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Teaching Strategies: Do the Terms We Use to Describe Education Matter?

Jordan Catapano

We call our choice of words our “diction,” and the meanings of our words are “semantics.” We speak a language called English which has – according to how you count – well over 1 million words, which gives us plenty of options for how we choose our diction and semantics.

It makes a difference what words we select when communicating our teaching strategies. A small difference in wording can lead to a big difference in how something is understood. For example, I feel differently depending on if my wife calls me “handsome,” “cute,” or “hot.” Poor Dwight Schrute from the popular NBC television series “The Office” was designated as the “assistant to the regional manager” rather than just assistant manager. And the office of President of the United States was named “president” by the founders because, unlike kings or other rulers, an American leader just “presides” over the people without having much direct command, supposedly.

The words we choose begin to shape our understanding of the teaching strategies they’re symbolizing. There’s a difference between a “house” and a “home,” a “father” and a “daddy,” or a “man” and a “gentleman.” It’s clear that the words we choose matter since these words carry with them their implications and histories, conjuring up images and roles that define reality.

This is equally true when talking about education. The words we use to define the people, the roles, the activities, and the spaces make a difference. So it’s worth it to spend some time considering what we name things, and see what implications these terms might carry with them.

Teaching Strategies: Do We “Teach” or “Facilitate Learning?”

To teach seems to imply that one spends a majority of time engaged in direct instruction or otherwise leading students through a strict process. To facilitate learning, on the other hand, suggests the teacher is still in ultimate control, but is removed as the single leader and rather helps to guide, coach, and foster an environment where students have more ownership. The learning is at the center of the terminology, not the instructor.

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Classroom or Learning Space …

A classroom carries with it the classic connotation of desks in rows oriented towards the teacher in the front. When class is conducted in this room, some of the traditional manners of teacher-student interaction are implied. It’s also a room where “class” happens, or where the assigned learning for the day occurs. A learning space conversely might imply a more open, student-oriented learning process. It’s not a room where class occurs, but rather a space where learning happens. The emphasis is on the learning, which puts a little more ownership of that action in the forefront of participants’ minds.

Quiz or Opportunity …

I have a colleague who calls his quizzes “opportunities,” and I think it’s brilliant. Instead of students approaching a quiz like it’s an assessment ready to grill them on their competency, this rebroadcasts the assessment as an opportunity for students to show what they know. The latter puts a more optimistic spin on the situation and encourages greatness from students.

Principal or Lead Learning Officer …

Lead Learning Officer sounds perhaps overly official, like a nebulous position at some mega-corporation. But it hugely redefines how we understand the principal position. The term “principal” implies something that is the most important or central, but in a more decentralized school environment, the head administrator could rebrand themselves to put the emphasis on the purpose of the school: Learning. The principal is not just in charge of “Running the school,” but rather presumes a more focused role on what the school exists for.

An Intervention or a Boost …

Not all students learn at the same pace; so what happens when some fall behind? Instead of abandoning these students, good teachers will provide support for remediation and bring these students back up to speed as best they can. In many cases we refer to this process as “Intervention,” which might sound somewhat like a sneak attack. It might imply the act of someone “higher” than the student reaching down and pulling them up. A “boost” on the other hand implies the opposite: Someone gets down to their level and pushes from underneath them.

Passing or Proficient …

Is a student who passes your class proficient in all the core skills? In many classrooms the answer is “no.” A student could often pass class with a “D” and remain non-proficient in many core skills, which presents an enigma. How we understand student learning and success might be related to how we use terminology to define it in our student outcomes.

Is this just playing games with words, or do the terms we apply to our educational context make a difference in how we actually operate? It seems like schools, politicians, businesses, and many other stakeholders pay attention to how we label and define every aspect of education. While the distinctions between terms might seem trite or unnecessary in the end, it might be worth it to pause and ask ourselves, “How do the words we use help shape our understanding of education?”

What are your favorite distinctions in educational terminology? What would you add or change from our list? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website