Let’s Drop the Education Buzzwords

By Levi Folly, Education Week, 5/6/15

It’s easy to become ensnared in language that sounds important but says little. Why don’t we just say what we mean?

Several years ago, [my] department head opened a meeting by asking us to share what was “happening in our firehouse.” My immediate reaction was to laugh….

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 [asked], “Why do we have to talk like that? Why don’t we just say what we mean?”…

It’s easy to become ensnared in language that sounds important but says little…. 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…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.” I wanted to ask whether or not the suitcase had wheels….

“Why don’t we just say what we mean?”

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?…

Martin Kozloff of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington considers this language “unmatched twaddle.” John Merrow, 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:

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.”…

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.”

Levi Folly coordinates the academic/enrichment summer-learning programs for Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools. He taught middle and high school English for more than 20 years.


See also in ClassWise:

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