Top 4 Misunderstood Phrases in Education

I have been a teacher for over a decade now and find myself nodding along when colleagues use three letter acronyms or jargon that I used to find confusing. As with most fields, education has lots of phrases that have hidden meaning and nuance. Words and phrases that sound so obvious can actually be referring to something you don’t know about at all but it can be embarrassing to ask.

The purpose of this blog is to make the partnership between parents and educators a deeply harmonious and productive one. One of the first ways to do that is to make sure that we speak the same language. With no further ado, here are my top 4.

1 Assessment (for Learning/of Learning)

Teachers assess all the time and this can be a source of confusion for some. When you think assessment you probably think about tests but this is only one form of assessment. This is called summative assessment (it sums up learning and comes at the end) and is a valuable tool in a teacher’s arsenal but it isn’t the only one. In fact, most assessment doesn’t involve tests (just as when you assess a situation, you rarely sharpen your pencils and line up your pens before you start).

Instead, assessment in classrooms may be engaging with student’s work, a question and answering session, a conversation, a drawing – anything that gives a teacher insight into their students’ thinking. This is formative assessment (it forms an understanding of where students currently are and informs the next steps in teaching) and is normally referenced as AfL (assessment for learning). ┬áDon’t be afraid to ask how your child’s teachers are forming a view on how understanding is progressing in their classroom.

2 Mastery

This is a big buzz word in the UK education scene at the moment and it doesn’t help that it means different things to different people saying it. Originally, mastery referred to making sure that all students understood and had mastered content before moving on to something new. This may, however, refer to the type of curriculum or the brand of curriculum that the school subscribes to. Ask what the teacher or school means by this phrase.

3 Depth over breadth

This is a phrase that has been common since the latest National Curriculum reforms. The focus here is that students shouldn’t be accelerated onto work from a later year if they are exceeding expectations – rather they should be encouraged to understand the current content in more nuanced and sophisticated ways. They should dig deep rather than wide. This has been done really well in lots of schools but it may be something that only lip-service is being paid to.

4 Attainment vs Progress

When a school is judged on how well it is performing when compared to other schools, the main measures now used are based on progress. This takes into account where the child was when they arrived at the school and where they got to.

When a child gets a grade for a subject (Key Stage 1 or 2 exams or GCSE or A-Level) this is referred to as an attainment grade.

Some schools only report progress to parents which can have positive and negative impacts on showing how well your child is doing. A key pair of questions to ask is what is the progress being measured against and what are they on track to attain?


These are just 4 things that teachers say, there are a whole lot more. I’ve picked these ones because they are the ones I have to explain most often. I’d always suggest talking to the teachers at your child’s school and being clear on what they mean. When clearing up the meaning of words, there are no silly questions – and, in fact, you may realise that what you thought was a silly question was actually extremely profound.

I’ve put together a list of other things that teachers say that you can get by giving me your name and email below. If there are any other phrases that are used that may give confusion let me know. These are currently UK focused as that is where I am based but there is a lot of overlap with educators globally.

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