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The Language of Professional Learning

Communication is the heart and soul of all relationships. As a writer and speaker, and as a social being, I am keenly interested in words and the meaning they convey. I believe that I am responsible and accountable for the words I choose to use, and thus, what they communicate.

Currently, there are several terms worthy of exploration. One of these is in-service as it refers to activities provided for adult learning. In its early use, in-service referred to the period that followed pre-service, when teachers-to-be attended a post-secondary institution to receive a degree and a certificate enabling them to be hired as a teacher. For the most part, the term in-service is seen as archaic. Educators' post-college continuous education has became known as staff development, which was succeeded by professional development, and now the term professional learning. I would hope that in-service can be used appropriately to refer to a time period, not to activities.

Another term that has for some time arrested my attention is workshop. Ugh! When I hear workshop, I envision people using saws and hammering nails, shavings falling to the floor. What educators do in "workshop" activities is share knowledge, develop skills, and generate applications across a group of people. The more appropriate term for this is is large group learning session. A really sweet term, I think; maybe cumbersome to use, but certainly more explicit in conveying what the activity truly is.

Next, are we really training people? That is the province of horses and dogs. We develop people. Rather than training, I like to use professional development ... and, because it takes time for people to make the transition, I typically use training/professional development to nudge the transfer of terms.

Truly difficult is the challenge for a currently acceptable word for student results -- results that we analyze and plan for, as an integral part of designing professional learning. Student achievement was a useful term until it became associated with high-stakes state testing. We have always meant it to refer to what our students gain, what they will know and what they will do. There are some school systems that use the term "student attainment," but that sounds foreign to those of us in the U.S. What to do? I like student outcomes quite a lot, or student results, or student gains. Like anything, it will require a bit of time for this verbiage to resonate across our public.

Words have multiple interpretations, and selecting them for the best and most accurate meaning is difficult. But we must start somewhere, and that somewhere must be here and now.

Shirley Hord
Scholar Laureate, Learning Forward

Got any other professional learning terms or phrases that you'd like to phase out? Let us know.

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