On Jargon

I’m working up the courage to start my own podcast. As a part of my brainstorming/courage building pre-work, I’ve been listening to podcasts at every possible opportunity. As it so often goes, listening to one leads to another and suddenly I’m binging on a podcast about medical history hosted by a doctor and her husband. It hits all my sweet spots with history, a feminist bent, and goofy humor, but the parts I cheer for the most are when Dr. McElroy, the host, busts out medical jargon – and then repeats herself using a more colloquial term. And she does it a lot. Almost every episode, she refers to the same thing using two different terms – the one the members of her profession use and one that her husband, a layperson as it were, would understand. In one episode, her husband scoffs at an especially complicated term and asks her why doctors don’t just use the more common, less “doctor-y” term. You can almost hear her shrug as she says something to the effect of, “because we’re doctors and that’s what we call it.”

Doctors and Nurses get the Physicians Desk Reference and the Stedman’s Medical Dictionary.
Psychologists get the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).
Lawyers get a government sanctioned Glossary of Legal Terms.
Teachers get the Googles.

And I’m being only mildly snarky. Consider the word “curriculum.” There’s no shortage of exasperated blog posts from educators explaining the flaws of the Common Core Curriculum or explaining why the Common Core Standards aren’t a curriculum and it’s wrong to suggest it is.

How about a word closer to my own heart? Almost daily, there’s a tweet or post proclaiming the virtues of a great rubric. I click and pause. The tool being shared is indeed a great resource but it doesn’t meet the criteria of a rubric. According to whom, one might ask. And it’s a reasonable, frustrating question because it’s 2015 and we don’t have an official definition. Google the word’s etymology and you’ll get a brief history of red ink in manuscripts. We don’t have an AMA or a Judicial Branch saying, “This word? It means this.”

I’ve written before about the challenge of assessment literacy among educators. That challenge, though, extends past just assessment and runs deep into the heart of what it means to be a member of a profession. Education nomenclature is a messy, jumbled, chaotic process that is often dictated by publishers and vendors. (There’s a reason most people refer to scanned answer keys as ScanTron.) How might things be different were there an official education lexicon? If teachers shifted as comfortably between the language of their field and more common terms non-teacher parents and community members could understand?

Different sources have attempted to make the final call.

  • The Glossary of Ed Reform takes a stab at some common terms
  • ASCD focuses on terms relevant to their publications. 
  • EdWeek spent several days trying to define two words: “formative assessment

Meanwhile, Diane Ravitch advocates for EdLingo BINGO as a way to deal with “the useless words that fill the air.” Carol Dweck had to write a lengthy text explaining what “growth mindset” is and isn’t. The tension between these two things would be amusing if we weren’t talking about a profession. On the other hand, there are 3.5 million teachers in this country. Fewer than one million doctors. There are, though, 2.7 million nurses. Those two groups talk to each other in the same cryptic language that is inaccessible to a layperson.

What are the implications when a profession can’t talk to each other? I could easily make the claim that teachers talk just fine to each other. It’s when others take over the conversation that it gets muddled. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be able to link to a teacher blog railing against the federally mandated Common Core Curriculum and one describing how she developed her own curriculum based on the Common Core Standards. Alas, I can. 
So what’s the answer? Do we crowd-source a dictionary of education terms, using researchers in that field as a check and balance? Do nothing? Right now, I just get ranty when reporters call the 3-8 tests “exams” or I see a Likert Scale labeled “rubric.” There isn’t likely to be a voice from on high declaring the final word (pun intended) but in the meantime, in the absence of an official dictionary, consider this a call for more thoughtful word choice. A call which goes hand in hand with a need to consult the experts. Which is, as many like to proclaim, something we don’t exactly have a handle on in education.

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