We hear often of the need for “common language” when embarking on new learning and innovation. We need to be able to describe what we are doing in ways that can be shared, documented and built upon. Once established, common language can serve as a short cut to communicate about the work, share learning and document experience.

The work around Personalized Learning is no exception. Terms can be confusing. They can sound like something we have done in the past and tempt us to make assumptions that are not shared by others who are engaged in or discussing the work. Having common terms is an important step forward.

Yet, there is a danger in becoming too focused on “common language” as the sole communication vehicle to support the work. Common words do not necessarily communicate common meaning. Again, Personalized Learning offers a good example. The term is popular right now and, for a variety of reasons, many people want to be seen as “doing” Personalized Learning.

Those who want to be seen as innovative, but are not ready or willing to make the fundamental design changes necessary to engage in the work, often characterize adjustments to legacy instructional approaches as personalizing learning. Yet, learners may experience little change.

Providers of products and services to education often see the term Personalized Learning as an opportunity to market their offerings in a new way without fully understanding the implications or offering tools and approaches that lead to real personalization. In some cases, the products offered contain few, if any changes, from what has been provided for years or even decades.

The key is having more than a “common language.” What really is needed is shared meaning. Terms often migrate in meaning over time as experience and conditions of utilization change. Some conspire to change the meaning of terms to suit their purposes. Others seek to co-opt terms in pursuit of political gain and related objectives.

We need to be rigorous in the meanings of the terms we choose to use and vigilant about consistent use. Personalized Learning must mean more than flexibility in the pace of learning, some level of choice without voice or a more inviting, but still teacher centered classroom.

Learning paths and plans need to mean more than a superficial career-planning tool, a pacing chart or course selection template. And changing the learning environment has to be more than modifying schedules or rearranging the furniture without fundamentally changing the learning experience for students.

Language matters, but the meaning underlying language matters even more. It must be consistent, shared and specific if it is going to be useful to our work.