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Searching for Simplicity

How to keep it real when education jargon bogs you down

January 29, 2015

As an education writer, I winced, then laughed, then winced again when I read Alia Wong’s rumination in The Atlantic on what plagues education reporting. Her takedown of edu-speak, and of reporters who traffic in it, hit the mark, reminding me of how easy it is for writers to fall into the jargon pit.

It is perhaps ironic that education is a field particularly vulnerable to language that obscures and muddles, as Wong documents. Simple concepts and straightforward goals are often weighed down with terminology lifted from a legislator’s handbook or a high-level policy document, and they’re often reported without the popularizing word-cleanse that editors in other fields usually insist upon. But removing the jargon takes courage — it takes wrestling with unfamiliar concepts in order to confidently and stubbornly ask a reluctant expert: “‘Wait, when you talk about a teacher’s value-added, you mean ‘measuring his impact on student learning,’ right?” Maybe you won’t be correct on your first attempt to clarify, but you’ll get closer to comprehension.

I know about the edu-speak phenomenon, not just as a writer but also as a parent. It’s embarrassing to admit that you don’t understand your 8-year-old’s progress report, but that’s the case for me. There are so many letters and numbers — and two different assessment schemes! — on that tiny-fonted trifold that it feels like the manual for an intricate robotics project. Even his homework is confusing — not so much the content of it (yet!) but the way assignments and notions are communicated: “Fill in the details in the graphic organizer.” “Find the tens partners.” At the beginning of the year, our teacher gave parents a handout summarizing what students could expect to learn in second grade. Under math: “Number and operations in base 10. Use place value understanding and properties of operations to add and subtract.” Of those words, I understood “number,” “add,” and “subtract.”

When asked, the teacher always explains the concepts in far clearer language than the worksheets do. The experts writing those worksheets should be asked to do the same — and reporters need to do the asking. They need to nudge policymakers and education leaders toward clarity, and they need to strive for it in their own writing.

Of course, reporters in any area — in technical fields, or wherever bureaucracy blooms — can be constrained by practitioners who pull up the ladder rather than open the gates. In academia, the problem of impenetrable jargon is hardly confined to education research. In 20-plus years as a writer and editor in universities, I’ve seen how reflexively researchers in all fields use discipline-specific tech-speak. It’s their comfort zone, a safe place for people anxious not to misspeak or claim too much for themselves. Those motives are often good ones. Despite some bad public relations and some notable exceptions, academics are among the most careful, collaborative, and professionally generous people I’ve worked with.

They often shy away from self-aggrandizement; their training teaches them to position their work within a long tradition of inquiry, where any discovery is built upon what came before. That can make reporting on what researchers do difficult. Real breakthroughs, or even just interesting findings, are often couched in mundane or overly complex language, and it’s the reporter’s job to penetrate that shield.

I once interviewed the chair of a university computer science department — back in the pre-Zuckerberg days when computer science was not at all trendy. He told me that as someone who accepts taxpayer-funded grants to support his work, he feels obligated to be clear about what he does. “If I can’t explain what I do to the guy sitting next to me on the subway,” he said, “I should give the money back.” In my writing, I try to hold all researchers to that jargon-free standard. Here’s hoping educators (and my son’s teachers) will do the same.

About the Author

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Bari Walsh
Bari Walsh is the senior editor of Usable Knowledge.
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