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Education's Jargon Problem

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When I was in graduate school as a master's student, way back in the late 1990s, I had a professor named Kitty. Kitty was one of the resident experts on special education in our college of education, so she taught the special education course that everyone was required to take regardless of what their ultimate goal was in education.

Not much of what Kitty taught stuck with me, I have to say. I think that says more about who I was as a first-year graduate student just two years out of college than it does about her. But I do remember one thing in particular. Kitty spoke in a soft southern drawl, adding some much-needed character to the things she talked about in class. In fact, she forever ruined the word jargon for me: Kitty pronounced it "jar-gone," which somehow made the word as foreign as the concept it described. "One of the biggest problems in education," she warned, "is the way jar-gone is used to prevent people from understanding what's actually going on in education."

I have never forgotten that. It's tempting sometimes, especially for those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about education, to lean a little bit heavily on the jar-gone. When you're talking in code you tend to feel smarter—it means you know something others might not, and shows, somehow, that you're too busy and too knowledgeable to waste time explaining concepts that you expect others to know. But it's a dangerous habit to fall into. If nobody cares to know what you know, especially because you can't actually explain it to them, then what's the point of knowing it in the first place?

In Kitty's field, special education, the jargon is almost debilitating. It may never be worse than when professors get together to talk about their research (and I'm not just talking here about the average professor's affinity for acronyms; I'm also talking about how certain terms, like formative assessment and differentiation and the now-infamous grit—personally, I think it should have to be italicized every time it's used in print)come to be taken as shorthand for much larger concepts that really ought to be interrogated almost every time they're used. I'm not against these things, necessarily. I just want to make sure we know what they mean when we start talking about them.

Turns out I'm not alone. If you spend much time reading the education news, you shouldn't have any trouble right now finding something to read that affirms the displeasure many people feel about the jargoned state of our educational discourse. Liz Willen over at Hechinger Report just published a screed on the topic yesterday, in fact. "I'm more convinced than ever," Willen writes, "that we can't improve U.S. education until we figure out how to talk and write clearly about it." Amen to that.

In fact, the thing Willen points to as the source of much of her pain—the prototypical educational research report, which purports to bring new information about education and educational processes to others—only muddies the water more. "I despair each time I get yet another impossible-to-decipher research report or press release," Willen writes, "and cringe when educators using phrases like 'human capital' and 'value propositions,' not to mention those endless acronyms: RTI, PLC, SLT, IEP, PD and LMS." Yes to all that as well. If the people purporting to explain to the rest of us what we need to know in order to make our education system better can't even explain it to us, what good is their work to begin with?

That's a serious question. Researchers write for other researchers, you might say. It's somebody else's job to explain their findings to the rest of us. But is it? Who is likely to do that job? If teachers don't even understand the research they're citing, how can we ever expect them to use it in practice? And is there anything in the world more cringe-inducing than listening to someone use a term or string together a phrase of nonsensical mumbo jumbo when it's clear that person has no idea what he's talking about? Sometimes when you try to sound smart you end up sounding the opposite of smart. You end up sounding dumb.

And what about parents? I pity the parents who try to make sense of what's going on in their children's schools. Dahlia Lithwick wrote one of my favorite pieces of writing on the subject of No Child Left Behind back in 2013. When she visited her 5th grader's school, she felt as if she were "toggling between a business school seminar and the space program." To Lithwick, education has been "overmastered" by its own mumbo jumbo. We're no longer in charge of the situation; the jargon is. 

So what do we do about it? I'm a firm believer in the idea that how you talk about ideas says a lot about well you understand them. Some things are very complex, like thermodynamics and rocket science, but we're talking about educating kids here. How hard does it have to be? How hard do we need to make it?

My sense is that the overuse of nonsense jargon stems from the fact that everybody seems to be pulling in different directions. Since there is very little agreement on what it means to educate children effectively, anything goes. Moreover, it's difficult to know who's driving the car: Everyone, it seems, is entitled to have an opinion about reforming education, and in our oversaturated information environment (okay, that sounds like jargon; in this world of information overload) nearly anyone with a journal article and a few letters after their name can be taken seriously as an educational researcher. 

I don't want to take their opinions away or silence their voices, but it seems to me that the people least likely to use jargon to describe the work of teaching and learning in schools are those teachers most comfortable with themselves and the work they do. They're the ones who have figured things out, and are focused on teaching effectively—not trying to figure out how to "market" their ideas to others. They're the ones who hold themselves to high standards and who know that impressing other adults isn't as important as impressing kids.

We can clean this up. We could start by encouraging our colleagues to spell out what they mean, and by checking ourselves too. We can encourage teachers, when they get together, to eschew the use of acronyms and to catch each other when the baloney starts to flow. We can encourage administrators to stop booking the services of professional development gurus who use too much jargon. In a broader sense, we can work even harder to give control of the teaching profession to teachers—to wrest it from the hands of researchers and think-tankers and policymakers and politicians and return teachers and students to their rightful place as the educational center of gravity in schools. It actually wouldn't be that hard to do.

As far as I'm concerned the battle won't be won until the Educational Jargon Generator can only be used for pleasure, never for business. In the meantime, I guess, we will continue to deliver school-to-work alignment within the Zone of Proximity. Because why wouldn't we?

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