Is there a word or phrase, describing how an educator might "lie" about something, to help students understand a new concept?

I mean this in a generally positive sense. For example, the Rutherford model with electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus would be a gross oversimplification to a particle physicist, but just within reach of an elementary school science class. Or a math teacher might simply say "you can't take the square root of a negative number" when it's actually more complex than that.

I mistakenly thought that "didactic fiction" was such a term, but apparently that term is more meant to describe a genre of "ancient Greek edutainment", rather than an instructional tactic.


3 Answers 3


"lie-to-children (plural lies-to-children) is a simplified explanation of technical or complex subjects as a teaching method for children and laypeople. The phrase has been incorporated by academics within the fields of biology, evolution, bioinformatics and the social sciences. It is closely related to the philosophical concept known as:

Wittgenstein's ladder: a simplified explanation of a technical or complex subject that is used as a teaching tool, despite being technically wrong."

(quoted directly from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lie-to-children and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wittgenstein%27s_ladder)

There is also toy model: "a deliberately simplistic model with many details removed so that it can be used to explain a mechanism concisely" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toy_model)

  • Yes, these are great: while I'd be happy for more synonyms for these terms, you definitely nailed what I was after. Thanks!
    – natevw
    Sep 13, 2017 at 22:34

A simplification.

It doesn't have the negative connotations of oversimplifying something, but it retains the message of positively removing unnecessary complexity.


A straw man argument.

It doesn't apply to every case, since by calling something a straw man the instructor is saying that they intend to disprove it. The ever helpful Wikipedia has more on this.

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