Educational Language (un)Merry-Go-Round

Education Jargon At Play

Hiding Behind Education Jargon

Glossary of Educational Terms

I think we invent jargon because it saves times talking to one-another.
John M. Smith

Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.
Kingman Brewster, Jr.

jar·gon   Noun/ˈjärgən/

1. Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

There is a disconnect between those involved in Education, and part of it is language. I am not talking about English vs. any other spoken cultural language. Jargon and interpretations of what is meant causes further barriers in reaching many accords. You join “the club,” you get the secret handshake and the coded language. If you are not part of that club…you may always be on the outside wondering “what are they talking about?”

Every profession has its own terminology. Nothing new there. I hear my IT friends and son talk, and my eyes glaze over. The comic strip Dilbert is an expression of that: I don’t work in an office. So many of the “jokes” just go over my head as not funny, whereas to someone in that position finds it can be hysterical.

The disconnect I am talking about within the education field is vast. Parents, Administration, Policy Makers, Educators, Teaching Artists and the kids all approach the same field with different languages. What one group says and thinks is an honest representation of their process is often misunderstood by another group., you take the time to learn the jargon, the pathways to understanding. Oooops…time for a new paradigm shift.

“Ours is the age of substitutes: instead of language, we have jargon: instead of principles, slogans: and, instead of genuine ideas, bright ideas”

 Eric Bentley

Working for the NYC Dept of Education, I had the opportunity to train with an arts organization. Well known and respected, it was, for me, a true pleasure to attend this intensive Professional Development program. Arts integration orientated, it espoused inquiry, deep observation,  creative thinking skills, and a very open mindset to allowing answers to form out of personal reflections. The Teaching Artist (TA) who ran the first part of the orientation was brilliant in all ways except one: she was unable to connect with the non-arts minded teachers who felt that at the end of every process there had to be ONE correct answer. The test mentality people. She was not able, for whatever reason, to bridge the gap needed to bring resistant teachers over. And there were a number of very resistant teachers to that way of thinking.

Why was I so open to it? At that point in the game, I had worn many hats in Arts-in-Education (AIE): I have been a Teaching Artist since 1996; I had years at that point of being a certified NYC teacher; I was a parent; I had worked in Arts Administration, both as the owner of my own theater company and in working with the NYC Dept of Ed (NYCDOE)’s office of Arts & Special Projects. I saw, first hand, that what was a stumbling block for the TA and the teachers was not just the concept but the language being used. This arts organization had its own jargon as well as incorporating a majority of the NYCDOE speak.

The teachers were not getting it. The ones who had the most problems came from outside the NYC school system: Westchester County, Long Island and New Jersey.  So, educational language barriers of geography on top of all the rest of it. The rest of it: pure stubbornness (yes, that is my opinion after my interaction with a lot of them).

The above, of course, is an example outside of the school building. I have seen similar circumstances played out in schools between all the “players” in the building.  It is not easy when you work in a Tower of Babel, all trying to understand, or not, as the case may be: obstructionists are a plenty in the land.
What am I suggesting? I feel that there is a need to settle on one nation wide language/jargon for the Educational System. Maybe globally, but that is the naivety/John Lennon-“Imagine” part of me speaking. Anyone who enters the school environment should be informed, trained and expected to follow the same usage of the environmental language. There would be less butting of heads if people just started on a level playing ground.
Can this happen?

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Roy A. Ackerman, PhD, EA
    Sep 15, 2011 @ 16:24:48

    I would love to blame this upon jargon. But, I fear that such an accusation would be absolutely groundless. As in, truly, no ground beneath one’s feet.
    Our citizenry (soon to be not) are so interested in making a point- their point, only their point, and you be damned- that no one LISTENS. Everyone- republican, democrat, left wing, right wing, independent, educator, administrator, bureaucrat, whatever- is intent to insure that the “public” hears their point. And, to be certain that what they say is 100% received as delivered.
    As an example, in education, everyone implores me to hear them say that it is their only goal to have the student succeed. To a teacher, that means learning the material presented. To the principal, it means having the child perform “adequately” on whatever normative exam is administered- even if that exam has no bearing on the curriculum decided upon by the school board. To the bureaucrat (in NY), it means that the student passes the “Regent’s Exam”. To the parent, it means that their child gets good grades, at least 1600 on the SAT’s, and matriculates at a decent college. To the student, it means that the teachers are interesting, the homework is minimal, and they see their friends.
    I think a better technique is to inform the student that homework will be provided, it will cover the material demanded by the curriculum (which is decided by the local school board and approved by the state authorities), the teacher will follow the curriculum and deliver the information the best way they can, and the exams (both timely in class, annual by the “NCLB”, and the Regent’s Exam will monitor mastery of said material, and the parents will receive the same information and be supportive of their kids.
    I have to stop. I noticed the batteries on my magic wand just drained out…


    • bornstoryteller
      Sep 15, 2011 @ 16:31:44

      Oh Fairy Godfather Roy, just clap your hands if you believe!! 😉

      As I said, it’s only ONE problem among so many other things. If it were the only problem, then wow… one thing to fix would be ideal. Jargon and miscommunication is only one part of a large problem. I think the photo with the woman with fingers in her ears exemplifies that.

      Opening up to key dialogue in all areas and LISTENING SKILLS are needed across the board. Right now, we all move towards & focus on whoever/whatever makes the most noise, has the biggest sparkly things. Rhetoric and splashy sound bites have overcome critical thinking.

      Wait…have we ever really had real critical thinking with any political machine?


  2. Melinda
    Sep 15, 2011 @ 21:31:51

    I worked as a special educator for 18 1/2 years and know just what you mean. Special education has a jargon unto itself and it seems to change weekly.with IEPs and UDLs which aren’t necessarily comprehensible even if you know what the initial’s mean. Thoughtful post. Thanks.


    • bornstoryteller
      Sep 17, 2011 @ 21:12:53

      Melinda, the special ed “jargon” is another aspect I wasn’t even touching: buy, yes, trying to decipher all the coding that goes on…it’s a whirlwind of confusion. Thank you for responding.


  3. Penelope J.
    Sep 17, 2011 @ 14:24:10

    Interesting, well thought out post. Insider jargon seems to be affecting many areas, as well as the educational one. Referring to everything with initials or abbreviations can be both confusing and costly as well as leading to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. However, it seems like the NYC Dept. of Education (and many others in the U.S.) should provide clear, understandable jargon that parents, administrators, educators, etc. can share. If they don’t get their act together, how can they expect the kids to get theirs?


    • bornstoryteller
      Sep 17, 2011 @ 21:16:52

      Penelope: what goes on in City Hall compared to the schools is amazing. So head in the air about what is really going on in the schools. I suggested that they go into the schools, unannounced and not in suits to see what really goes on: they wouldn’t do it.

      Yeah…how can they expect the kids to learn?



  4. Njafpa Assocation
    Oct 12, 2011 @ 13:46:19

    The importance of language arts is more important than ever. The skill in communicating is significantly important in both advanced degrees as well as pursuing successful careers. The United States, as of late, is falling woefully behind in terms of the command of language and it is the responsibility of educators to reverse this trend. The NJ educator professional development standards in language arts is paramount. The NJAFPA will have. Mrs. Mary Jane Kurabinski – Director of Language Arts & Literacy for the NJDOE will be presenting at the NJAFPA’s Winter Training Institute about how to effectively improve language arts skills for students k-12. For information about this event please go to


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