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Is the Education Reform World Filled with Too Much Jargon?

What does "authentic, inquiry-based learning" even mean? It might be time for a moratorium on meaningless edu-speak.

Have you ever wondered what it means when a school district official says they're "drilling down" into "student achievement data"? If so, you're not alone. With education reform hitting the mainstream, more edu-speak is out there than ever before—and it makes understanding just what is or isn't working in education reform confusing for everyone. Thankfully, on his Learning Matters blog, well-respected veteran education reporter John Merrow calls for a moratorium on the overuse of educational jargon.


Merrow's analysis of the current state of edu-speak began after a Harvard grad student asked, given his 35 years of experience interviewing educators, "How do you know when an educator is sincere and can be trusted?" Merrow looks for an educator's core beliefs about children—do they think all children are intrinsically intelligent and can be nurtured and developed? Red flags get raised when educators resort to jargon, particularly when they throw around "rigorous" and the ever-popular "Ready to Learn." Merrow writes,

"'Ready to Learn' tells me one of two things: either the educator hasn’t thought about the difference between being "ready to learn" and being "ready for school" OR she actually believes they mean the same thing. If the latter, that’s remarkable arrogance. If the former, let’s hope the leader can be taught the difference."

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And as for "rigorous",

I hate it when educators talk about the need for a ‘rigorous curriculum’ because that tells me they haven’t thought much about the meaning of the adjective (harsh and unyielding). Perhaps they think it makes them sound tough, as if that were a good thing, but I associate rigor with death (‘rigor mortis’). Who needs that in our classrooms? Why not say ‘challenging’ instead?

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Merrow also hilariously strings together some of the the worst of educational jargon, creating an example that will probably be said, in one form or another, at every upcoming school board meeting across the nation.

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.

No one—not even the academic policy wonks that have convinced teachers and principals that this is how you have to talk in order to sound competent and professional—really knows what that means. It's no wonder many parents skip coffee with the principal or dread the bi-annual parent-teacher conference. Understanding this stuff is like translating a foreign language.

This isn't the first time someone's called out unhelpful education jargon—an educator made the above bingo board (perfect for school staff meetings!) back in 2007. If we really want the general public to engage intelligently in the current conversation about schools, a moratorium on this kind of language would help.

photo via Doug Johnson

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