The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


January 28, 2011

Education full of catch phrases

BECKLEY — Like any profession, the world of education is chock full of catch phrases. Many education experts say the lingo serves a legitimate purpose. But others complain the amount of jargon has gotten ludicrous.

And yet every year teachers must sit through seemingly endless presentations while their eyes glaze over from hearing all the new buzzwords.

The metropolitan edition of the Detroit News recently carried a featured article entitled “Jargon Invades Nation’s Classrooms.”

The following phrases are just a few samples of “eduspeak” currently being pedaled in our schools today.

Misbehaving students no longer face “detention,” but instead are sent to “alternative instruction rooms” or “reflection rooms.” High school students no longer pen “essays,” but write “extended constructed responses.”

In place of simple math problems, a class now studies the “modeling of efficient subtraction strategies.”

“Selected response” has taken the place of “multiple choice” on the “brief constructed responses” or “formative assessments” that have replaced the old examination “tests.”

Educational jargon, however, is not a 21st century phenomenon.

When one newspaper editor served as a full-time public school teacher more than three decades ago, he was given a handbook entitled Conference Time for Teachers and Parents.

The booklet was designed to assist him in his parent-teacher conferences and contained a section listing expressions to use when meeting with parents.

If the student cheats, the teacher was encouraged to say to the parents that “he depends on others to do his work.”

If the class member was below average, the teacher was supposed to declare that “he is working at his own level.”

If the student stole, the teacher was urged to state that “he takes things without permission.”

If he was a liar, the educator was advised to say that “he has a tendency to stretch the truth.”

Perhaps the most ridiculous suggested alternative was one that I read elsewhere: “If Johnny can’t sing, say: ‘He contributes nicely to group singing by helpful listening.’”

So, if you want to impress your peers in the public school system with “contextual meaning,” try on some of these finely crafted phrases:

Aggregate, assess and benchmark; disaggregate, empower and facilitate; brain-compatible, child-centered and classroom-based; developmentally appropriate and discipline-based; global, hands-on, holistic and target; learner-centered, outcome-based, and performance-driven; real time, real world and research based; school-based, school-to-work, standards-based and technology-enhanced.

Translated into plain English along with some wry humor, here are some examples of buzzwords (incomprehensible jargon that is well chosen to mask the truth) with some wonderful-sounding phrases used in schools:

“Research has shown” really means it’s proven or simply other people say so.

“Child-centered” means your child is of greatest concern or your child does what he wants to do.

“Expanding horizons” means your child will be exposed to familiar things first or your child will be a teenager before learning any real history.

“Emergent literacy” means teaching a child to read or watching a child guess at words.

“No memorization” means no boring stuff or we don’t teach facts.

“Critical thinking” means reflection-based or make up opinions out of thin air.

“Higher-order thinking” means crafting words on a computer screen or lost in a fog.

“Authentic assessment” means touchie-feelie measures of vaguely-defined goals.

“Portfolio assessment” means a nice fat folder, but none of these projects look like much alone.

“Facts are soon outdated” means why should we bother teaching any of them?

“Lifelong learning” means children get in the habit of learning new things or they don’t learn much around here, so we’ll show them how to look it up later.

“We don’t teach to the test” means no drills just for the sake of passing some test or we don’t like being told what to cover in class.

“Collaborative projects” means build social skills or learn how to run in packs and let someone else do the work.

Most education critics seem to agree that we spend too much time on marginal issues. We spend lots of time talking about curriculum and not enough time on teaching kids.

The most important issues in schools — whether they are award-winning schools or not — is the quality of teaching.

We have become suspicious of phrases like “student-centered, teacher-centered, learning-centered and enquiry-centered.” We need to appoint leaders in our schools who can tell it like it really is.

For instance, why not just say, “Our aim here is to ensure that youngsters behave themselves, that we create an orderly environment in the school so that teachers can teach and children can learn.”

Just say that and move on.

Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail:

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