Why teachers need to speak a common language

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It has been on my mind for a while, there are too many misunderstandings between teachers in schools and also between teachers and school leaders. We are, all too often, led into the false belief that because we are all part of the same profession, we speak the same language. I think we hold the same ideals; we want to improve student learning. As, for speaking the same language, we struggle at times.

The language of education has both old terms and new ones and they can both be misunderstood or, in some instances, not understood at all. I learned a great deal from attending the Association for Strategic Planning Annual Conference in Washington DC. One thing that most of the workshop presenters did was to define key terms to ensure that all participants could grasp what they were talking about. Even after doing this, participants in the various sessions would ask for clarification about a term if no definition was offered when the term was presented. One presenter even remarked about their own strategic planning journey commencing with all participants in the process gaining a complete understanding of key terms before they proceeded to the next stage. Why?

Firstly, teachers in a school may have taught in different education systems or attended different universities where the use of terminology was not consistent between them. I think about the term scheme of work, something I now understand to be the same as a unit plan or a curriculum map. Perhaps there are other similar terms that I have yet to encounter.

Secondly, teachers may have heard a term may times but because they have not explored it in any depth, their understanding of it is superficial. Some of their colleagues may be more knowledgeable about it but even their understanding could differ based on what they have read, heard and learned. For example, personalised learning or internationalism.

Thirdly, some teachers may never have encountered a key term before. For a profession of educators it is quite remarkable that when newer educational vocabulary is used in a presentation or workshop, the presenter can automatically assume people know exactly what they are going on about. All too frequently the opposite is true and because we do not make the time to define terms or check for prior knowledge and understand our participants are lost in the fog of the presentation and use this as a reason to say that they are overwhelmed by change. Some of our key education terms that relate to technology fall into this category. Do all teachers in your school fully understand what is meant by flipping the classroom? Additionally, many of us may be afraid to ask for fear of embarrassment in not knowing when perhaps we should.

All three of the situations above are an excellent reminder for school leaders and education workshop leaders to spend time giving participants time to understand key terms. Further to this determine the vocabulary that will be used in your school. Should it be scope and sequence, or should it be vertical articulation? You be the judge. Decide on one or perhaps use both but, most importantly, make sure that you and your teachers are not talking at cross purposes. It will save you a lot of time later on.

photo credit: questions via photopin (license)

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