The Most Dangerous Phrases in Education

I’m writing this to provide some balance. I know it probably won’t be well received by all…or most…or quite possibly anyone, but I believe it is important to write. There are a few phrases I see on twitter that cause me to cringe…mostly because they are presented without any context. While these sayings frequently produce ‘mic-drop’ comments, they can be quite dangerous for novice teachers. Seeing someone exclaim these phrases on twitter can place an unrealistic belief about what a classroom should look like and sound like.  

So, here goes, in no particular order…the “most dangerous” phrases in education:

“The most dangerous phrase in education is ‘we’ve always done it this way.’”

Really? I guess I understand the sentiment. If something doesn’t work, continuing to do it because it’s always been done a certain way can be quite dangerous. But, and here’s where the balance comes in, it is a bit of an overgeneralization. Sometimes things are done continually because they work. It makes sense to continue with something in the classroom/school that works. Don’t change just to say you’ve changed. Perhaps the most dangerous phrase should be “we must change.”

“Learning should be loud.” or “Your classroom should be noisy!”

Again, I believe the thought here is students should be up and about, hands-on, discussing, etc. This, of course, can be true of learning. For balance, though, please understand learning can occur in the quiet classroom; either the teacher talking or students reading and left alone a bit with their thoughts and ideas. Learning does not have to be loud or noisy…at all.

“The person doing the talking is doing the learning.”

This phrase is very similar to the previous, but specifically insinuates that to learn, one must be talking. Not true. Can talking communicate understanding? Yes, but it certainly isn’t required. Think about it this way, if it were true one has to talk to learn, then we’re all wasting our time on twitter, watching youtube, reading anything, or any other activity where we’re not talking. Obviously, we are able learn doing any and all of those activities. Like the other quotes mentioned, proper balance and context are needed to properly understand this phrase…and often it’s provided without either.

“If you’re talking for more than 10 minutes, they aren’t listening anymore.”

I’ve written specifically about this statement here. This is very dangerous. Without context, this erroneous 10 minute limitation applies to elementary to university aged students, in all subjects, without consideration of ability. Teachers, please do not feel the pressure to limit your talking to your students…especially to 10 minutes. Explain, clarify, and reiterate whenever necessary for as long as it takes. You are the expert in the classroom and should provide the information as need be.

Now, I can already hear people saying “well, of course these statements require some context. That’s implied.” I would disagree. It is not obvious to all. I have heard of teachers being observed by administrators with stopwatches, recording their ‘talk time.’ These popular and dangerous statements are taken to heart. They are taken at face value by some. I would encourage all to provide context, whether it be a blog post or follow up tweets, to clarify and expound on these and other popular phrases.

What other phrases do you frequently see/hear that, out of context, are dangerous for the classroom?

Please feel free to leave a comment and add to the conversation.

28 comments

  1. ‘When he’s ready’

    For me, this is the most pernicious phrase. It is used by all who work around and with the early years child and is based on the assumption that everything develops naturally. This phrase is the reason children don’t learn to speak (because no one’s purposefully talking to them). This phrase is the reason children arrive at school in nappies. This phrase is also used when children don’t want to sit and learn in a phonics session.

  2. This from a local district’s website — “Our teachers will be designing fun and engaging lessons for your child!” This expectation of edutainment is secondary to the larger problem that a majority of teachers are responsible for all instructional design despite not having been adequately trained.

  3. “If you can google it you shouldn’t be teaching it” meaning memorization has no place in the lesson. The science of learning begs to differ!

  4. “Don’t teach for memorisation, teach for understanding.”
    Which sounds nice on the surface of it. But there are two problems with this one. Firstly it suggests that you can teach for understanding without knowing anything. Secondly, it suggests that those that do defend the importance of knowledge, are only interested in rote memorisation, when the truth is they see this as a step in the direction of true understanding.

    1. So true, this was the buzzword at our start of year PD sessions. Result = teachers running out to make friends with the students because the unstated implication is, if you don’t , the students won’t learn and won’t behave.

  5. “Studies show this data. Data doesn’t lie”
    Maybe not, but the people who manipulate the data to present it to spin their “reform” might.

  6. After spending too much of the day on Twitter engaging in discussions of early reading instruction, I’m going to add this one:

    Teaching phonics kills the love of reading.

  7. Blake – was it you that put out a tweet to critique the stats I sometimes come across, saying “you remember 20% of what you read, 30% of what you do, 40% what you say etc etc”. Did you critique this? I’m seeing it in some ed consultancy materials but can not find an academic source?

  8. MY hope is that as educators, we are able to release those assumptions about teaching that some ‘feel’ (we all have experiences that worked or not, as both learners and teachers) are appropriate. There are many learners, and so many styles of learning, so make efforts to cater learning snacks that they can digest and can build on and from… think tapas instead of trying to force-feed that main meal only you enjoy all the ingredients of? Expand the menu, expand the opportunity to learn and grow.

  9. Balance is the right way to look at it. I’ve been in supervisory positions and I always ask the teacher to reflect on whether or not what they are doing is working for the students. That should be the measure. But…… people do like to keep doing what’s comfortable, even if it’s not working, so sometimes you need to make huge change statements just to get them to move a little.

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