Bodong Chen

Crisscross Landscapes

The meaning of promisingness


Although I have been using the word “promisingness” in my writing and conversations since last year, I am still not 100% percent sure about the meaning of it. When we discuss this concept with primary school teachers, they also found it not easy to grasp, let alone young kids (however, we are teaching this concept to grade 3s). This situation is not surprising because promisingness is not even recognized as a word in many popular dictionaries. But for me, it’s time to make it clear.

The first straightforward thing to do is to understand the words promising and promise, which are more human words for us. The English word promise was introduced from Latin words prōmissa, prōmissum and prōmittere around 1400AD. For prōmittere: pro- “before” + mittere “to put, send.” So the ground sense of “a promise” is “declaration made about the future, about some act to be done or not done.” The verb meaning of promise was attested from 1420.

The use of promising appeared much later, only from 1601. Although several online dictionaries including Merriam-Webster and provide different definitions for this word, two components of meaning are shared by them: (1) for future, and (2) something good or success. For example, promising means “showing signs of future success or excellence,” “likely to turn out well,” or “likely to succeed or yield good results.” VisuWords (which is based on WordNet) and VisualThesaurus both identify hopeful and bright as words with similar meaning of promising, and likely as a word close to promising. The connection with words hopeful and bright is consistent with the meaning of “something good in the future,” while the link with likely suggest another important meaning of promising: possibility of success. In my opinion, this component seems to be more implicit comparing with the first two, i.e. for future and something good or success, which are usually well perceived when mentioning the word promising. Since people care more about the good quality of an idea when describing it as promising, how possible will it turn out to be successful is not usually the first thing to considering.


The thesaurus of Merriam-Webster is doing a good job partially uncovering the usually neglected meaning to me. It explains promising in two different ways: (1) having qualities that inspire hope, and (2) pointing toward a happy outcome. While the second explanation is consistent with our commonly held understanding of this word, the first explanation focuses on qualities that show promise and implies that the possibility of success is open to discuss by evaluating those qualities.

Till now, my understanding about promisingness becomes a little bit clearer. It also gets closer to the concept of promisingness coined by Carl Bereiter, whose work serves as the basis of my thinking on this concept. Based on his decades of research on expertise, Bereiter thinks a key competency of creative experts is to identify promising directions. For example, studies show that chess masters don’t consider significantly more steps than experienced players, but they focus their thoughts on promising ones. So, as Bereiter argues, the ability to make promisingness judgements is vital for creative work, where people need to deal with ill-defined or wicked problems and multiple “risky” directions. He thinks promisingness judgements are made based on some impressionistic knowledge of people, i.e. impressions that can be used to guide decisions, which can only be acquired from experience. As a result, there seems to be no criteria for people to evaluate promisingness.

However, attributing promisingness judgements all to impressions seems to be not enough or not helpful for the holy enterprise of “educating” people to recognize promising ideas or directions. To help students achieve a good understanding of promisingness and conduct promisingness judgements calls for a deeper understanding on the process of promisingness judgements by experts. Are there any implicit qualities of ideas that impress us and make us regard those ideas as promising? If so, what are they? Answering these mysterious questions will enable us to develop criteria for promisingness evaluations.

Any thoughts?