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A Simple Cure For Education's Jargonitis

Education smart words
Hallie Bateman for NPR

Merriam-Webster defines jargon as "the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity, group, profession, or field of study."

For journalists, covering education means fending off lots of jargon. Going to a conference, like the American Educational Research Association annual meeting this week, or reading a research or policy paper, requires wading through waist-deep abstract terms and buzzwords. Many have lost their meaning through overuse, becoming cliches or euphemisms. Others smuggle a whole lot of questionable assumptions in a seemingly innocuous package.

At NPR Ed we like to keep things simple. In fact it's our mission as journalists to open up the discussion of education ideas beyond small closed groups or people with specialized knowledge in a field.

Plus, jargon is not good writing.

In the immortal words of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: "Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able."

So I asked folks on Twitter for their favorite examples of edujargon.

Then I set out to define these terms in language regular people could understand, using a text editor that restricts you to the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

The text editor was built in homage to Thing Explainer, a book by Randall Munroe, who also created the Web comic xkcd. In Thing Explainer, Munroe uses only those 1,000 most common words, along with drawings, to explain phenomena like tectonic plates and the space shuttle.

If he can do that, then decoding education-speak should be easy. So here goes:

Words School People Like To Use

Authentic (learning or assessment)
What does this schoolwork have to do with my life or the real world?

Best practices
Let's all do what the really good people do.

Closing the achievement gap
Some students don't do as well as other students and we can fix it by working harder.

Achievement gap
/ Hallie Bateman for NPR
Hallie Bateman for NPR

College and career ready
School should teach you how to learn and work.

Competency-based education
School should be about proving what you know, not just sitting in a chair for a number of weeks or years.

Culturally responsive teaching
Do you know where your students come from and what their lives are like?

We should decide things using numbers.

Deeper learning
Students should think hard, ask questions, and really work.

Is this thing working or not? Let's find out.

People who try harder do better.

Growth mindset
You can do better if you believe you can do better if you try harder.

Hybrid education
Let's use computers and people to teach students.

You have a good idea. Making it happen is the hard part.

Don't stop until you really know a thing.

You might not have to go to college for four years. You can learn good stuff even in just a few weeks, and you should be able to prove that.

/ Hallie Bateman for NPR
Hallie Bateman for NPR

All students learn in their own way and their own time. Schools should help them. Maybe with computers?

If your idea is not working, change it.

Good enough.

Professional development
Teach the teachers too.

Project-based learning
Don't just write words and numbers. Do something.

Schools need to change.

Teaching things step by step so the student can do more and more by herself.

Make your good idea bigger.

Social and emotional skills
Being a good friend and working hard are just as important as books.

Lots of people care what happens in schools, like students, teachers, parents and leaders. You should listen to everybody.

A teacher should act like a businessperson.

Transformative leader
A good leader makes big changes.

We can tell how good a teacher is by his or her students' work over time.

NPR Ed readers: Do you have more edujargon terms we should translate? Let us know with the hashtag #edujargon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.