On jargon, professional language, and gazing upon the art of teaching

This is NOT a drawing of a horse


It’s Pablo Picasso’s Guérnica, and there are countless conversations to be had in every square foot of this painting (the painting itself is 11 feet x 25 feet).  One would only describe Guérnica as a drawing of a horse if they chose, quite deliberately, to ignore the story, the intensity, the context, and the purpose behind Picasso’s craft and his process.

Which is why I am troubled by the popular allergy to the use of jargon in the realm of education.  Jargon, or “edu-speak” as some may call it, is anathema to some and confusing to most.  I wonder the following: Does the complexity of the teaching and learning process not warrant precise, professional language?

Run, jump, plop

I coach Track & Field in the spring.  I traditionally coach the distance squad and on occasion I coach horizontal and vertical jumps.  Many of the people in my life that decry the use of “edu-speak” also coach sports at my school.  If those people are reading this right now, imagine something with me:

You come out to the long jump pit one spring afternoon and hear me give the following instructions to my long jumpers.

“OK, so first you run from over there to over here, then you jump on this line, then you plop into that pit over there.”

Your first reaction would probably be to hand me a DVD called “How to Coach the Long Jump.”  My sloppy use of language, sequencing, and emphasis would result in lousy jumps or injury.  In the long jump, you don’t “run from over there,” you explode into a sprint for X strides.”  You don’t “jump,” you launch.  And please don’t ever “plop” into the pit.  Land in the pit, then spring out so as not to fall backward, sacrificing inches if not feet of distance.

I use precise language with my long jumpers because there is meaning in each of those terms that does not exist in “run, jump, plop.”  Is this also the case in my teaching practice?  Are there layers of meaning within the term “leveled formative assessment” that the word “quiz” simply cannot capture?

Rally the herd, then get them a thesaurus

I believe that the majority of teachers find themselves in one of three camps: those who mock “edu-speak” as shallow and self-aggrandizing, those who let it drip wantonly and carelessly from their tongues (as it happens, in a shallow effort to self-aggrandize), and those who see the value in it, but don’t quite understand it.  Rather than snark and swipe at each other endlessly like some comical but unfortunate version of the Sharks and the Jets, the opposing camps might consider the following:

  • Spark a conversation about language.  What does assessment mean at your school?  How does it differ by district, division, or department?  Are your standards simply a list of topics that teachers must cover, or are they essential questions that all students must learn in order to be considered proficient in a content area or skill?  Should the language you use depend on your answer?
  • Start by talking about what you believe.  I suspect that there is very little distance between what one teacher believes and what another believes, even if they vary greatly in age, training, experience, content area, or student population.  It’s more likely that they are simply speaking a different dialect when describing it.
  • Develop a common language and engage in conversation about these topics at every opportunity.  Rather than assail another’s ideas as misguided, make sure that you’re not just describing similar ideas differently.
  • Speak publicly.  Dialects spread.  Anyone that’s typed ROFL can tell you that.

I should point out that there is a fourth group–a minority that uses professional language surgically, and that has taken steps in their community to calibrate what they mean by what they say.

Where are they, you ask?

They’re still at the top of this page, gazing into the meaning-rich abyss of Pablo Picasso’s most artful expression of his own professional language.

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