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Frequently after working with a school district, we hear teachers and leaders say that one of the most valuable things they learned from their time with McREL was “a common language” to use with one another and with students. You might be wondering: What exactly does this mean? And why would educators ever have felt they were deficient in their professional vocabulary?

Every profession has its terms of art (“jargon” is a less-nice way to put it) and the widespread use of such terms across entire industries can help to assure efficiency, even save lives. An aileron is an aileron regardless of what plane you’re piloting; a syringe is a syringe at any hospital. Sometimes variations in professional terminology can lead to momentary confusion, but it’s usually sorted out quickly.

The concern in education is that our opportunities to reach children at developmentally appropriate moments are fleeting. If we lose a teachable moment because a student or a colleague wasn’t exactly sure what was being talked about, it may be gone forever. Students need some consistency as they move from class to class, from year to year (and, in a perfect world, from school to school or district to district). Regardless of the new challenges that await them, they can hit the ground running if they can count on certain terms and concepts remaining constant. Examples from McREL’s Classroom Instruction That Works® (CITW) include:

  • “I can” statements
  • Growth mindset
  • Recognition based on effort, grit, and perseverance
  • Note-taking and summarizing

Can it actually make a difference if Ms. McGillicuddy talks about “summarizing” but Ms. Crabtree talks about “recapping” or “condensing” or “synopsizing” or “abridging”? It absolutely can. It’s important for students to know, the moment they launch into a new unit or take their seats in a new room, that they already have some of the skills they’ll need to succeed. For students, the confidence-building power of a common instructional language can’t be overstated. The anxiety that can build up around figuring out how the new teacher “does things” evaporates when they hear familiar language.

For teachers, the efficiency gains alone are worth the effort to synchronize terminology. What sense does it make for students to spend 45 minutes (or more) in a classroom where questioning means listening silently to a lecture and timidly raising a hand afterwards, only to transition into one where questioning means forming small collaborative groups and energetically peppering one another with inquiries? In this example, the same word, “questioning,” can denote two completely different classroom experiences. How many precious minutes of instructional time do you want to dedicate to explaining to students that, basically, “We don’t do it that way in my room”?

Once you identify the issues caused by lack of consistent language, you can start tallying them and get an appreciation for how much time and energy is at risk. Teacher, why is your summary format different than my other teachers’? Why do we review “I can” statements in one classroom, “goals” in another, and “targets” in another? Why do our notes have to look like that? When can we answer questions aloud? Teaching and learning are hard enough … let’s eliminate some of the guesswork!

Like other seemingly simple ideas in education, all of this is easier said than done. We’re talking more about a belief system than a vocabulary list. I’ve spent time in enough schools and district offices to say with conviction that this goes beyond one-on-one learning and coaching with teachers; it has to be a schoolwide, and preferably district-wide, effort. The common language needs to be developed and shared in multiple settings throughout the school day and year, including PLCs, staff meetings, walkthroughs, and evaluations. If leadership actively supports and structures these activities, it will happen. If not, it won’t.

Finding and consistently using a common instructional language is just one part of a school’s efforts to improve. Also needed are a clear plan that includes a focus on high-leverage actions to improve teaching and learning along with a robust plan for data collection and monitoring, among other things. If you’re focusing deeply on data, good! But don’t think that gets you off the hook for collaborative professional conversation. Data is only useful if your team can discuss it meaningfully. And to do that you’ll need … you know it … common instructional language.

Cheryl Abla is a former teacher who now, with McREL, leads professional learning and coaching for K–12 educators on research-based strategies for effective instruction, use of classroom technology, English language acquisition, and classroom culture and climate. She’s a co-author of Tools for Classroom Instruction That Works, which provides easy-to-use tools and learning activities to help teachers get CITW strategies into the classroom on a daily basis.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


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