Learning from Clichés as a Teaching Strategy

In widely accepted ways to use language, the “cliché” is among the worst. Even the word cliché means “stereotyped” in French and generally, clichés are phrases often devoid of originality and overused beyond meaning.

For example, John Rentoul, a political commentator, has created a “banned list” of clichés and jargons mostly used in public and political discourse. Rentoul has gone as far as listing 100 clichés that will undoubtedly expand to others, just as long as people keep talking.

Some clichés are also called “idioms” that are phrased in ways that convey additional meanings, and here are six clichés/idioms:

  1. The elephant in the room (a major or controversial problem that is not discussed).
  2. Raising awareness (something to take notice of).
  3. At the end of the day (bottom line or end result).
  4. A no-brainer (making sense without second thought).
  5. Learning curve (duration to reach understanding).
  6. Too good to be true (means very good; NOTE: many point out that it does not actually mean “too good to be true”).

There is an assumption that in our disdain of clichés, jargons, and idioms that nothing can be learned from them besides never using them again.

An alternative argument in favor of these expressions may appreciate the effort to reduce elaboration-to-a-few-words to help the listener get a sense of key points.  Perhaps the broader teaching lesson (“teachable moment” in cliché speak) involves understanding the underlying meaning of the phrase, in comparison to reasons why any argument would require a cliché or stereotyped expression.

Teachers and educators should take a new look at clichés as another resource for learning that seeks understanding from their students and learners, children and adults. Uncovering these expressions could spark fresher educational options and produce meaningful discussions that a cliché intended but “missed its mark.”


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