December 12, 2022

Blur words are words that are so vague in meaning that they are not useful in trying to explain anything. Those of us in education come across blur words a lot...they are kind of like the phenomenon when you buy a new car, and then suddenly almost every car you see is just like yours. Blur words are like that. Once you see one, you see them everywhere.Let's look at my top five blur words in education.

Tom's Top 5 Blur Words In Education


1. "Engagement", do I see this word a lot in education. It is used in various ways, but the most common is some version of this statement, "We value (or strive for) student engagement every day!"Wow...good for you.

Here is a question back at you..."What does that actually mean?" What ACTIONS will teachers take to ensure "engagement?" What are the expectations of learners and staff to reach "engagement?" Are those expectations clear?

There is one simple way to prevent "engagement" from becoming a blur word...define it. Better yet, work with learners, staff, parents, and the community to arrive at a common definition of "engagement" for your local school community. Once the word is defined, create actions that learners, staff, and administrators can expect to do to ensure "engagement." If you don't define it and put action items behind the definition, then "engagement" is just another pretty word that means nothing!

2. "Personalized"...this word brings up a gag reflex and bile in the back of my throat. How many times have you seen a mission or vision statement talk about "personalized learning?"

"Personalized learning" went from something that could have been meaningful to a blur word at warp speed.A few things happened to make this a blur word.

First, every vendor under the sun, and some from the nether regions of the deep earth, attached "personalized" to their product. It is common to see "personalized" and "standards-based instruction" appear in the same sentence! What!? They are polar opposites!

Second, lazy administrators who wanted to appease their constituents just started to say, "We are doing personalized learning," to buy them time before people realized they had no idea what they were talking about.

Again, create a common definition of the word with all stakeholders from the community and then put actions behind the definition. What should learners, staff, administrators, and parents expect differently from the school based on the definition of personalized? Figure that out and publish it and talk about it until you are sick of talking about it...and then talk about it some more with all of your stakeholders!

3. "Differentiated" in "We strive to differentiate instruction for our learners." Oh, really are going to "differentiate." hmm... I am going to sound like a broken record here, but let me say one thing. Everytime a school or school district comes up with a new mission, vision, or goal statement, they should make sure they are defining the words in the statement. The HARD WORK is in creating the definition! This leads me to my next word...

4. "Customization"...this one is near to my heart because I use it all of the time. Every organization that I have had the privilege to work for in the last 17 years has had this word in the mission. Guess what? We never defined it. Most people had some sort of vague idea of what it meant to customize learning or customize learning solutions, but we have never become clear with the word.

Our leadership team where I work now has spent some time over the past month or so trying to define "customization." Wow, this is hard! There are nine people on the leadership team, and there were nine slightly different definitions. Needless to say, we are working to create a definition that we all can agree on. We were close to start with, but close enough is not good enough!

5. "Empowerment"...well now, isn't that nice, we want to empower learners and staff. Here are two questions for you.

First, does the community want "empowered learners?" Guess what, if your knee-jerk reaction to the question was, "Of course they do!" then you better spend some time talking with your community. 

Again the devil is in the details, or in this case, the definition of "empowerment." In this world of political polarization, y'all better know where the lines of "empowerment" are with your community.

Second, what does it mean, Ms. or Mr. School Leader, to "empower" your staff? Yinz better have clear expectations for your and their behavior under "empowerment", n'at. If you don't, "empowerment" just becomes a platitudinous, blurry word!

I would love to hear what your "blur" words in education are. May I suggest "Learner-centered leader?"

Hit me back with your thoughts!

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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