If We Have a Good Idea… Don’t Give It A Name

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Natalie Maynor: http://flickr.com/photos/nataliemaynor/2988366432/

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by Natalie Maynor: http://flickr.com/photos/nataliemaynor/2988366432/

Assessment For Learning… Flipped Classroom… Project-based Learning… 21st Century Learning

A few years ago, I was in a learning series and we were learning about the power of shifting our assessment focus from summative (grades, events) to formative (feedback, ongoing).  The facilitator, Yrsa Jesnsen, quoted someone when she said “if we have something good… don’t give it a name”.  What she meant by this was that once we give something a name, it can be defined by whomever and also be branded, boxed, marketed and sold as a specifically defined idea rather than something that can grow and evolve.

I have had a number of conversations about assessment with people online… and what I realized is that people define this term based on their experience.  A US teacher will have a very different view on assessment than someone from British Columbia.  Although many will agree that assessment (ie. ongoing coaching and adjusting our teaching based on what we see) can be one of the most powerful things we do, after going through what a teacher from the US has to go through with endless standardized testing and top-down accountability measures, one can understand how the term assessment can take an entirely different meaning.  We have some teachers in our school use formative assessment practices in a way that is so powerful for our students; however, if I try to define it as AFL, the teachers tend to disengage and give me the look of “do not try to define what we are doing with a single term”. (also check out this post by Marissa Knauf on assessment jargon.)

For the past few days, I have had the privilege of attending and keynoting a conference in Lafayette, Indiana. During my keynote, I said that it is not about “21st Century Teaching/Learning” as a century is a long time; while 80 years from now, we will still be in the 21st Century, I hope that teaching and education will look significantly different than it does today.  Unfortunately, what has happened is that we have taken skills like collaboration, creativity, etc and labeled these as “21st Century Learning”.  As a result of this, companies have been able to define, box these skills up and sell it to people as a particular idea that does not evolve.

During the conference, I sat in a great session with Brett Clark on Flipped Teaching and Project Based Learning and Brett’s thoughts led to a discussion in which my friend Brett Gruetzmacher said to me, it is not about the title of what you are doing – it is about what works for you and your students.  As Brett Clark said, poor teaching is poor teaching… no matter how you shuffle the cards, they remain the same.  So even if you flip your teaching, if you were ineffective before, your students will still struggle.  It is important to take an idea and make it work for us and more importantly, make it work for our students.  In the past, I have been very critical of the flipped class model as I chose to define it as “videos for homework, worksheet in class”. Had I held firm with my beliefs, I would have disengaged from the conversation and not learned from Brett and passionate educators like Carolyn Durley who have defined the flipped model in a way that works for their students and have also included changes to how they assess kids and design their lessons and learning environments.  I have actually encouraged Carolyn to stop calling what she is doing as “flipped” as it is so much more than how so many people define the idea.  She has maintained that she is working to share the stories of what an effective “flipped”  class can look like and can lead to.  Carolyn is a great example of a wonderful teacher whose story may be missed if we choose to define all that she is doing in a single term.

Not naming something may be an impossible task (just check out how many names/labels have been used in this post).  So maybe it is not so much about giving something a name but instead using the name to lead to a deeper conversation around student learning.  As teachers, we need to continually model a growth mindset and engage in dialogue around effective practices that work for OUR students.  Although we should avoid boxing and selling an idea, we need to be open to conversations around ideas in education.  Just because something or someone is labeled with a particular name does not mean that there is effective teaching and learning taking place.  It is less about the name, idea, or tool, and is more about the teacher. Ideas will not change education unless educators use, implement, and reflect upon these ideas in a way that is optimal for our students. We need to be careful to not close ourselves off due to a label and not let a name define what we do in so many different learning environments.

As this is an area I have struggled with, I appreciate your thoughts and feedback.

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. I once heard a speaker refer to these “catch phrase” and acronyms as lynt, tynt and nynt…last year’s new thing, this year’s new thing and next year’s new thing. If something is worth doing or works, it shouldn’t need a name or acronym, it should just be a practice; a verb, not a noun. By avoiding the naming, we spend less time defining the practice and more time refining it!

    • There are some great quotes in your comment… we spend so much time debating an idea when we don’t even have the same definition. We get stuck trying define things after that and in the meantime, we have done very little to (as you say) refine. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  2. I’ve seen this happen with PLC. Not a bad idea, but it became a boxed system that we implement. It’s an industry in itself.

    • Great example… I have seen districts “purchasing” the PLC model without even talking to teachers about it. The idea is a good one but when it becomes boxed and sold, meaningful implementation often fails.

  3. I just came back from a school vocal music concert. The choral director allowed the students to choose and perform the music the way they wanted to. She also had a traditional choir. It was interesting to observe the quality of the work they owned was significantly superior to the choir format. I keep working on this too Chris.

  4. I totally agree with your message, Chris. We need to focus on good practise and forget about all of the acronyms and jargon. If we keep ouw message simple, people will listen. If what we’re asking sounds complicated, then people lack the energy or “want to” when it comes to learning the skill and following through with implementation in their practice.

  5. A culture/teaching change, if it’s going to occur, has to be organic (it needs to sprout from the classroom and not from the boardrooms of definition and semantics). I applaud teachers like Carolyn and Brett who are not waiting for a District direction or a School Plan to address the needs of their students in innovative and engaging ways. This sense of educational entrepreneurialism, the patience behind trying to figure it out while your “in the muck of teaching”, this is the type of healthy risk taking we need to support in our schools.

    The power of all of this is not in the approach and it’s not the concept, it’s in exactly what Brett alluded to: contextualizing learning so that it meets the needs and engages the students we serve (and the thrilling thing is that in a high school, what this looks like may change with the next 30 students you see an hour from now)

    Chris, you are so right. We’ve got too many labels in education: from educational concepts that become redundant through acronyms ‘gone bad’ to students who themselves get labeled and “packaged” by our own expectations of what we think they can and can’t do.

    I can recall, very vividly, a conversation I had years ago with Chris Kelly (who was then our Superintendent). At the time I was a classroom teacher and he took the time to speak with me about an idea I had. Funny, I don’t remember the idea now but I do remember what he said to me in response. He told me that the idea took precedence over the title. A Superintendent talking to a teacher; an idea and a label!

  6. Chris,
    I am convinced that this issue is one of the reasons there seems to be a growing disconnect between what teachers are saying works best for kids (grading practices, homework, awards, etc) and what the general public are saying ( I’ve written about this before).
    You are right, rather than give our pedagogy a label, we need to describe our rationale and its positive impact on kids learning.

  7. Hey Chris,

    To be honest, naming is not the issue. It is jumping on the bandwagon of something new and not being thoughtful of it. It is also that we are too worried about what happens if we start asking questions about an initiative. Challenging things like the “Flipped Classroom” are good for education because we are modelling the aspects of critical thinking that we are looking for from our students. A lot of times educators can get upset when we ask questions about practices (awards, lack of awards, flipped classroom, BYOD), but that actually gives us the opportunity to do better for our students. Saying something is “stupid” helps no one either, as many have done with social media and learning. Ignorance can be dangerous when it is disguised as an abundance of knowledge.

    For example, if someone at Blockbuster would have started questioning what they were doing a little harder, maybe you would still see their business around.

    I guess I question this post against “naming things”. It is not the issue. It is mindlessly accepting things that is the biggest issue. We have to ask questions, put ourselves in experiences to understand how things work for learning, and constantly refine and look to get better. I call that “Being a Thoughtful and Critical Educator”.

    Is that a bad thing? 😛

  8. Hey Chris, I find this to be such an interesting topic and you have done lots of good thinking around the power of words in this post and in the Black and White one.
    2 related observations I made this week. The first was how small differences in word meanings can create confusion and distance in a conversation between people. In talking with other teachers from the US who have different (but significant) meanings for the words AFL and marks, I observed that if I had not had the opportunity to discuss the topic in depth with them, there would have been significant disconnect between what I thought I was saying. It was strange to me but I did notice how this small difference alienated rather than connected. It was because I already had a connection with these people that we were able to clear up the misunderstanding and have a meaningful discussion. I also noticed how important it was to have common words to have a deep rich conversation.

    Second, during a “what sucks” session, I was amazed at how often people who had gone to opposite sides of the room, were saying very similar things. Again it was in small but significant understanding of words that made people polarize.
    Maybe the challenge is not the words we use, but to create adequate “white space” for educators to create the shared meaning around words. I think educators feel bombarded by buzzwords, and so in an effort to make sense of the blizzard, they make snap decisions around a word.
    Personally I know the profound power of words to help me connect with others, as for example in the use of hash tags. I heard a good quote this week “it is time to transcend the buzzwords” and think that is what you are driving for.
    I know you have pushed my thinking significantly around how I use buzzwords and labels, this has helped me to connect with people but it also has distanced me from others. I appreciate your thoughtfulness around this pivotal topic in ed. Big shout out to you for being a great mentor and causing me to look at topics from new perspectives. You rock buddy 🙂

  9. Good post. Here are my observations. I see people (mostly men for some reason unknown to me) glom on to the newest, shiniest educational trend and not only fully endorse it, but push it in PD and on social media, etc. They always claim the new trend is research- (ha) and inquiry based. Augmented Reality comes to mind. I’ve personally researched and tried it this summer. It’s cool. It’ll grab a kid’s attention. AT THIS MOMENT IN TIME AND WITH THE CURRENT KNOWLEDGE I HAVE ON THE SUBJECT, I find it limited. This could change tomorrow. I felt the same about iPads until I discovered a worthy application for such devices that a netbook couldn’t provide. You know what I value in an educator? Skepticism. Skepticism will keep you (and those around you) honest. Thanks for the read!

    • We often look to new as good and old as bad. Important to build on those effective ideas of the past and not be sold too easily on the new and shiny. I like how you have described a skepticism and that this can change tomorrow. We need this – embrace change but be reflective in doing so. Thanks Liz!

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