Edu-“Jargon,” or Professional Discourse?

Let me just begin by saying that I get the annoyance regarding the plethora of acronyms that plague our profession. Last spring I, along with a roomful of other educators who would’ve preferred to be outside soaking up the afternoon sun, was subjected to a “quiz” on these acronyms as part of a district-wide mentor/mentee meeting. After about thirty seconds of this foolishness, I texted this page of my notes to my principal alongside a rage-face emoji:

"WTF" seemed to be missing from this list.
“WTF” was suspiciously absent from this list.

I also recognize that there are those who use these acronyms, and the educational jargon that often accompanies them, to shut people out of the conversation on education. These are usually folks in suits (and/or designer skirts) who enjoy listening to their own voice more than they enjoy listening to others’; who see education as a “business” and teachers as workers who must be managed; who have spent more years outside of a classroom than they have spent teaching inside one (if they ever even taught at all).

Sometimes–okay, often–this jargon finds its way into family meetings as teachers, specialists, administrators, and family members attempt to figure out what will help a child experience more success in school. We try to be mindful of our audience, but every so often might say something along the lines of, “I’m wondering if her comprehension is being hindered by her lack of fluency while reading connected text,” and I find myself cringing as I turn to a parent to ask, “Do you understand what that means?” (Most frequent answer: No.)

But let’s face it: we are members of a profession that is built on an enormous store of knowledge–about teaching, about learning, about child development, about systems of education, etc.–and, as a result, there is an immense amount of terminology to wade through in order to be able to think and talk about these things efficiently and effectively.

As has been argued in pieces like this one that has been making its rounds on social media lately, it is enormously important that we use language that is as inclusive (and as comprehensible) as possible when talking about education (or teaching, or learning, or child development…), or we risk alienating families, members of our community, and the public as a whole. Considering what happens when those who don’t really understand education start harping about it in the media, it would be foolish–and in some cases, dangerous–not to.

However, I take issue with those, like Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report, who liken our educational lexicon to a “disease” or something that is separate from “real words.” (At one point during a conversation–at an educational conference–Willen implored those involved to cease using “those words.”) Yes, jargon is what some people use to hide behind in order to avoid talking thoughtfully about such complex issues as schooling and education. And yes, we must be mindful (to use one of “those words”) of how our language can exclude those who may not be as familiar with it.

But would we ask doctors, or lawyers, or–hell, chefs–to stop using words that are essential to their professional discourse? Or is there something about “edu-speak” that grates on the nerves of people like Willen because of the lower status of educators in this country?

Because despite what she and others have argued, terms like “project-based learning” and “curricular design” and “student-centered instruction” do, actually, mean something. They may not mean something to everyone–and I place the blame for that squarely on our shoulders–but when the educators that I know and admire use that kind of language, they are not simply blowing smoke–unlike several politicians and policy-makers I know.

And when journalists like Willen complain how difficult it is to translate educational jargon into language her readers can understand, I can’t help but ask, in as polite a tone I can muster, Isn’t that your g-damn job? Or is it simply too difficult to accept that the work that educators do day in and day out is incredibly, enormously, and mind-numbingly complex?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m just as tired of hearing words like “grit” and “rigor” and “fidelity” (an oldie but goodie) come up in the conversations we have about education. It’s not because I think they’re empty terms, however; it’s because, as a teacher, I’ve seen first-hand the negative impact that the kind of thinking that goes hand-in-hand with that sort of language has on actual student learning.

So–please–let’s stop asking educators to abandon the language that is essential to their work as members of a profession. Instead, let’s reassess our discursive practices and create some actionable objectives that will allow more authentic and inclusive conversations about education to take place.

Pass it on to your PLNs, your PLCs, and your BOEs. Thanks.

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