Cash in on Learning: The Language Confusion in Education

by Richard Cash, Ed.D., FSP author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century

FSP Author Richard Cash (c) Free Spirit PublishingI’ve spent over 23 years in the field of education, from classroom teacher to administrator to consultant. Over the years I’ve used a lot of “educational” terms and language—in some cases to sound well-informed and in other cases as a parrot of what I had “learned.”

When I started writing my book, Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century, and I painstakingly labored to share my ideas in thinking and learning, I found I was using words for which I had no clear definition. If I was struggling to define these terms after 23 years in education, what about newer teachers? Most importantly, what about all those students I had worked with, taught, and possibly confused? What I’ve come to realize is many times we use words in education (“educationalese”) for which we are not specifically clear about the meaning or our intent in using them.

Of late, I’ve made it my mission to clarify terms and be more consistent in my use of educational language. In this blog, I will further my mission by helping you understand three often misused and misunderstood terms: curriculum, strategies, and skills.

Let’s start with that big word: curriculum. Most times when I ask a teacher, “What’s your math (or any other content area) curriculum?” the response will be something like, “Our district uses Everyday Math (or any of a number of text series).” Everyday Math, Houghton-Mifflin, Saxon, and so on, are not your curriculum! These are all examples of text series created by a publishing company. These texts are sources to assist in delivering your curriculum, or as I say, “They are a source, not the source!”

Advancing DifferentiationIn the most general of terms, curriculum is what we want our students to know, be able to do, and understand in any content or subject area. This includes all the factual bits of information, strategies and skills (both terms to be defined later), and concepts of a discipline. We use standards as a framework for our curriculum, to narrow the range of information our students are expected to learn. Assessments—whether formative, summative, or standardized tests—are used to guide instruction of the curriculum, assess student goal attainment, measure curricular effectiveness, and define student achievement of the curriculum’s objectives.

Above I mentioned the terms strategies and skills. These two terms are often used synonymously and most times inaccurately. To begin with, a strategy is a discrete action and is used consciously. Strategies are the foundational or procedural building blocks needed to fully acquire a skill. Once a person has amassed a sufficient number of strategies and uses them unconsciously, he or she is then said to be working “in the skill level.” This automatic use of strategies is called a skill.

For example, to acquire the skill of reading, a student must amass strategies of phonemic awareness, context clues, inference, prediction, comprehension, and so on. The reason I encourage teachers to use the terms strategy and skill correctly is because as we help students develop skills, we need them to first be aware of the individual strategies they are developing and amassing. We all learn best when we can put meaning behind what we are learning. When teachers are able to specifically break a skill into its discrete strategies, students will do a better job of focusing on what they are learning versus what they are doing.

For examples of the differences between the terms strategy and skill, download the PDF I’ve created and posted in Suggested Resources, below.

What educational terms confuse or frustrate you?

Click here to enter!Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., is an internationally known educational consultant and author of Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. Dr. Cash has worked in all levels of education from a classroom teacher to district administrator and post-secondary instructor. You can see his website at www.nrichconsulting.com.


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Suggested Resources
PDF: “Defining the Difference Between Skills, Strategies and Process” by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.


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One Response to Cash in on Learning: The Language Confusion in Education

  1. I’m so glad you brought this topic to light! We constantly create ridiculous terminology in education for things that already have names. Why do educators use such garbled language? Do we do it to seem more professional in the eyes of the public? Does it make our profession more of a science? The terms objectives and goals are interchangeable to me but often used differently in education. And a few years ago we called kids “struggling readers” but now it’s more correct to say “striving readers”. Teachers are constantly having to prove how current they are by using only the newest phrases.

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