Words Get in the Way

by Robert Pondiscio
November 30th, 2012

This blog has long kvetched about the tendency to use terms like standards (what proficiencies kids should be able to demonstrate) and curriculum (the material that gets taught in class) interchangably.  Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH school observes that education lacks a common vocabulary, which makes life harder for teachers.  “They get bombarded all the time with new products, websites, software that all claim they can get students to ‘deeper learning.’ But without a common understanding of what actually qualifies, it’s hard to know if X even purports to get your kids where you want them to go,” he writes.

Goldstein compares education to medicine where there is broad agreement, for example, on the five stages of cancer–and that makes it easier for for medical professionals and patients to work together.  “When scientists come up with treatments,” he notes, “they often find them to be effective for cancers only in certain stages. So when they tell doctors: ‘treatment only effective for X cancer in stage two,’ everybody knows what that means.”

In education, no such common vocabulary exists.

“Our sector talks a lot of “Deeper Learning.” Or “Higher-Order Skills.”

“But what does that mean? There’s not a commonly-accepted terminology or taxonomy. Instead, there are tons of competing terms and ladders.

“In math, for example, here’s language that the US Gov’t uses for the NAEP test. Low, middle, and high complexity. I suppose they might characterize the “high” as “deeper learning.”

“Here’s Costa’s approach, a different 3 levels. Text explicit, text implicit, and activate prior knowledge. Again, perhaps the last is “deeper learning.”

“Here’s another take, more general than math-specific, from Hewlett.

“A software like MathScore has its own complexity ratings.

“And so on. You could find 10 more in 10 minutes of Googling.

Goldstein posts a question from Massachusetts’ MCAS tests, a perimeter question that shows four different rectangles and asks, “Which of these has a perimeter of 12 feet?”

“First you need to know what perimeter means. Second you need to know you that you need to fill in the “missing sides.” Third you need to know what to fill in, because you understand “rectangle.” Finally you need to add those 4 numbers. If you only understand 3 of the 4 ideas, you’ll get the question wrong.

“Does this question probe “deeper learning” for a 3rd grader? Who the heck knows?

If this strikes you as mere semantics, think again.  A lack of an agreed vocabulary — what is a “basic skill?”  What is “higher order thinking?” — is not merely irritating, it can lead to bad practice and misplaced priorities.   A third-grade teacher looking to remediate a lack of basic skills might seek help from a software product but she would have “no real idea on how ‘deep’ they go, or how ‘shallow’ they start,” Goldstein notes.  “No common language for ‘Depth’ or ‘Complexity.’”

I would add that the problem is more fundamental than that.  If a teacher is told “teach higher-order thinking” she might incorrectly assume that time spent on basic knowledge, math skills or fluency is a waste of time.  Or, in the worst case scenario, that reading comprehension or higher order thinking can be directly taught.  

In reality, without the basic skills and knowledge firmly in place, there’s no such thing as higher order anything and never will be.  Yet terms like “higher order thinking” and “complexity” are held up as the gold standard we should be teaching toward.  Basic knowledge and prerequisite skills are the unlovely companions of “drill and kill” rather than, say, ”fluency” or “automaticity.” Mischief and miplaced priorities are the inevitable result.

A common vocabulary of diagnosis and treatment would help. 







  1. I agree 100%.In my district there is a feedback form which administrators use when they walk through a classroom. The administrator attempts to identify and mark what level of Bloom’s the teacher is teaching to. It is considered superior to be at the higher levels, no matter what students are “creating” or “evaluating”.Creating a poster is far more superior than learning the fundamentals of linear equations, because students are “creating”, regardless of the content.Bloom’s taxonomy, along with others, has become so misinterpreted and misapplied that many teachers and administrators believe students can apply higher-order thinking without the necessary knowledge.

    Comment by Kevin — November 30, 2012 @ 6:44 pm

  2. Theorists and some administrators also tend to think that what goes on in small group work is “higher order,” discussion of concepts, etc, when really it is one uninfomred kid telling the others random facts and unfounded claims. Or the plot of last night’s TV show.

    Comment by EB — December 1, 2012 @ 1:43 pm

  3. This is also a problem for many parents. I was recently on a discussion board for DC Parents and there was a huge debate about what or who is gifted. How is differentiated education performed. Many further debates about the “workshop method.” Education would benefit tremendously in clarifying the who, what and how of what they do. I would even speculate that they may gain more parental support if they did.

    Comment by DC Parent — December 3, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  4. DOK seems to be the rage in many school districts…

    Comment by Kev — December 3, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

  5. [...] a theory from a commenter at the Core Knowledge blog: In my district there is a feedback form which administrators use when they walk through a [...]

    Pingback by Are Stupid Administrators to Blame? | Wasting Time in School — December 4, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  6. No doubt you are correct. As a middle school teacher I frequently strive to design exercises and assignments that demand my students dig or go deeper. (We preach depth not breadth at my progressive school – Sabot at Stony Point, in Richmond, VA.) But if I hear or read someone else using that language – as much as I want it too excite me – I am instantly skeptical. Someone else’s “depth” may just be trying something new. You are right we need to be specific whenever we can about what makes something ‘deeper’ or ‘more complex’ or promote ‘higher order thinking.’

    Comment by LBCjr — December 4, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

  7. Anyone who has ever attended a “team meeting” on a student knows first hand about this problem. Special education teachers are notorious for spouting their jargon in an attempt to either impress and/or confuse others in the room or to convince the others of their (the sped teachers) value and significance. I see it as an insecurity on the part of the sped folk in an attempt to justify their positions.

    Get in there, find out what the student’s deficiencies are and address them. Never mind trying to impress someone with some theory/concept you may have studied in your masters program.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — December 5, 2012 @ 7:33 am

  8. This is not unique to education. I am working on a major project at a technology company, and 6 months in, I am still struggling to get agreement between the business, IT, and Sales on the definitions of the words that are commonly used when talking about the problem. People routinely use the same word to mean very different things, which leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding.

    Comment by Mia — December 5, 2012 @ 10:38 am

  9. This is unique to education. I had a conference with students who happen to having problems in there maths geometry and came across a nice blog recently explaining the tips to tackle that


    i hope this info would be helpful in your context also.

    Comment by Jessica — December 19, 2012 @ 8:20 am

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