“Everybody knows what that means…”

A while back, I was explaining to some folks how my daughter understood the word “half.”

“Half” really isn’t a subjective word. It’s got a fairly clear definition. A half is created when an item or group of items is separated into exactly two parts that are exactly the same size. But in the end, it isn’t the definition that governs how my daughter used the word.

She used it according to her understanding. In order to make that point, I created the following graph.

Water Drinking Spectrum

She understood “half” to be anything between “almost all” and “a little bit”. My lack of understanding of her perspective led to some conflict when instructions like “you need to finish your broccoli and drink half your water” were given. She thought she had followed directions. I disagreed. It wasn’t disobedience or defiance. We just both thought the other person had the same understanding we did.

Sometimes, I think it’s the most common words that are the most easily miscommunicated. Words like “teaching”, “learning”, “consequence”, and “discipline” are words that get thrown around with regularity with a surprisingly wide variety of meanings. Each teacher knows that their job is to “teach” so that their students will “learn”. This process works better when there is a plan for “discipline” complete with pre-thought “consequences.”

The commonality of those words often results in practitioners not feeling the need to build consensus around those ideas because “everyone knows what those words mean.” Over the past months, I’ve become more and more aware that those common, everyday words are actually extremely loaded. There is an extreme need for those words to be very clearly and carefully communicated and the failure to do so often presents a real barrier to struggling, frustrated teachers and learners getting to move forward.

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