Rigor, Grit, Collaboration: Teachers Share Why Buzzwords Don’t Always...

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Rigor, Grit, Collaboration: Teachers Share Why Buzzwords Don’t Always Inspire

By Kerry Gallagher (Columnist)     May 10, 2017

Rigor, Grit, Collaboration: Teachers Share Why Buzzwords Don’t Always Inspire

Teachers are no strangers to education jargon. From legal acronyms to the names of edtech trends, there seems to be an unending stream of new buzzwords—and accompanying tools—for educators to learn.

But when jargon goes viral, it sometimes gets, shall we say, overused. (If you want to see how extreme the problem can get, check out the giggle-inducing Jargon Generator.) The consequence is teachers tire of hearing the same terminology over and over, and the true meaning of important concepts becomes diluted or lost.

I’ve noticed this happening quite a bit lately. So a couple of weeks ago, I posed a question to my friends on Facebook: Which education buzzwords drive you crazy, and why?

While I thought I’d get a few responses, I did not expect quite so many—or such passion. 44 comments and countless replies later, my Facebook friends encouraged me to write about what unfolded. So here you have it: Not only my friends’ spirited responses, but my research into the origins of each buzzy edu-term. Some may have lost their power of late, but my findings show they could be worth a second look. I’ll let you decide.


This buzzword holds one meaning in education and another beyond classroom walls, and that can make things muddy. For example, one educator said, “Rigor reminds me of rigor mortis, the final stage of death. This is not what a classroom should be.” Another agreed there’s a connotation of rigidity, stating, “I believe when learning isn’t fun, we are failing at teaching. And rigor means harsh, inflexible, and strict. We certainly don’t need that in our classrooms.”

“Rigor” is not meant to have these negative associations. The term got its education send-off with the Rigor Relevance Framework and the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE). Eric Sheninger, Senior Fellow at ICLE, asserts that rigor in education is “a concept either describing an assignment that challenges students to use critical thinking skills or a learning environment that is challenging but supportive and engaging.”

According to Sheninger, rigor is about creating assignments that allow students to grow, and most of us can agree that’s a good thing, even if the double meaning renders the term problematic for some.


Edtech companies frequently boast that their tools allow students and teachers to collaborate as they write, record, design, and create. I probably hear about (and I’ll admit it, even talk about) the importance of collaboration at least once or twice a day.

But one educator, who is tired of hearing the term, pushes back, saying, “The idea that ‘if done together, a task must be good’ is flawed. Sometimes it’s OK to work alone or in quiet. Collaboration is not a goal; it’s a means to an end, and it might not always be the best means to achieve something.”

According to Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), “research shows that educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning.” CTE claims that collaborative learning exposes students to more diverse perspectives and encourages the development of both critical thinking and oral expression skills.

But, as educators, we know the best collaborative learning requires some individual critical thinking or reflection in preparation for working with peers or the teacher. So perhaps the fatal flaw of this buzzword is its overuse at the expense of other equally important means of learning.


Angela Duckworth, psychologist, researcher and former middle school teacher, explains in her well-known TED Talk that the common characteristic among successful learners is what she calls “grit.” Grit, Duckworth explains, is the combination of “passion and perseverance...living life as if it is a marathon, not a sprint.”

But some educators feel frustrated with how the word is increasingly being used. “It has become an overhyped synonym for determination,” one teacher explains. “I’m a little annoyed that so many words are dedicated to the message that determined kids are better than lazy kids.”

In some cases, others pointed out, people use grit to talk about perseverance without keeping in mind Duckworth’s element of passion. “Many people who use [the word grit] don’t know the definition and don’t actually demonstrate it in their own lives,” a teacher bemoaned.

Perhaps the danger is that it allows us to forget grit is something teachers can cultivate, not an inborn trait students should be marginalized for having or not having.

21st Century Learners/Skills

When educators talk about “21st Century Skills,” many refer to the “four Cs”: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. These skills were determined by the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21), a coalition of education leaders, policymakers and businesspeople looking to identify the skills children should master to prepare for the careers of the future.

But while educators agree that the skills and student outcomes identified by P21 are important, some roll their eyes when the phrase “21st century is used in the future tense,” as if it’s still 1999. “The 21st century started 17 years ago,” one teacher pointed out.

Others agreed, responding that they have already fully embraced these ideas—and have for a while. A district-level educator explained that “we’ve had five graduating classes of 21st century learners.”

In this case, there does seem to be general agreement about the value of the four Cs, so maybe the issue is the implication that teachers aren’t already considering what the next generation needs. Patronizing? Perhaps a tad...

Which leads us to...“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist”

Not a word so much as a cliche, this quote can be traced to Richard Riley, Secretary of Education during the Clinton Administration. It went viral thanks to Karl Fisch’s 2006 presentation, blog post, and video, created in collaboration with Scott McLeod, titled Did You Know? Shift Happens. The purpose of the message is to encourage educators to embrace new technologies and methods of assessment instead of dismissing them.

Of course, while many innovative teachers agree with the sentiment, they’re tired of hearing it. One said, “While this is true, it should not be stated emphatically like it is new information.” Another educator agreed and pointed out, “This is a statement that has literally been true since the Industrial Revolution.”

In every generation, new industries and careers are created as society evolves. Perhaps the tension isn’t around whether the sentence is true, but whether its use translates to actionable steps teachers can take to truly help students.

So...do words matter?

Upon reviewing the origins of each of these education terms, it became clear to me they were all coined with the best interest of students in mind. But when they become overused or misappropriated, educators can experience buzzword fatigue—or even feel patronized—and the sound reasoning and research behind the words becomes diminished or obscured.

One teacher summed it up nicely saying, “Anything becomes a buzzword when we don't put the full weight of our beliefs behind it—when we say it just to say it, or just because we feel like we are supposed to say it. I used to think that buzzwords bothered me but what really bothers me is imprecise language using words without intention.”

When it comes down to it, educators are more interested in what works than the trendy words used to describe it. So teachers, however you bring grit, rigor, collaboration to the 21st century classroom, do it with all your heart.

Kerry Gallagher (@KerryHawk02) is a Digital Learning Specialist at a 1:1 iPad school serving 1500 students grades 6-12. She is also the Director of K-12 Education for ConnectSafely.org, and an EdSurge columnist.

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