Growing up, I was surrounded by language, spoken and written. I listened attentively as my great-grandmother and other community elders told stories and talked about their lives. In school, I loved the “word of the week” challenge, and welcomed opportunities to read and write. During dinner, my parents discussed the day’s events, and the radio was a constant in the house and in the car. Of course, with six children in the family, someone was always talking.
My siblings and I checked out as many books as possible when the mobile library came to our house each week. There was an assortment of magazines in our home, a set of encyclopedias, and my father purchased the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader newspapers daily. I even recall reading discarded library books that my father brought home from the local college. Eventually, I would major in English and teach for more than 20 years.
Looking back, I don’t recall having an epiphany about the power and use of words, but over time I came to appreciate clear and precise language, something with which my profession (education) struggles. I am well aware that professions create language so practitioners can understand one another, and I support the use of language that enhances communication among educators, learners, and families. I am, however, concerned about language that clouds meaning when we need clarity, and language designed to market books and speakers instead of communicate with precision on matters of substance. I fear that the growing acceptance of such language in our field may be impeding our ability to educate learners.
Several years ago, a popular department head opened a meeting by asking small groups of us to share what was “happening in our firehouse.” My immediate reaction was to laugh. This was not only because of the facial expressions I saw around the table, but also because, just the day before, I had attended a meeting where participants shared their frustrations about the increasing use of jargon and buzzwords in the department.
It is easy to become ensnared in language that sounds important but says little.”
For some of us at the table that day, the meeting was over before it began. “I don’t work or live in a firehouse,” one colleague said, “so you guys can talk if you like.” Another colleague lashed out during a subsequent meeting over the use of similar language. “Why do we have to talk like that?” he asked the meeting’s leader. “Why don’t we just say what we mean?”
These are valuable questions for any professional to ask, because it is easy to become ensnared in language that sounds important but says little. They are particularly valuable questions for educators to ask, because the success of our profession is dependent on clear communication. Too often we borrow language without considering its appropriateness. This was especially prevalent when many believed education should be run like a business and terms such as “blue-sky thinking,” “core values,” “take-away,” “best practices,” and others found their way into our lexicon. Equally troubling is how we use academic language in practical settings, perhaps to impress; how we quickly adopt the latest coined phrases, seemingly to appear current; how we rename strategies; and how we invent language when it isn’t necessary.
Here is a list of terms and phrases I hear education professionals use frequently during meetings and conversations: “unpack the standards,” “have a conversation around,” “powerful conversation,” “learner-centered teaching classrooms,” “two-dimensional curriculum,” “deeper dive,” “performance-based assessment,” “authentic performance assessment,” “rich conversation,” “21st-century skills,” “by name and by need,” “competency-based learning and personalized learning,” “messy learning,” and “building capacity.”
I am sure those using these phrases have the best intentions and want to communicate important information. I am equally sure they would be more effective if they used different language. Are students learners or teachers in “learner-centered teaching” classrooms? What is a “powerful conversation”? Is it different from a “rich conversation”? Does “have a conversation around” mean to discuss? Recently, a friend told me he’d spent “all morning helping teachers unpack standards so they understood what students should know and be able to do.” I wanted to ask whether or not the suitcase had wheels. To quote the colleague whom I mentioned earlier, “Why don’t we just say what we mean?”
Teaching and learning are complex processes, and I see no reason to overwhelm parents, students, or each other with an array of terms because we want to sound impressive, or because someone has written a book and we want to appear current. In fact, we are deluding ourselves if we believe practitioners internalize this language. Why would they? Experience has or will teach them that unless we change, these terms and phrases will be replaced with equally vague and fleeting ones.
Martin Kozloff of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington considers this language “unmatched twaddle.” John Merrow, the author of The Influence of Teachers, refers to it as “educationese.” Perhaps it is an attempt to elevate education among professions, for having a unique language is one indicator of a profession’s status. Nonetheless, if one’s message isn’t clear, shouldn’t one rethink the delivery?
I recently read that the University of Washington’s faculty identifies six characteristics of effective language. “Effective language is (1) concrete and specific, not vague and abstract; (2) concise, not verbose; (3) familiar, not obscure; (4) precise and clear, not inaccurate and ambiguous; (5) constructive, not destructive; and (6) appropriately formal.” By this definition, I’m not sure any of the items I listed before meet the standard of effective communication.
Perhaps readers have heard about the conversation between an elementary-grade student and his mother after the first day of school. It goes like this:
When the mother asked her son how the day had gone, he didn’t reply. The mother drove in silence but later asked, “Do we need to pick up anything for tomorrow?”
The child shrugged. “We should go by the grocery store.”
“OK,” the mother answered. “Is there something special you need?”
“I need fruit,” the boy said.
The mother was a bit confused, as she had just purchased fruit the day before.
“We have fruit at home,” she said, trying to sound supportive.
“I know,” the child responded, “but we need more. The teacher said we’d ‘pair share,’ ‘mix pair share,’ and ‘pair compare’ this year, so I need pears.”
“You’re going to do what?” the confused mother managed.
“Oh yeah,” the boy continued, ignoring her question. “She said we’ll ‘draw chips,’ ‘choose chips,’ and ‘drop chips’ this year too, so we should buy some. Can we get the kind with ridges?”
Before the mother could compose herself, the child, now fully animated, continued.
“Know what, Mom?” he asked. “I’m looking forward to the days we ‘roam the room.’ ”
“Roam the room?” the mother wondered.
“And I hope Matt’s my partner when we ‘people hunt.’ ”
Now, this isn’t really a true story, but I include it to demonstrate the type of misunderstanding that could result when our language is misunderstood. Let’s not burden our colleagues, confuse students, or send parents to the grocery store needlessly. Instead, let’s heed Molière’s advice: “Humanize your talk, and speak to be understood.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2015 edition of Education Week as Why Don’t We Just Say What We Mean?