Critical Guide: Terms & Phrases


This critical guide to terms, phrases, and slogans widely used by the American educational community is conceived as a kind of typhoid-tetanus shot, a controlled dose of the pathogen in nontoxic form to inoculate those who become exposed. Prospective teachers and members of the general public are bemused, bullied, and sometimes infected by seductive rhetorical flourishes like “child-centered schooling” or bullying ones like the dismissive words “drill and kill.” These terms and phrases pretend to more soundness, humaneness, substance, and scientific authority than they in fact possess. Promulgating this system of rhetoric has been an ongoing function of American schools of education, whose uniformity of language and doctrine ensures that every captive of the teacher-certification process and every professor trained to continue the tradition is imbued with educationally correct phrases.

The authors of an education-school textbook called Best Practices claimed that a doctrinal consensus exists among the important educational organizations – including the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the Center for the Study of Reading, the National Writing Project, the National Council for the Social Studies, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, and the International Reading Association – regarding the best principles of pedagogy. These consensus principles were lauded as “child-centered,” “progressive,” “developmentally appropriate,” and “research-based.”

On the authority of this professional consensus, teachers were instructed to de-emphasize and deplore practices represented by bad words like “whole-class instruction,” “passive listening,” “textbooks,” “broad coverage,” “rote memorization of facts,” “competition,” “grades,” and “standardized tests,” and to accentuate practices represented by good words like “hands-on learning,” “discovery learning,” “less is more,” “student responsibility,” “individual learning styles,” “cooperative learning,” and “non-standardized assessments.” None of this advice is sound. Yet, for any prospective teacher to whom the advice is presented so authoritatively and repeated so often, it would be reasonable to assume that it must be true. Repetition and consensus give the phrases a self-evident, not-to-be-questioned quality which induces those who repeat them to believe them earnestly and implicitly.

Almost all the familiar phrases can be grouped under five themes of progressive education, indicating once again the persistence and power of the progressivist doctrines promulgated from Teachers College in the teens and twenties and then replicated in every education school in the nation. Here are the five themes, along with the phrases still used to support them:

Tool conception of education: “accessing skills,” “critical-thinking skills,” “higher-order skills,” “learning to learn,” “lifelong learning,” ”metacognitive skills,” “problem-solving skills,” “promise of technology.”

Romantic developmentalism: “at their own pace, ” “child-centered schooling,” “developmentally appropriate,” ‘factory-model schools,” “individual differences,” “individualized instruction,” ”individual learning styles,” ”multiaged classroom,” “multiple intelligences,” “one size fits all, ” “student-centered education,” “teach the child not the subject.”

Naturalistic pedagogy: ”constructivism,” “cooperative learning,” “discovery learning,” “drill and kill,” “hands-on learning,” “holistic learning,” “learning by doing,” “open classroom,” ”multiaged classroom,” “project method” “rote learning,” “thematic learning,” “whole-class instruction, ” “whole-language instruction.”

Antipathy to subject-matter content: “banking theory of schooling,” “facts, inferior to understanding,” “facts are soon outdated,” “intellectual capital,” “less is more,” “mere facts,” “rote learning,” “textbook learning,” ”transmission theory of schooling,” “teaching for understanding.”

Antipathy to testing and ranking: “authentic assessment,” “conceptualization,” “exhibitions,” “performance-based assessment,” “portfolio assessment.”

So closely interrelated are the topics mentioned under each of the above headings that the following Glossary will largely omit cross-references in order to avoid bombarding the reader with constantly repeated indications like See also ‘”Accessing skills,” “Critical-thinking skills,” “Higher-order skills,” “Learning to learn,” “Lifelong learning,” “Metacognitive skills,” ”Problem-solving skills,” “Promise of technology,” and so on.

The family resemblances among these terms may be owing partly to a process of historical transformation. When a phrase like “learning by doing” becomes discredited, the principle may still live on in a protean transformation like “hands-on learning.” If the “open classroom” becomes a source of disillusion, it may be reborn as the “multiaged” classroom. A reader wishing to pursue the transformations of these themes may simply refer back to the groupings listed above, and may also consult the Index (of Hirsch’s book) to find page references to more extended discussions and documentations in the body of the book.

Before we Americans can cultivate new educational ideas, the ancient plot of ground must be weeded. Many people in recent years have expressed a sense that something is not quite right about these facile doctrines in all their various guises. For those persons, the following short commentaries are offered as reinforcements for their own insights and experiences. E. D. Hirsch, Jr.



 “Accessing skills” – A phrase used to define an aspect of “learning to learn.” Accessing skills are currently emphasized by our schools on the grounds that today’s knowledge is changing so rapidly that it will be irrelevant tomorrow. It is better to learn how to “access information” (i.e., how to look things up, or how to use a library or computer or spell-check program) than to learn a lot of soon-to-be-outmoded facts. The emphasis on accessing skills is an expression of the tool metaphor of education, which opposes itself to the “banking theory” or “transmission theory” of schooling (which see).

“At their own pace” – A phrase implying that children should develop naturally rather than being forced to learn too rapidly; also called “self-paced learning.” The idea is a logical consequence of the individualistic approach taken by Romantic developmentalism. Going at one’s own pace would seem to be more natural than going at someone else’s, but there is no reliable evidence to support the idea of self-pacing. On the contrary, the data show that the imposition of externally set timelines, goals, and rewards greatly enhances achievement.

“Authentic assessment” – A laudatory term for “performance assessment,” where students receive grades for their performances on realistic tasks such as writing a letter, producing a play, and solving a “real-world” mathematics problem. Such performances are also called “exhibitions.” The progressive tradition has long advocated teaching and testing through “realistic” projects instead of through separate subject matters, and has long rejected tests that probe isolated knowledge and skills (p. 244).

 “Banking theory of schooling” – A phrase rejecting the idea that adults transmit wisdom to students and stock students’ minds with important knowledge that will be useful in the future. Such knowledge, opponents of the banking theory say, merely indoctrinates students into accepting the social status quo. They recommend that the banking theory be replaced with “critical-thinking skills” (which see), which will develop independent-mindedness and lead to social justice.

“Break-the-mold schools” – A phrase used by reformers of the 1980s and ’90s to encourage school improvement. Some of the proposed break-the-mold changes have given greater governance power to individual schools and to parents. These changes have sometimes been beneficial. Other proposed changes, concerning the goals, contents, and methods of education, have turned out to be already-failed versions of progressive methods, which are now to be enhanced with “technology” (see “Promise of technology”).

“Child-centered schooling” – Also formulated as “student-centered schooling,” to include the later grades. The phrase is a self-description of progressive education, as in Rugg’s The Child-Centered School (1928). The idea is epitomized in the injunction “Teach the child, not the subject” (which see). The opposition between child-centered and subject-centered education implies that teaching which focuses on subject matter tends to ignore the feelings, (p. 245) interests, and individuality of the child.

“Competition” – A negative word in the progressive tradition. Progressive educational doctrine advises against graded tests because giving higher and lower grades destroys the spirit of cooperation and of egalitarianism, as well as causing students to work unproductively for grades rather than for the love of learning. It is undoubtedly true that too much emphasis on class rank and too much identification of intrinsic worth with academic grades are both distracting and inhumane.

“Constructivism” – A psychological term used by educational specialists to sanction the practice of “self-paced learning” and “discovery learning.” The term implies that only constructed knowledge – knowledge which one finds out for one’s self – is truly integrated and understood. It is certainly true that such knowledge is very likely to be remembered and understood, but it is not the case, as constructivists imply, that only such self-discovered knowledge will be reliably understood and remembered.

“Cooperative learning” – A term describing the pedagogical method of breaking up a class into teams of five or so students who cooperate to complete a joint task or project. One of its advantages lies in its use of more advanced students to help and teach less advanced ones, thus promoting the education (p. 247) children who want to do more and better work are sometimes discouraged on the grounds of “not cooperating” with the group.

“Critical-thinking skills” – Is a phrase that implies an ability to analyze ideas and solve problems while taking a sufficiently independent, “critical” stance toward authority to think things out for one’s self. It is an admirable educational goal for citizens of a democracy, and one that has been advocated in the United States since Jefferson. The ability to think critically is a goal that is likely to be accepted by all American educational theorists. But it is a goal that can easily be oversimplified and sloganized. In the progressive tradition that currently dominates our schools, “critical thinking” has come to imply a counterpoise to the teaching of “mere facts,” in which, according to the dominant caricature, sheep-like students passively absorb facts from textbooks or lecture-style classrooms.

“Culturally biased curriculum” – Is a term current since the 1980s, when the male European orientation of the school curriculum came under attack. These attacks were successful, and there arose a consensus (with varying degrees of enthusiasm and reluctance in different quarters) that the American public (p. 248) school curriculum should include more about the contributions of women and excluded ethnic groups.

“Culturally biased tests” – A phrase expressing the claim that many standardized tests, such as the SAT, are culturally biased. The claim arises from the fact that different cultural groups perform differently on the tests. The argument for bias is based on the following two correct premises: the innate abilities of the different cultural groups (as with all large groups) are similar; the groups have experienced similar schooling. From these two premises can be derived the conclusion that, since the innate abilities and the schooling of the groups are similar, and since the test results are dissimilar, the tests must contain hidden bias.

“Developmentally appropriate” – The phrase expresses the idea that education is a natural unfolding, and that for each individual child there is a natural and best time for learning certain subjects and skills. The term often accompanies a desire to preserve childhood innocence from adult civilization. Early-childhood specialists use the term “developmentally inappropriate” to imply that “premature” exposure and early hard work are harmful and time-wasting. Thus, the term “developmentally appropriate” is generally used to discourage schools from teaching certain subjects too soon, but rarely, if ever, to suggest that subjects are not developmentally appropriate because they are being taught too late.

“Discovery learning” The phrase refers to the teaching method which sets up projects or problems so that students can discover knowledge for themselves through hands-on experience and problem solving rather than through textbooks and lectures. Progressivists made discovery learning the chief or exclusive form of teaching starting with the “project method” (which see.) The premise is true that knowledge acquired on one’s own, with difficulty and by expending lots of time and effort, is more likely to be retained than knowledge presented verbally.

“Drill and kill” – A disparaging description of the pedagogical tool of drill and practice to teach children skills. Like the term “rote memorization,” it is a good illustration of the pugnacious tone of some progressive rhetoric. The phrase implies that drill and practice kills the interest and joy children have in learning. At the same time, it implies that needed learnings will automatically be acquired in the ordinary course of schooling by using naturalistic pedagogy like “discovery learning,” “thematic learning,” and the “project method.”

“Exhibitions” – Is another term for “performance-based assessments.” At the end of a period of study, students are asked to exhibit their achievements by handing in a portfolio, displaying a project, demonstrating a proficiency, or some combination of these. Exhibitions are excellent, though subjective, devices for motivating students at the classroom level. In the classroom, strict fairness and accuracy in the grading of every student effort, while always to be sought, may sometimes be less important values than effective teaching and learning.

“Factory-model schools” – A disparaging term used by progressivists to describe the sort of school system created to accommodate ever greater numbers of students in the early twentieth century. The massive new school system is pictured as a bureaucratic hierarchy topped by a superintendent or factory foreman whose job is to make sure that all the schools in the production line are performing in lockstep. Within classrooms, too, the factory-model school is pictured as imposing uniformity on students. They are described as sitting in rows, passively listening while an authoritative teacher indoctrinates them in h w at the system wants them to know and how the system wants them to think.

“Facts are inferior to understanding” – The opposition expressed in this and similar phrases between facts and understanding is a hallmark of progressivism. It is true that facts in isolation are less valuable than facts whose interrelations have been understood. But those interrelations are also facts (if they happen to be true), and their existence also depends entirely upon a knowledge of the subordinate facts that are being interrelated. Since understanding depends on facts, it is simply contradictory to praise understanding and to disparage facts.

“Facts are soon outdated” Phrased in various ways, this is one of the most frequently stated antifact propositions of the American educational community. From being so often repeated, it has achieved axiomatic status. The facts-are-always-changing idea gains what modest plausibility it has from the observation that history and technology are indeed constantly changing.

“Hands-on learning” – Is a phrase that implies the superiority of direct, tactile, lifelike learning to indirect, verbal, rote memorization. Multisensory learning is indeed an excellent method for integrating and fixing what a child learns, for instance, the use of tactile methods to help children learn the letters of the alphabet. Apprenticeship teaching, too, is an enormously effective, integrated, hands-on mode of learning a trade or profession.

“Higher-order skills” – Is a phrase for the superior thinking skills that many current educational reforms aim to achieve. The goal is to produce students who can think and read critically, who can find information, who have mastered metacognitive strategies, and who know how to solve problems. Such students, it is asserted, will be far better prepared to face the challenges of the twenty-first century than those who merely possess a lot of traditional, soon-to-be-outdated, rote-learned information.

“Holistic learning” – A term for classroom learning organized around integrated, lifelike problems and projects rather than around standard subject matter disciplines. The holistic teaching of math, for example, integrates it with lifelike situations and with other subject matters. Among the hoped-for advantages of holistic teaching are 1) increased motivation for children on the grounds that they can see the relevance of learnings which are part of larger or more realistic contexts, and 2) a more natural mode of teaching such as might be gained by life experience itself.

“Individual differences” – Is a phrase reflecting the admirable desire to combine mass schooling with respect for diversity and individuality. An important early use of the phrase was in a manifesto of education, the Cardinal Principles of 1918. The individual differences referred to there were mainly differences in academic preparation and ability, and the accommodation of those differences took the form of ability tracking. Currently, a more egalitarian use of the term implies that children differ in temperament, personality, and the kind of talents they have, and that they have different learning styles and different needs.

“Individualized instruction” – Is an ideal in education that recognizes individual differences in talent, interest, and preparation. It is universally acknowledged that the individual tutorial is the most effective form of teaching known. Tutorial instruction is not possible, however, in public schools, where the student-teacher ratio is typically 20 to 1. For that reason, an attempt in the public schools to provide individual instruction to some students often results in individual neglect for others, in the form of isolated, silent seatwork.

“Intellectual capital” – A phrase denoting the knowledge and skills a person possesses at a given moment. Studies have shown that the level of a person’s intellectual capital is highly correlated with a person’s ability to earn still more money and to gain still more knowledge and skill. As with money capital, the more knowledge and skill one already has, the more one can readily acquire. The idea of intellectual capital opposes itself to the tool conception of education, under which a mere store of knowledge is deemed less important than the gaining of learning skills. In the present book, the work of sociologists and cognitive psychologists has been cited to show that the tool conception is much oversimplified, that skills always require domain-specific knowledge. Hence, intellectual capital, repudiated under the tool conception as inert soon-to-be-outdated baggage, is in reality the main tool of future learning and earning.

“Learning by doing” – A phrase once used to characterize the progressivist movement but little used today, possibly because the formulation has been the object of much criticism and even ridicule. It is instructive, however, to include the phrase here because it continues to illuminate the progressivist tradition. Terms currently preferred to “learning by doing” are “discovery learning,” and “hands-on learning,” but it is important to remember that these latter-day phrases are adaptations of the earlier formulation.

“Learning to learn” – A phrase used to denote the principal aim of schooling under the tool conception of education. The idea is that the possession of a lot of knowledge which will soon be outmoded is educationally useless, whereas if one has the ability to learn, that will be a permanent acquisition.

“Less is more” – This phrase is meant to imply that depth is preferable to breadth in schooling. In some circumstances, the idea is certainly true, but the catchiness of the paradoxical formulation should not be permitted to mask the doubtfulness of the idea as a general proposition that can reliably guide teaching or curriculum making at different levels of schooling.

“Lifelong learning” – Is a phrase which reflects a goal shared by almost all educators since antiquity. Today, when new technologies must be mastered and even new professions learned, the task of making everyone competent to learn through-out life is a primary duty of the schools. There exists, however, a disagreement about the nature of the schooling that best promotes a lifelong ability to learn. Under the tool conception of learning, students must be given not only reading, writing, and computational ability but also further abstract competencies such as “accessing skills,” “critical-thinking skills,” and “higher-order skills,” in the belief that these abstract competencies can then be directed to an indefinite number of future tasks.

“Mere facts” – The phrase “rote memorization of mere facts” may be the most vigorous denunciation of “traditional” education to be found in the progressive armory. The phrase describes an activity that compounds deadly pedagogy (i.e., rote memorization) with deadly content (i.e., mere facts). In Romantic progressivism, facts are dead, but hands-on, lived experience is alive; facts are inert and disconnected, but understanding is vital and integrated.

“Metacognitive skills” – Is a term that, like “constructivism,” has a legitimate technical but an illegitimate nontechnical meaning. The illegitimate, broader application of the term identifies it with “accessing skills,” “critical-thinking skills,” “problem-solving skills,” and other expressions of the anti-knowledge tool conception of education. The narrower, technical meaning has useful application. Technically, in the scientific literature, “metacognition” means a self-conscious awareness of one’s own procedures in performing skilled activities.

“Multiaged classrooms” – A phrase referring to the grouping of children by proficiency rather than by age, with the result that children of different ages find themselves grouped together. The recent popularity of this idea may owe more to political and ideological pressures than to the demonstrated effectiveness of the practice. One such pressure is the great diversity of academic preparation of children of the same age in American schools. This preparation gap would be reduced by a more coherent and specific curriculum and by more accountability for definite grade-by-grade standards.

“Multiple intelligences” – A phrase popularized by the psychologist and author Howard Gardner. It is meant to replace the concept of IQ (a single general intelligence) with a theory of seven domains of ability under which almost every child can be good at something. The seven domains are linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Neither Gardner’s specific taxonomy nor his general interpretation is widely accepted by the psychological community. Nonetheless, specialists and laypersons alike concede Gardner’s general point that people are better (more “intelligent”) at some activities than at others.

“Multiple learning styles” – See “Individual differences,” “Individual learning styles,” and “Multiple intelligences.”

“One size fits all” – A phrase that disparages the idea of common learning goals for all children regardless of their interests and abilities. The phrase implicitly advocates the individualizing of education as much as possible – a highly defensible view, since individualized tutorial instruction is, by general agreement, the most effective form of schooling.

“Open classroom” – A phrase for an ungraded classroom in which children of different ages can learn – “at their own pace,” – and receive individual attention rather than follow in step with the class as a whole. In its pure form, “open” was also an architectural description—no walls between classes. Like all forms of naturalistic pedagogy, the open classroom has proved to be ineffective as a principal technique of schooling. (See also “Multi-aged classroom.”)

“Outcomes-based education” – Is a term of uncertain meaning which during the 1990s became a symbolic cause of verbal war between political liberals and conservatives. It is best understood historically. In the late 1980s and early ‘9Os, in the midst of public discontent with students’ test scores in reading and math, some professional educators proposed that schools pay relatively less attention to methods of schooling, such as discovery learning, and more attention to results.

“Passive listening” – A progressivist phrase caricaturing “traditional” education, which makes children sit silently in rows in “factory-model schools,” passively listening to what the teacher has to say, then merely memorizing facts through “rote learning,” and finally “regurgitating” the facts verbatim.

“Performance-based assessment” – The original term used by specialists in the psychometric literature for what is called variously “authentic assessment,” “exhibitions,” and “portfolio assessment.” It is a form of assessment in which a student is graded for a unified production similar to one that he or she would be called upon to produce in the real world outside the classroom.

“Portfolio assessment” – Is a phrase for a version of performance-based assessment. In portfolio assessment, students preserve in a portfolio all or some of their productions during the course of the semester or year. At the end of the time period, students are graded for the totality of their production.

“Problem-solving skills” – A phrase often used in conjunction with “higher-order skills” and “critical-thinking skills.” In a narrow sense, it refers to the ability to solve problems in mathematics or other specialized fields. More broadly, it refers to a general resourcefulness and skill that will enable the student to solve various future problems.

“Project method” – A phrase used to describe the naturalistic form of teaching devised by W. H. Kilpatrick at the beginning of the progressive education movement. His article called “The Project Method” (1918) was the most widely distributed article on American education that had appeared up to that time. Under the project method, subject-matter classrooms were to be abandoned in favor of “holistic,” lifelike projects that would enable students to gain the life skills they needed by working in cooperation with their fellow students.

“Promise of technology” – The phrase suggests that computers will revolutionize and transform schooling. Caution is called for. Some explanation is needed for the fact that student scores have not significantly risen in schools that have been well supplied with computers. Many reasons for this disappointment have been offered: teachers have not learned how to use these instruments; good software is slow in coming; the school has not become fully computerized.

“Research has shown” – A phrase used to preface and shore up educational claims. Often it is used selectively, even when the preponderant or most reliable research shows no such thing, as in the statement “Research has shown that children learn best with hands-on methods.” Educational research varies enormously in quality and reliability. Some research is insecure because its sample sizes tend to be small and a large number of significant variables (social, historical, cultural, and personal) cannot be controlled.

“Rote learning” – The phrase “rote learning” is often followed by the phrase “of mere facts.” The practice of rote learning dates back to the now-little-used method of asking a whole class to recite in unison set answers to set questions—whether or not the students know what their recitations mean. That practice has all but disappeared.

“Self-esteem” – Is a term denoting a widely accepted psychological aim of education. There is consensus in the psychological literature that a positive sense of one’s self is of great value to achievement, happiness, and civility to others, whereas a negative sense of one’s self leads to low achievement, discontent, and social bitterness.

“Student-centered education” – Another phrase for “child-centered education” (which see), but with the word “student” substituted for “child” to bring the principle into the middle school and high school years. It expresses the idea that it is more humane to focus on the well-being of the child than on “mere” academic learning.

“Teaching for understanding” – A phrase that contrasts itself with teaching for “mere facts.” It is associated with the motto “Less is more,” which implies that depth is preferable to breadth in education, on the claim that depth leads to understanding, whereas breadth leads to superficiality and fragmentation.

“Teach the child, not the subject” – A phrase connoting the principle behind “child-centered schooling” (which see). The benign and reasonable interpretation of this famous battle cry of progressivism is that one should attend to the moral, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the child at the same time that one is providing an excellent grounding in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

“Teach the whole child” – The third of the original three child-centered phrases of progressivism: “child-centered schooling,” “teach the child, not the subject,” and “teach the whole child.” All three phrases enjoin the schools to take a more humane, less subject-matter-oriented position toward schooling.

“Textbook learning” – A phrase disparaging traditional forms of education, symbolized by textbooks, in favor of more “holistic” and lifelike modes of instruction in which knowledge is gained from hands-on experience rather than from verbal statements in textbooks. Often, the objection to teaching by means of textbooks has all too much validity, because many currently available textbooks are unselective and unemphatic, having been designed to pass through textbook-adoption committees in populous states and, therefore, to please everyone.

“Thematic learning” – A phrase used to describe the “holistic” teaching of different subject matters across a common theme. For instance, the theme of “The Seasons” might combine a study of history, art, science, and mathematics in a particular classroom, or grade, or throughout an entire school.

“Transmission theory of schooling” – A derogatory phrase used by progressivists to imply that traditional schooling merely transmits an established social order by perpetuating its culture, knowledge, and values. It is contrasted with the more “modern” tool conception of schooling, which aims to produce students capable of thinking independently and of criticizing and improving the established social order.

“Whole-class instruction” – Is a neutral description that has negative connotations in the progressive tradition, since it is understood to imply “lockstep,” “factory-model” education. It is caricatured by an authoritarian teacher droning on at the head of the class, or by passive, bored students, barely conscious and slumping in their seats, or by intimidated, fearful students, sitting upright and willing only to parrot back the teacher’s words. These are not accurate descriptions of what effective whole-class instruction is. It is predominantly interactive, with much interchange between students and teacher.

“Whole-language instruction” – A phrase denoting an approach to the teaching of reading that emphasizes the joy of good literature and avoids drill-like instruction in letter sounds. In theory, the method is supposed to motivate children by emphasizing an interest and pleasure in books, and by encouraging students to learn reading holistically, just as they learned their mother tongue – as a “psycholinguistic guessing game.”