know how that teacher is doing when it comes to instruction. And yes, feedback also needs to be focused on thousands of other things like how leaders lead.

Growth mindset – We have all heard about the growth mindset, and I venture to guess that all of you reading this post have used it at least once or twice in conversation. Many educators may believe that the growth mindset is about effort, when in reality, it is so much more. A growth mindset is how we (i.e., students, adults, etc.) approach situations and learning during them. In this Education Week article, Dweck writes,

“A growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.

Learning walks – For full disclosure, I have a love-hate relationship with learning walks. A few years ago, I wrote this blog focused on the myth of walk-throughs, and sadly, those myths are still present in walk-throughs and learning walks.

The love comes from engaging in learning walks with a learner’s mindset where we nonjudgmentally enter into classrooms to get a sense of the teaching and learning taking place. The more we do them, the more we learn about the learning going on in our schools.

Unfortunately, too many leaders walk in and provide feedback focused on all of the things they believe the teachers are doing wrong, when those said leaders may not have the credibility to do so, and that creates a negative impact on the school climate. That is where the dislike of learning walks come in for me. Where is our curiosity? Walking into a classroom to observe learning should be an honor and privilege and not a list of tasks that we need to check off the box.

The whole definition of learning walks needs to be explored with teachers where leaders and teachers focus on the purpose and outcomes of doing them. They are only a process that can be fully utilized and offer maximum impact if teachers and leaders develop the definition of learning walks together.

Culturally responsive – It amazes me that this continues to be a phrase that brings about a visceral reaction on the part of some because they believe that we have become too politically correct in schools, which is the reason why a common understanding is so very needed when it comes to culturally responsive teaching.

According to Brown University,

“Culture is central to learning. It plays a role not only in communicating and receiving information, but also in shaping the thinking process of groups and individuals. A pedagogy that acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates fundamental cultures offers full, equitable access to education for students from all cultures.

Culturally Responsive Teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning (Ladson-Billings,1994).

In the End

If we are to get to deep learning and have effective communication in schools, we need to make sure we are not just using the same words but understanding what the words actually mean. Misperceptions around words can lead to negative school climates and a lack of understanding of how to get to deep learning, which is a skill that promotes the ability to transfer learning from one area to the next.

There are so many words that can be added to this list, and I’m sure each educator reading this has their own. Some questions that can be asked to clarify what those educators mean when they drop the latest catch phrase in education, as well as provide the listener with an entry point in the conversation, are:

When you say growth mindset, can you tell me what that may look like in your classroom?

If you could paint a picture of culturally responsive teaching, what would it look like?

What do you feel are the necessary ingredients to a successful learning walk?

What are your favorite questions to ask when it comes to defining a common language and common understanding?

For a deeper look into developing a common language and common understanding, check out the YouTube video below.

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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