A parent's glossary of educational buzzwords

Find a list of schools
Note: this page is currently under construction. Come back soon for an expanded and more user-friendly "smart glossary". [Updated September 2015]



Terms commonly used by educators


Terms defined

21st Century Learning /digital learning

Striving for 21st Century Learning is one of the most common aspirational goals today’s forward looking educators. The term "21st-century learning” is now identified with a number of core skills and competencies, most notably collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Broadly defined, 21st century learning has come to mean that schools need to teach a set of different skills to properly prepare students for a rapidly changing, technologically advanced world. Upon closer examination, describing what learning in the 21st century should look like is, in the words of Education Week, “open to much interpretation – and controversy.”

Advocates for 21st century learning tend to put tremendous faith in digital learning and the broader potential unleashed by access to the Internet.  Many apostles of the new approach focus to a large extent on developing accessing skills --- teaching kids how to learn (how to access information or look things up) rather than transmitting specific knowledge to the students. World knowledge and technology changes too rapidly today, so the argument runs, to bother with transmitting "soon-to-be-outmoded facts". As a result, schools teach kids how to access the Internet and tap into the storehouse of resources it unlocks far more than accessing traditional book or library sources. Social studies and humanities teachers are particularly troubled by the assumption that students can wisely choose, read with comprehension, or really understand things they Google on a regular basis. 

Assessment for learning

The latest innovation in student evaluation is known as assessment for learning. It attempts to integrate assessing students into the actual learning process instead of simply measuring mastery of knowledge and skills at the end of a period of assessment. It’s an approach promoted by American and Canadian learning assessment specialists, including educational progressives like the late Grant Wiggins, Jay McTigue, Ken O’Connor and Damian Cooper.  Informed by learning theory and brain research, it attempts to promote the active engagement of students in their own evaluation as a learning experience in and of itself. Ideally, students are expected to take responsibility for improving their own learning so they are better prepared for continuous learning throughout their lives.

In this model, teachers need to know at the outset of a unit of study where their students are in terms of their learning and then continually check on how they are progressing through strengthening the feedback they get from their learners. Students are guided on what they are expected to learn and what quality work looks like. The teacher will work with the student to understand and identify any gaps or misconceptions (initial/diagnostic assessment).

As the unit progresses, the teacher and student work together to assess the student’s knowledge, what she or he needs to learn to improve and extend this knowledge, and how the student can best get to that point (formative assessment). Assessment for learning is now being implemented at all stages of the learning process. 

Authentic Assessment

Assessing students competencies and skills in solving real life problems has gone from being a desirable component of sound, ongoing evaluation to an overarching philosophy. In its fully evolved form, authentic assessment provides opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning through more extended "real-world" (i.e. applied) projects. These projects can include, among others, letters, exhibitions, producing a play, or solving a practical mathematical problem.

Supporters of the new strategy believe this method of measurement is better than teaching through separate subjects and grading by objective multiple-choice exams. Teachers feel projects are more motivational and allow for more flexibility in accommodating different student learning styles and diversities. One of the biggest challenges is evaluating such projects without resorting to wholly subjective criteria and accommodating the various contributions of individual group members to the overall group projects. Psychometricians continue to claim that objective multiple-choice tests, rather than performance evaluations, are the fairest and most accurate measures of individual student progress and achievement.

Child-centred learning

The fundamental tenet of progressivism is child-centred learning rooted in the belief that educators should "teach the child, not the subject." They reject the idea of lectures, drills, and rote learning because, according to them, it ignores the "feelings" and "individuality" of the child. In the middle school or high school, the term commonly applied is “student-centred learning.” Canadian public schools experimented with “child-centred learning” following the 1968 appearance of the Ontario Hall-Dennis report, Living and Learning. It enjoyed much more success and acceptance in elementary schools and by the 1980s had faded as a major force driving school and curriculum reform. Academics and conservative educators like E.D. Hirsh effectively countered the trend with this popular claim: “Children are more interested by good subject-matter teaching than by an affectively oriented, child-centered classroom” and  “ learning at your own pace” did not prove conducive to either challenging students or raising academic achievement.

Cooperative/collaborative learning

Student group work is not new, but building whole units and courses around collaborative group learning is a creature of the 1970s. Pioneered by educational learning experts at Toronto’s OISE, Cooperative Learning is a structured, planned group collaboration activity designed to develop teamwork in tackling issues and solving problems. Most such group activities divide classes into work groups and task them with adopting a differing perspective or becoming well versed on one aspect of the topic. Organizing effective CL activities requires high levels or organization and preparation, but frees up teachers to engage more with students working in groups. It can prove time-consuming and often erodes actual teaching and student evaluation time. Independent research on its effectiveness is mixed with more capable students ending up doing most of the work, and students learning to be followers instead of leaders. Even harsh critics like E.D. Hirsh concede that CL, used in conjunction with whole-class instruction, can be effective in developing more in depth understandings. 

Critical thinking skills 

Critical thinking is the capacity to engage in clear, reasoned thinking and exercise sound insightful judgment. Originally conceived of as an intrinsic ability or skill, it has been transformed by a new breed of pedagogical experts into a systematic way of thinking defined as  the “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” (National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking)

Democratic classrooms

Giving students more voice in shaping the classroom dynamic and routines is an ideal long pursued by educational progressives. Creating school classroom environments more responsive to democratic values usually involves fostering positive discipline, a sense of social justice, and awareness of public issues. Initially inspired by American education philosopher John Dewey, it is now embraced by progressive educators, particularly in elementary schools, who seek to mould young democratic citizens and teach civic responsibility. 

Developmentally designed 

Educators influenced by child development theories, pioneered by Jean Piaget, tend to design school spaces and curricula in ways that are deemed appropriate to the child’s state of intellectual and social development. Most schools are now organized by age-range program divisions. School spaces for age 3 to 5 children provide ample room for indoor and outdoor play and the curriculum is not designed to impart core knowledge so much as to engage students with concepts and ideas within reach at various points in their personal development. 

Differentiated instruction

Differentiated instruction (also known as differentiated learning or, in education, simply, differentiation) is a framework or philosophy for effective teaching that involves providing different students with different avenues to learning (often in the same classroom) in terms of: acquiring content; processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas; and developing teaching materials and assessment measures so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability. Students vary in culture, socioeconomic status, language, gender, motivation, ability/disability, personal interests and more, and teachers need to be aware of these varieties as they are planning their curriculum.

By considering varied learning needs, teachers can develop personalized instruction so that all children in the classroom can learn effectively. Differentiated classrooms have also been described as ones that are responsive to student variety in readiness levels, interests and learning capabilities. It is a classroom where all students are included and can be successful. To do this a teacher sets different expectations for task completion for students based upon their individual needs.

The theory of differentiation enjoys widespread philosophical support, but translating it into consistently effective classroom practice has proven challenging. Providing different activities for the current range of capabilities in most elementary classrooms is taxing and reminiscent of the challenge faced by teachers in the traditional one-room schoolhouse. 

Direct instruction

A traditional form of instruction that is teacher–driven or teacher-guided based upon the assumption that teachers possess knowledge and skill that can be imparted or taught to students. Rooted in essentialist philosophy, this method is favoured by teachers who espouse the core knowledge curriculum and point to research supporting the effectiveness of “explicit instruction” for many and perhaps most students. (See teacher-guided instruction)

Discovery learning

Leaving children and students free to explore open questions and discover ideas and knowledge on their own is one of the core principles of modern progressive schools. Discovery learning takes place in problem solving situations where the learner draws on his own experience and prior knowledge and is a method of instruction through which students interact with their environment by exploring and manipulating objects, wrestling with questions and controversies, or performing experiments. It is considered a constructivist approach to education and is based upon the work of learning theorists and  social psychologists, most notably French child psychologist Jean Piaget and American learning theorist Jerome Bruner. While the approach is often credited to Bruner’s advocacy in the 1960s, it echoes some of the ideas first ventured by the founder of American progressivism, John Dewey.  Although discovery learning is very popular in elementary education, many researchers now question its effectiveness, especially in secondary schools. 

Enriched curriculum

Providing students with an academic, creative or athletics curriculum that exceeds provincial standards is usually what is meant by enrichment. Challenging students to excel or simply be the best that that can be, normally in one or two curricular fields or co-curricular activities, is presented as a prime advantage of private, independent schools.  

Flexible scheduling

An approach to school scheduling freeing up the daily or yearly school timetable to allow variations from the standard cycle of full-year or semestered schedules or permit deviations from the normal daily schedule of fixed academic periods.  Small schools have the freedom to innovate with grade level class groupings and schools of athletic or creative excellence tend to break with the normal schedule to allow for longer time allocations in specialized areas. Two prime examples of flexible scheduling are field trip weeks, Wednesday afternoon inter-school sports, and the modified (or year round) school year. 

Flipped classroom

A new method of teaching is turning the traditional classroom on its head. It’s known as the flipped classroom and is an instructional strategy and a type of blended learning that reverses the traditional educational arrangement by delivering instructional content, often online, outside of the classroom and moves activities, including those that may have traditionally been considered homework, into the classroom. In a flipped classroom model, students watch online lectures, collaborate in online discussions, or carry out research at home and engage in concepts in the classroom with the guidance of the instructor. 

Ideally, the flipped classroom shifts instruction to a learner-centered model in which class time is now more dedicated to exploring topics in greater depth and creating meaningful learning opportunities, while educational technology such as online videos are employed to deliver content outside of the classroom. The best known example is Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, providing video lessons as a content delivery mechanism, leaving the classroom for collaborative discussions, digital research, or more in-depth text readings. 

The Great Books curriculum

The aim of this curriculum is to expose students to, and engage them in, deeper understanding of the great ideas of Western civilization. Drawing upon the most influential Western books from Plato to the Enlightenment and beyond, the focus is to teach ideas that are everlasting, to seek enduring truths which are constant, not changing, as the natural and human worlds at their most essential level, do not change. Teaching these unchanging principles is critical. Humans are rational beings, and their minds need to be developed. Thus, cultivation of the intellect is the highest priority in a worthwhile education.

The demanding curriculum focuses on attaining cultural literacy, stressing students' growth in enduring disciplines. The loftiest accomplishments of humankind are emphasized– the great works of literature and art, the laws or principles of science. Advocates of this educational philosophy are Robert Maynard Hutchins who developed a Great Books program in 1963 and Mortimer Adler, who further developed this curriculum based on 100 great books of western civilization. Critics of the Great Books curriculum point out its bias in favour of the so-called Western Canon of literature and the absence of works dealing with the wiser world in all its diversity. 

Hands-on learning

A colloquial expression associated with progressive child-centred education and normally used to describe what John Dewey once described as “learning though doing” instead of listening to and emulating a teacher. Studying a concept, skill or idea is generally enhanced by attempting to put that particular learning into practice. The critical issue is when and how much to use this particular teaching method. (See student-centred learning)

Holistic/Whole Child development

Educators committed to educating the “Whole Child” tend to focus on meeting the total needs of children in their intellectual (cognitive), practical (skills) and motivational (affective) domains. Instead of teaching children a core curriculum with clearly defined learning outcomes at each grade level, the emphasis is on meeting children’s needs and providing a supportive environment conducive to learning. It is the dominant philosophy espoused in today’s elementary schools.

Inclusive Classroom

Inclusive education embraces the core philosophy that all students, beginning in the early grades,  are accepted and accommodated in age-appropriate, regular classes and are supported to learn, contribute and participate in all aspects of the life of the school. It is essentially about how we develop and design our schools, classrooms, programs and activities with the intent of educating all students together. Implementing full inclusion poses challenges, especially as students progress through school and educators identify a widening gap in the range of learning abilities and competencies.

Leading advocates such as Inclusive Education Canada and the Association for Community Living promote the fullest possible inclusion of all students in regular classroom. Children with physical disabilities are almost always accommodated, but severely learning disabled students may not easily or successfully fit in the inclusive classroom. Over the years, the Canadian Learning Disabilities Association has been more inclined to support a modified strategy with a continuum of supports and services in the most appropriate setting (large group, small group, individualized) respecting the dignity of the child. Everyone today supports the philosophy but some insist that full inclusion does not work for every student. 

Inquiry-based curriculum

Another variation on Discovery Learning with a more coherent, explicit approach to structuring student inquiry in the classroom. Pioneered by Toronto’s Institute for Child Study and forming the core of the International Baccalaureate Early Years program, the inquiry model puts more emphasis on framing and structuring the right questions. Learning activities structured around explicit inquiry questions can be challenging for elementary children and do usually require more rigour than so-called discovery exercises. Inquiry-based curricula, undergirded with a clear core knowledge curriculum, can produce superior student performances. While progressive in conception, the expected performance standards tend to be much higher.

Integrated curriculum

Today’s schools seek to integrate learning across the subject disciplines to prepare students to tackle more challenging multi-faceted problems or “real life” situations. In doing so, schools use a variety of different curriculum models, including theme-based units of study, language-across-the curriculum, project-based learning, and integrating technology into all instructional programs. All are considered alternatives to pursuing a strictly grade level, subject-based approach to teaching and learning. 

Intrinsic motivation

Engaging children deeply in learning involves tapping into their internal or intrinsic motivation. Educational change advocate Sir Ken Robinson describes it as “finding your element” and schools today are focusing, more and more, on motivating and engaging students through innovative strategies, including heritage fair competitions, gaming and social media interaction. 

Learning at your own pace

Child development theory and research has given rise to the belief that students learn best “at their own pace.” It likely originated in the Jean Piaget’s early experiments and is now a cardinal principle of what has been labeled "romantic developmentalism." The phrase suggests that kids should not be expected to learn at an externally imposed pace; learning should occur when the child is "ready." This phrase is often heard in discussions about teaching reading and in conjunction with multiage classrooms. Standardized achievement test results and independent research does not really support this claim. “The imposition of externally set timelines, goals, and rewards greatly enhances achievement," E.D. Hirsh has discovered. Reading specialists have also concluded that nearly all children can be brought to grade level in reading, though greater effort must be put forth for children who struggle at the beginning. 

Learning supports

The concept of learning supports originated in special education, where students diagnosed with learning or developmental challenges were assessed and then provided with the human and resource supports needed to ensure greater success, including reading recovery and speech pathologist assistance. In today’s inclusive regular classroom, educators are being trained to provide the scaffolding to extend supports to a far wider range of students. Providing the full range of supports may be desirable, but it tends to be cost prohibitive. 

Lifelong learners

Modern elementary and secondary education has evolved from the launching pad to the “first stage” in what is now viewed as a lifetime of learning driven by the dynamic technological changes affecting society and the job market. With the passing of the industrial economy, students are being encouraged to be more flexible and to expect to have several different careers in their lifetime. What was once desirable is now a virtual necessity. 

Meaningful learning opportunities

Educators seek to provide students with more than the basics and to expose them to concepts, knowledge, and skills that enable them to make sense of the world, grapple with issues that matter, and make a difference in people’s lives. More and more students expect more than routine, repetitive, and predictable learning experiences. 

Multi-aged classroom

Class groupings that deviate from sequentially graded, age-determined class organization are, once again, becoming more common. Allowing students to learn at their own pace tends to generate, over time, classes with wider age ranges, spanning three or more grade levels. Differentiated learning and individualized instruction were developed, in part, to respond to the widening gap in competencies and skills in classrooms. Veteran teachers point out that it harkens back to the multi-age model common in the so-called one-room schoolhouse.   

Personalized Learning

Personalized learning is a mew variation of differentiated instruction, originally practiced in regular classrooms and now incorporated into 21st century learning through digital and online models of instruction. Equipping students with laptops and tablets has now made it possible to tailor learning to individual students, combining mass schooling with respect for diversity and individuality. Strongly supported by Pearson Canada and other major learning corporations, it has been piloted in British Columbia as a component of the BC Learns initiative. Proponents of personalized or individualized learning attempt to implement provincial curriculum through technology integration to prove an alternative to “one size fits all” curriculum and instruction. It faces major implementation challenges, including visible teacher resistance, greater infrastructure costs, and the practical difficulty of providing individual tutorials in today’s often overcrowded diverse classroom environments. 

Project-based learning

A popular educational term describing the latest innovation aimed at organizing students in ways that are explicitly focused on tackling group or personal projects inside the classroom. Instead of assigning projects to be completed at home, teachers now build it right into the daily instructional program. Introduced in Quebec schools in the early 2000s, PBL is controversial because it tends to cut deeply into didactic instructional time, particularly in mathematics, and remains difficult to effectively evaluate. It is favoured by curriculum consultants because it seeks to model active and cooperative learning in the classroom. 


Scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. The term itself offers the relevant descriptive metaphor: teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance. Like physical scaffolding, the supportive strategies are incrementally removed when they are no longer needed, and the teacher gradually shifts more responsibility over the learning process to the student.

Scaffolding is now considered to be an essential element of effective teaching, and all teachers—to a greater or lesser extent—almost certainly use various forms of instructional scaffolding in their teaching. It is also often used to bridge learning gaps—i.e., the difference between what students have learned and what they are expected to know and be able to do at a certain point in their education. For example, in the case of struggling readers, teachers can provide additional support and instruction to assist the student in reading the required text independently and without assistance. One of the main goals of scaffolding is to reduce the frustrations and negative self-perceptions that inhibit students when they attempt a difficult task without the assistance, direction, or understanding they need to complete it.

Self-directed learning

Giving students more responsibility for their own learning has been an educational goal since the 1960s, but what’s new is providing them with the time, space and technological tools to actually do so. Educational progressives tend to believe that learning is natural and students, freed of constraints, will learn on their own. “Personalized” online learning and virtual schools where students proceed more at their own pace are putting that theory to the test. (See Personalized learning)

Structured environment

Traditional educators still favour a more structured, systematic approach to teaching and learning. Believing that most children and youth need teacher guidance and a little structure to stay on task, the classroom environment is structured to encourage purposeful and productive activity.  Teachers of early reading and mathematics at all levels tend to favour structured learning, at least until students have mastered fundamental concepts and skills. 

Thematic learning

Organizing student learning around themes is popular in schools embracing holistic learning or committed to providing integrated study units. Identifying general themes such as “Inventions” or “Bridges” is utilized as a way of integrating different subjects into the study of contemporary or “real life” theme topics. Thematic units of study are more common in elementary and middle schools where subject specialization is not such a critical factor for teachers. 

Find Private Schools:

In the spotlight:

Latest Articles

Regina Christian schools  
Find the top private and independent Christian schools in Regina (May 16, 2024)

Concord private schools  
Find the top private and independent schools in Concord (May 16, 2024)

Kimberley private schools  
Find the top private and independent schools in Kimberley (May 16, 2024)

Riverview private schools  
Find the top private and independent schools in Riverview (May 16, 2024)

Balancing academics and social-emotional well-being  
The art of providing holistic learning environments for teens (May 13, 2024)


By logging in or creating an account, you agree to Our Kids' Terms and Conditions. Information presented on this page may be paid advertising provided by the advertisers [schools/camps/programs] and is not warranted or guaranteed by OurKids.net or its associated websites. By using this website, creating or logging into an Our Kids account, you agree to Our Kids' Terms and Conditions. Please also see our Privacy Policy. Our Kids ™ © 2023 All right reserved.