Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Crux with Educational Jargon

Education researchers and education policy makers love using and creating jargon: From "at risk," "scaffolding," "value-added," "best practices," to "raising the bar", "literacy, "rigor," "authentic assessment," "research-based", and "21st century education."

This leads to statements like "Aligned instruction with buy-in by highly qualified teachers for authentic inquiry-based learning and student engagement in professional learning communities will produce 21st century skills in our youngsters."

Does jargon disguise vacuity? Author and blogger John Merrow (The Joys of Educational Jargonoffers this analysis: "I have come to the conclusion that it exists because of a professional lack of esteem. Other professions requiring college degrees have a specific language -- medicine, the sciences, engineering, law. But educators only have plain English, so they change it into a "professional" language that sounds fancy and inaccessible when it ought to be the most accessible profession of all."

While I agree with Merrow that there is an abundance of jargon in education research, it is not because of vacuity. New terms allow to precisely describe new concepts and theories which reflects the research community's increasing understanding of how learning works. Words are vessels for thoughts, and creating new terms allows us to think in new ways.

However, there is a trend for education researchers to develop one's own jargon ("research framework"). For example, I collected a number of terms that all describe the same idea "students' knowledge before receiving formal instruction on a topic": 
  • Prior Knowledge
  • Misconceptions (Fisher, 1983), 
  • Alternative framework (Driver & Easley, 1978), 
  • Intuitive belief (McKloskey, 1983), 
  • Preconception (Anderson & Smith, 1983)
  • Naive belief (Caramazza, McCloskey, & Green, 1981)
  • Alternative ideas (Linn, 2004)
  • Naive theories
  • Erroneous concepts
  • False Beliefs
The saying goes that educational theories and jargon are like toothbrushes: Everyone has one and uses it frequently, but nobody likes to use somebody elses. The crux with educational jargon is that it makes communication within the education research community difficult. More importantly, it makes it more difficult for teachers, policy makers, and the general public to understand education research theories and findings. There is a well-know (unfortunate) disconnect between education research and teachers. Too few education researchers take their time to publish their findings in journals for teachers in an accessible language. Education research could have a much stronger impact on education practice if there would be a shared jargon.

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