Definitions Matter

I don’t think it is overstating it to say that we don’t always speak the same language in Education. Aside from the more literal language barriers, the barrier of multiple definitions for critical problems holds us back from ever solving them. If we believe that teaching and learning is a craft to be honed, the skills require consistent and well understood definitions. Sometimes it feels as if we are chefs and each of us has a different definition of how to Chiffonade with our knives. It is little wonder when our dishes come out different.

I was in a meeting yesterday talking with an RTI expert that was mostly exploratory in nature.  We didn’t have a concrete outcome for how both sides would support each other, but we were getting there. And then it happened. Something that almost never happens in meetings of this nature, much less in education conversations in general.

Adena Miller, from the office of Teaching and Learning, defined her terms clearly and unambiguously. It was as if our entire conversation suddenly came into sync and we were able to look at the problem with the same eyes. She handed me a definition of RTI that didn’t use a loose metaphor of a triangle for supporting children. It didn’t speak about all of the different ways in which we can blur the lines of IEP, ILP, 504 and other “plans” we can use with children. It made clear and strong knife cuts, showing what was at the core.

It wasn’t that the definition was something overly unique, but rather that it existed. It wasn’t that it just gave a single statement that gave meaning to the initialism of RTI, but rather it spoke to what RTI was and was not. RTI is “NOT an Accommodation or Consequence.” RTI is “supplemental instruction that narrow the focus to address specific skill deficits.” Adena was quick to point out that this definition was not hers alone, but was based upon the work of The Standards-Based Teaching & Learning Guide. To me, this shows that our definition of terms can come from research and still be coherent. They can be descriptive and not be destructive to change.

It was this clarity that most of our conversations both lack, and are desperate for. In defining our terms, we can move forward from the alphabet soup of acronyms and initialisms, the inside jokes of our educational conversations. But, how often do we stop a meeting or a conversation and define just what it is that we are talking about? How often do we make a space for understanding of expectations and bias? In my experience, not often enough.

And that is what made this meeting so special. It is what makes this work so important. It is what makes me think of what is possible when we are all using the same language.

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