The Roots and Perils of Eduspeak—The Language of Pretense and Evasion
by Cynthia Rurak
A form of jargon called “Eduspeak” is creeping into classrooms across the country, intimidating parents and complicating learning, yet many teachers seem largely blind to it.
News media articles in Canada and the US report that the convoluted jargon of the professional educator is making its way into classrooms. But appeals from confused parents and outside professionals that teachers use plain language will have little effect until the ideas that have long been driving the jargon change.
It Can’t Happen Here … Can It?
Linda Perlstein, reporting on the proliferation of “educationese” in American schools for the Washington Post, says that since starting as an education writer six years ago, she has seen the jargon employed at the higher levels of the education system—in the schools of education and by the bureaucrats—permeate the classroom.
For Canadian students, Perlstein’s report foreshadows things to come, if not what is already here. Greg Gribbon, Director of the Ontario-based Organization for Quality Education, says “virtually every education fad that Ontario has experienced, and continues to experience, at least since the 1960s, comes from the US.” Like the canary in the coalmine, recent news stories in the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post suggesting that the spread of academic bafflegab into Canada’s schoolrooms has already begun bear Gribbon out.
At the Teepee Creek School in Alberta, for example, students who used to read now engage in “USSR—Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading.” Instead of comparing books, fifth and sixth graders at Grace Martin Elementary School in Edmonton make “text-to-text connections,” while high schoolers at the Don Mills Collegiate Institute in Toronto write “longer constructed responses” rather than the simpler essay. Misbehaving students from Emily Carr Middle School in British Columbia to Jockvale Elementary School in Ottawa no longer face detention—they go to a “Reflection Room” to talk, to sort out difficulties, and to, well, reflect.
When Jargon Is Not Really Jargon
To its critics, the practice of calling grades “outcomes,” tests “assessments,” and libraries “learning resource centres” is pretentious, designed to make educators look smart at the expense of clarity. While jargon has its functions, creating a kind of cohesiveness among group members, the use of professional “in-talk” with parents puts up a barrier to communication, says Malkin Dare, a mother of two university-aged children who is a member of the Organization for Quality Education.
Widener University education professor Edward Rozycki goes further, describing Eduspeak as “a language of hypocrisy … of indecision, of hesitation, of reluctance, of prissiness and of indirection—all those things that undermine the formation of courage, steadfastness, forthrightness, and commitment.”
Yet some classroom educators defend the use of such convoluted and evasive language. Explaining why disruptive children now have reflection time instead of a detention at LaSalle Public School near Windsor, principal Fran Pohanka says they don’t want to use the term “detention.” “It has a negative connotation. We find ‘reflection’ to be a kinder, gentler thing to say.”
Even Susan, a reform-minded teacher in the Toronto School District who wishes to remain anonymous, sees the reflection sheets her students fill out as a more enlightened way to discipline children, rather than a politically correct whitewash. “I don’t notice that much jargon in the classroom,” she says, “just in the Blob—the teachers’ unions, school board officials, ministries of education, textbook publishers, and the faculties of education that make up the education system.”
The Language of Learning
Like the frog in the pot of boiling water, some teachers don’t seem to notice the rising level of polysyllabic jargon in their classrooms, perhaps because they have been immersed in it for too long.
A study of manuals from 100 teacher training programs around the world by Martin Kozloff, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington, suggests that teachers’ colleges function as induction centres into the jargon, normalizing its use. This practice would be acceptable if the jargon were useful, providing a shortcut to a concept commonly used in the field or precisely defining a complicated idea. But Kozloff complains that the lingo only paints a sophisticated veneer on the obvious, the empty, and the banal. “It’s unmatched twaddle. Unbelievable bilge. Absolutely staggering nonsense.”
Susannah Kelly’s experience in her first year as a teacher suggests that many of the latest buzzwords bandied about at teachers’ conferences and professional development centres are shallow and puffed up. Warned by a professor at the University of Ottawa to expect a flood of jargon that, though popular today, will be gone tomorrow, Kelly reports that she has already encountered many words, such as “rubric” (a type of assessment strategy), and acronyms like KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learned), that make the teaching profession bewildering and esoteric.
Although buzzwords come and go, jargon has been around a long time, making its recognition near impossible. According to University of Victoria, British Columbia, education professor Thomas Fleming, the arrival of “bafflegab” began decades ago as part of a strategy among educators, academics, and bureaucrats to gain professional status. But the author of Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform, educational historian Diane Ravitch, says that Eduspeak dates back nearly a century to a coterie of academics known as “educational engineers” who sought to revolutionize schools by turning education into a science.
We Don’t Need No Thought Control
According to Ravitch, academic jargon has been around since at least the 1920s, ever since progressive reform theorists, believing that the education system was too complex to be entrusted to parents and teachers, argued that “curriculum experts” should rule. Many of jargon’s critics believe that this desire to promote a particular agenda and maintain a grip on power has given the lexicon of academia a darker, more sinister aspect, which is evident in the name used to describe it—Eduspeak.