The Definition Deficit Problem

I recently heard a school administrator say that they were looking for “rigor” in how learners are taught. Great.Good for them.Now what?Just because you say words that sound good, doesn’t mean they will have any impact on how learners are taught or how your school is run. Too many times we say words with the assumption that everyone agrees on the definition. Thus, you fall into the definition-deficit trap.What you will find out in real life is that there is seldom agreement on a definition of a word unless you purposefully work to create a collective definition.Let’s list some “education speak” words that everyone thinks there is a collective definition, but there really is not.

  • Rigor
  • Relevance
  • Creativity
  • Value-added
  • Formative assessment
  • Growth
  • STEM
  • Curriculum
  • Instruction
  • Learner-Centered (I’m guilty of a lot of assumptions with this term!)
  • Student-Centered
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Personalization
  • Courses

This is a list I created in just a few minutes. Think about some of the education jargon you have used just within the past week. How many of those terms did you assume people agreed with your definition of the term?One way to overcome the definition deficit problem is to actually work to create collective definitions of the terms. I have created the “Define-Action Cycleā€¯ to help think through the process.Say you have a desire to increase rigor in your school. The first step is to define the term with all stakeholders that will be affected by it.

  • Create a definition with the school board (if you are a superintendent)
  • Create a definition with your staff
  • Create a definition with your learners
  • Create a definition with your parents
  • Create a definition with your business community
  • Create a definition with the important groups within your unique community.

Once you have all of this raw data, work on a definition that incorporates the similar themes that ran through the definitions. This is called “wordsmithing” (thank you Dr. Pat Crawford for teaching me this). Once you have created a collective definition, share it back out with everyone. You now have a collective definition.The next step is to align actions and/or tasks to accomplish goals that align with the definition.Sometimes, we get anxious and we start with action steps before we have a definition. If you start with actions steps before you have a collective definition, 3 things will happen

  1. No one is clear about the “why” of the actions
  2. There is little “buy-in” for the actions steps
  3. The action steps will become “compliance tasks” and not lead to meaningful change

To avoid this fate, you start with the collective definition and work your actions steps around the definition. You create feedback loops to make sure the actions are leading to what the definition is. Think about the definition of important words for your school and community. Are they collective definitions or just your definitions?

About 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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