Research School Network: False beards and ceremonial robes: the trouble with educational jargon Tom Stevens, ELE, Norwich Research School and Assistant Headteacher, Notre Dame High School

False beards and ceremonial robes: the trouble with educational jargon

Tom Stevens, ELE, Norwich Research School and Assistant Headteacher, Notre Dame High School

These days, it seems everything and everyone is evidence informed’: the current Ofsted Framework; any given school’s latest development plan; the Early Careers Framework; every CPD package advertised in our inboxes; that twitter thread from yet another edublogger’. The school cat…

Ok, possibly not the school cat.


Hyperbole aside, the language of Educational Research now permeates so many of our policies, meetings and professional dialogue that we might claim it as a victory for Educational Research, a positive sign that schools are better equipped than ever to understand the best bets’ for educating others. But is there a risk that some of this language is lost in translation? If we’re not careful, useful concepts start to sound like just the latest educational jargon.

A staffroom cynic might see some truth in the following witticism:

“Jargon is part ceremonial robe, part false beard”

Mason Cooley, American Aphorist

It seems unfair to accuse advocates of Educational Research of wearing false beards’ but we do need to be aware of the potential problems of the language we adopt. Overexposure to some ubiquitous terms could create its own Dunning-Krueger effect – an overfamiliarity that leads to false confidence in actual understanding (and yes, I am aware of the irony of that last sentence!).

Here is a list of some of the terms I have read or heard in one working week as an Assistant Headteacher:

· Accountable talk
· Absorption rate
· Cultural Capital
· Cognitive Load
· Disciplinary Knowledge
· Disciplinary Literacy
· Instructional-coaching
· Live-Modelling
· Metacognition
· Substantive knowledge
· Tier 2 and Tier 3 Vocabulary
· Quality First Teaching

What is striking to me is how few of these terms I was exposed to as an early career teacher. It makes me wonder whether teaching has fundamentally changed in the 16 years I’ve been teaching or whether we have just found new ways to talk about it as a process.

A more generous view of jargon comes from everyone’s favourite TV Lexicographer:

“Language is essentially tribal, so jargon can actually be a really good thing because it unites people.”

Susie Dent

Of course, language will fail to unify us if we talk at cross purposes with different understandings of the terms we employ. Take quality first teaching’ as an example. That’s a very ambiguous phrase for something most schools will lay claim to.

What matters is that we continually define what these terms mean for ourselves and in our own contexts (including in our own subjects). For instance, in my school, I have been leading a whole school literacy strategy and I have become acutely aware that just the word literacy’ is problematic. Like metacognition’, it can feel all-encompassing, an umbrella term for so many other aspects of teaching and learning. As with any knowledge, our understanding of these words depend on how and when we have previously encountered them, and how we make meaning of them for ourselves. That’s why, as part of our whole school literacy strategy, we are giving dedicated department time for teachers to translate the EEF Secondary Literacy guidance into their individual subjects, curriculum and classrooms. Whole school training might introduce the generic terms, but successful implementation requires disciplinary thinking as subject specialists.

Ultimately, it is how the evidence manifests itself in classrooms that gives words meaning.

Twitter: @Mr_TStevens

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