Monday, 27 January 2014

The Curse of the Education Acronym

NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy). ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority). SCSEEC (Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood). Acronyms that are sure to cause confusion for most, yet are commonly used by professionals in the education sector. Along with an entirely separate language of jargon, these terms are used without mercy to obfuscate and create a sense of mystique, as well as for the simple reason of using mental prototypes.

It's not hard to find examples of educational jargon and acronyms, they are used constantly in the public. What can be surprising is the way in which educators will talk to each other. To give an example, it is not uncommon for a teacher to say “His arousal level was really high when he walked in, so I used selective attending when he was being disruptive”. A plain English translation? “He walked in in a really grumpy mood, so I let him sit there and play on his phone.” Reading through educational research is even worse, with an acronym soup making a mess of things.

There has to be a reason for this particular language though. And there is. It comes down to mental prototypes and shortcuts. To explain briefly, a mental prototype is how we link words to ideas. If I say the word table, everyone has a picture of a table in their head. If you say to a teacher 'arousal', then that links to a particular explanation in their head (around the levels of stress hormones in a student, what might have caused that, and how best to deal with a student with a high level of arousal).

Acronyms and jargon also allow educators to share ideas without having to go into a great deal of detail. Once they start talking about pedagogy and curriculum, the jargon is a way of keeping track of complex concepts and ideas. This can lead to problems though. There's an old adage – familiarity breeds contempt. When you start to talk about things with an acronym, it becomes very easy to just think of them as that string of letters. This means that it is harder to have a deep understanding of the term and concept. The mental shortcut becomes the term, and a lot of that meaning is lost.

Secondly, mental prototypes are individual. The table that you thought of earlier isn't the same as my table, or anyone else's really. Sure, they'll have similar features (some number of legs, probably four, and a top surface). But there are some serious differences. Is the table made from wood, or metal, or maybe glass? Is it square, rectangular, round?

This is the problem with using jargon and acronyms, their use presupposes that everyone really is talking about the same thing. Of course, the number of acronyms that are used is increasing on a daily basis (a school might use ASOT (Art and Science Of Teaching) as their pedagogical basis and SWPBS (School Wide Positive Behaviour Support) for their behaviour management). By itself, this isn't a problem. But not everyone is aware of the latest trend, or system, or national body, and not everyone is willing to admit they don't know. It is common to see a term being used in a staff meeting followed by whispered conversations throughout the room as people try to work out what was just said.

The problem isn't only with educators. If they have difficulties keeping up with all the acronyms, what about the parents and students? Some terms have become very familiar, like NAPLAN, but if you ask the students who sit the test – can they tell you what it means? Basically, they would say it's a big scary test. Ask a parent about ACARA, or even worse SCSEEC and they'll probably give you a blank look. Education is all about working with everyone involved, which includes parents and most importantly students. When these terms are used without explanation it makes it even harder to communicate.

This lack of communication is what will destroy relationships between parents, students, and educators. Without those relationships, education simply cannot happen. Relationships and shared understandings make for good learning. Excessive use of jargon makes these relationships harder to create and maintain.

All the acronyms, all the jargon, it serves a purpose. It can create a commonality amongst educators, a shared specific language that lets them pass around and manipulate complex ideas with ease. It can also lead to taking shortcuts and not really exploring the issue underneath that term. When it comes to communicating with other people involved in education, mainly the students themselves, then these terms can simply mean the student will disengage.

After all, good pedagogy is about developing meaningful and deep understandings via relational transactions between all stakeholders.


Good teaching is about working with the kids to make sure they understand what you're on about.

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