The joys of jargon

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

At Harvard recently a young graduate student asked me a tough question:

Mr. Merrow, you have been interviewing educators for 35 years. How do you know when an educator is sincere and can be trusted?

It’s a great question, but before I tell you how I answered her, let me admit that, once I got back to New York, I queried other education reporters on the subject. Is there language — jargon — that makes you suspicious of educators, I asked?

The flood of responses surprised me. It seems that a lot of reporters have had it up to here with educational jargon. Their (non) favorites include phrases like: ‘at risk,’ ‘scaffolding,’ ‘value-added,’ ‘best practices,’ ‘state of the art,’ ‘laser-like focus,’ and ‘raising the bar.’

For about half a dozen reporters the absolute nails-on-the-blackboard term is ‘stakeholders.’

I can’t resist stringing together expressions, like so:

“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.” (And I’ll bet some educator somewhere has actually said that!)

(But not in my new book, The Influence of Teachers.  I did my best to make it a jargon-free zone and will refund your purchase price if you can find examples of my — non-ironic — use of ‘educationese.’)

Educators apparently adore alliteration: ‘Scaffolding for success,’ ‘ramp up for rigor and readiness,’ ‘data-driven,’ ‘drilling down,’ ‘authentic assessment,’ ‘teaching to the test,’ and ‘rigorous research.’

Reporter Jackie Borchardt of the Casper Star-Tribune made a school board bingo card last year that included ‘literacy,’ ‘goal team,’ ‘rigor,’ ‘pathways,’ ‘research-based,’ ‘engaged,’ ‘high-access,’ ‘what’s best for kids,’ ‘cohort,’ ‘strategic plan,’ ‘and ‘21st century education. She didn’t say whether she called out “Bingo” during a School Board meeting!

JargonDoes jargon disguise vacuity? Anne Lewis, a veteran reporter, offered this analysis: “I have come to the conclusion that it exists because of a professional lack of esteem. Other professions requiring college degrees have a specific language — medicine, the sciences, engineering, law. But educators only have plain English, so they change it into a ‘professional’ language that sounds fancy and inaccessible when it ought to be the most accessible profession of all.”

Do some educators obfuscate because they think it makes them sound more professional? Are some educators so deep in the weeds of their profession that they have forgotten how to communicate with ordinary folks?

And are some being duplicitous, saying, ‘We know what works’ when in fact they do not?

I suspect it’s “Yes” to all of the above.

So how did I answer that young woman?

I told her that two terms make me hyper-vigilant: rigorous and ready to learn. ‘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.

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?

But what I listen for are clues about beliefs. When an educator looks at a child, I want to know if he wonders, “How intelligent is this kid?” — or is he thinking “How is this child intelligent?”

If the former, then the educator is operating from a medical model, with himself as the doctor and provider of cures. I don’t like that philosophy. If the latter, he is working from a health model and is ready to build on the child’s strengths.

I advised the young woman that one cannot simply ask educators which way they look at the world, because they will spit back the politically correct response. Instead, I said, watch and listen carefully. Cut through — or even ignore — the jargon, which at the end of the day is a nuisance and a distraction. It’s the core beliefs that matter.

25 thoughts on “The joys of jargon

  1. Thanks for this wonderful insight into educational jargon. As a writer myself, focused on developing children’s strengths, I admit to using some of these terms. Sometimes it takes a person like yourself to bring it to our attention that plain language is always the best. Thanks for the wake-up call!


  2. John — OK — educators are fair game on this. How about a companion posting in which you share with the rest of us the equally baffling jargon used by journalists?


    • Moi? Well, Iet me ask my ink-stained colleagues about burying the lede, nut grafs and so on, but it may be breaking the tribal pledge to go down that road.


  3. John,

    You and your readers may be interested in a website with this (unfortunate) address: The purpose of the site is to translate corporate jargon onto meaningful English. Perhaps we could urge the webmaster at Unsuck It to add ed-speak to his repertoire.




  4. When you say educators I assume you include everyone from actual school people to researchers, policy wonks and federal and state employees who regulate the implement state and federal policy. Much of the jargon is to distinguish past practice or policy from new policies and practices- for better or worse. As much as I admire Ann Lewis all professions add terms for new practices and policies. No professions specific language is static.

    Does the educational jargon always makes sense definitely not, and because of that most school people also make fun of the jargon. Not all of the phrases you cite are new. What’s best for kids has been around since at least 1965 my first year of teaching. The meaning changed from a term for internal discussion to a club for reformers to beat up on school people.

    Most of the terms you site are not from school people. Policy wonks in think tanks or universities, and state and federal employees created most of the terms you cited. However we do use the terms, and frequently confuse discussions about local policies and practices.


  5. Great post, John. I completely agree with your last paragraph’s message.

    I know that in the past I’ve used trendy buzzwords as rhetorical or writing crutches, and in hindsight, I know the jargon hugely reduce the effectiveness of my presentation, report, or simply my end of the conversation. Definitely an area where a lot of us can improve.

    – Paul


  6. OK, as the guy who COINED authentic assessment, I take it personally!

    Seriously, in working with people in other fields the jargon there is just as bad. Have you worked with architects and contractors on a home renovation? Endless jargon. Same with my doctor and lawyer friends. By definition, a profession has both a code and a technical language. I think the jargon is sometimes useful to make a point – as i was doing with the emphasis on ‘authentic’. And I don’t have the same response you do to the word ‘rigor’ – to me the association is athletics, as in ‘no pain, no gain’. Jargon to me is either used well or poorly. If it is a substitute for thinking then it is hideous. But when it is ‘code’ for much longer sentences and phrases, in the compnay of others who get the ‘code’ what’s the fuss?


  7. My suspicion is that it is used to obscure uncertainty, as if that were a bad thing. And it may also be used to dazzle, as a prelude to getting people to sign checks or otherwise spend money.


  8. John:

    Jargon? Jargon?! I greatly enjoyed the article, but I’m not sure the examples meet the my definition of jargon.

    I think of jargon as unintelligible and often pretentious gibberish. Emic and etic from educational research would be examples (look them up!). So would positivist and post-positivist. Bytes, bits, and CPUs would be examples from today’s hi-tech world, but I’m sure most techies would be upset to think anyone took exception to their brilliant contributions to the English language. And I don’t want to sound defensive, but it took me a long time to understand why editors insisted on ‘ledes” and “grafs” instead of “leads” and “paragraphs.”

    I’m not sure “all children can learn” or “rigorous curriculum” fall into the category of jargon. No one has any difficulty understanding in a general way what those terms mean. They don’t strike me as pretentious, although they can be used in a condescending manner. I think they’re acceptable shorthand in a community of educators that understands what they imply. My argument with them would be that they’re so overused as to be hackneyed and trite — and they’re often used without a lot of content to back them up. If you want to criticize such terms as cliches or buzzwords, I’ve got your back!


    Jim Harvey


    • Well put. It is all in how it is used. Smokescreen or useful tool, it is unto the individual to judge the intent of the user.


  9. John –

    I enjoyed your blog entry and had to chuckle when I got to the last sentence:

    “Cut through — or even ignore — the jargon, which AT THE END OF THE DAY is a nuisance and a distraction. It’s the core beliefs that matter.” (emphasis mine)

    In my book (ok, maybe that’s jargon ’cause I haven’t written a book like you have…) ‘at the end of the day’ comes really really close to qualifying as jargon…

    Cheers –



  10. If we truly respect educators as professionals, then we will accept that they will at times employ lingo that those outside of the profession might view as obtuse. I second Jim Harvey’s point that some of the “jargon” educators use is acceptable shorthand for those within the community. We don’t criticize doctors with pretentiousness or any lack of sincerity when they comment about our sputum, when obviously there are much more accessible terms for such stuff. I therefore take issue with Anne Lewis’ suggestion that the language of educators should be “the most accessible of all.” On the contrary, pedagogical practice is incredibly complex. Pedagogy is fundamentally about transforming implicit and complex knowledge into explicit procedures and knowledge that can be readily applicable. That ain’t simple, and it is from no lack of professional esteem that I will admit to utilizing terminology such as “scaffolding,” or “task analysis.”

    Building on what Bruce Hunter said in his comment, I think we have to distinguish between the jargon of pedagogical practice, and the jargon of policy punditry. And reporters should be helping to clarify this distinction, not obfuscate it.


  11. Jargon can be useful — so long as everyone understands what it means. My problem with it is when it obstructs understanding. In education, this happens between educators and the public, but also between district officials and school employees, principals and teachers who put the
    words in practice.

    I don’t mind if my doctor uses medical terms when discussing a diagnosis. I do wish he’d explain what the terms mean. That’s good bedside manner. Likewise, good reporters cut through the jargon to convey meaning to the reader.

    I lost my original edujargon Bingo card, but I made another one the other night while waiting for board members to finish their executive session. I posted it to my blog:


  12. Personally I use “best practices” a fair amount, because it expresses something I’m not sure how to say succinctly otherwise. Maybe I should just say “what works.”


  13. Thank you, John. I’m not a fan of ed-jargon, either. Two of my least favorite ed-jargon items are: “transparency” and “flying the airplane while building it.”


  14. Very funny and so true! In my school, current events and a science-fair type event combined to create Global Awareness Night. Educational jargon lives on!


  15. The greatest show on TV is 30 Rock. I love the comments about jargon. The show is about a TV sketch –comedy show and the goings-on behind the scenes and dealing with cooperate. Liz (Tina Fey) wants to get something done quickly. She wants to take the show to Miami for a work vacation. So, she barges into her boss’s office (Jack, played perfectly by Alec Baldwin) and she calmly waves her hands in front of a poster that reads “Miami = Synergy” and says:
    Liz: Cross-promotional… deal mechanics… revenue streams… jargon… synergy.
    Jack: That’s the best presentation I’ve ever heard. Let’s get started right away.

    Sometimes, this is how I feel as an educator. Do what you want in your classroom, as long as you use the right buzz words to describe it to administrators.


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