Education language: a lesson in confusion


‘Edspeak’ baffles parents. One example, “Engage in the process of reflection” — translation: think. Jeffrey Mirel, education historian at the University of Michigan’s education faculty, says Edspeak is a language that, similar to the code among doctors or lawyers, is meant to be exclusive.

If you are a parent with a child in school, there are a few things you might want to clear up with the teacher.

If you live in Alberta, does your school have an SQR (School Quality Review)? You will want one. It is the same thing as the old SIP (School Improvement Plan), only better. Does your child need ERI (Early Reading Intervention)? Do not be too alarmed if he does. It is not as bad as Reading Recovery, which is intensive intervention.

And regardless of where you live, you will want to find out about the school's expected learning outcomes. These are important because exemplars of learning and rubrics will be used to assess your child's performance.

Confused? You are not alone. This is Edspeak — a language so baffling even teachers do not fully understand it.

For parents, it is like taking an immersion course, says Carol Bazinet, a Calgary mother of five children. She discovered that even if you think you have mastered the language, you can expect to start again if you change provinces or cities.

Ms. Bazinet moved from Ontario nine years ago and expected to enroll one of her children in kindergarten. She found kindergarten did not exist in Alberta. In its place was something called Early Childhood Services.

She also had to learn all the local acronyms, such as CLC (Collaborative Learning Community), which means "an administrative unit consisting of a number of schools." This year, she has children in three different CLCs.

"Parents want to get more involved in their children's schools, but at times it gets very difficult," says Ms. Bazinet, who is president of the CCHSA (Calgary Council of Home and School Associations), which will soon become the CAPSC (Calgary Association of Parents and School Councils).

Some schools, such as the West Dalhousie Elementary School in Calgary, have resorted to posting glossaries of Edspeak on their Web sites to explain the terminology. West Dalhousie also includes its own code: Publishers Family (meaning Grade 5 and 6 classes); Scribes Family (Grade 1 and 2 classes); Generative Curriculum (the school's "governing principle in teaching").

Jeffrey Mirel, education historian at the University of Michigan's education faculty, says Edspeak is a language that, similar to the code among doctors or lawyers, is meant to be exclusive. "It says to parents, 'you should give your child over to me and I will make intellectual improvements.'

"It is an attempt to create a certain amount of prestige in the profession. It is like a secret society. You are in by the fact you understand the acronym," Mr. Mirel says.

In the United States, political correctness has altered much of the language, forcing parents to keep up to date. LEP (Limited English Proficient) has been replaced by ELL (English Language Learner) because the term "limited" is too negative.

In Toronto schools, extremely intelligent children are no longer gifted. They are now special education children, the same term used for mentally disabled students. In other parts of the province, gifted children have become "academically able."

Edspeak can be blamed on teacher training colleges, says Martin Kozloff, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who studied manuals from 100 teacher training programs around the world.

He found references to teachers being part of "communities of practice" and obscure terms such as "knowledge acquisition as a transformative process."

Of all the colleges he studied — none of which were in Canada — only two had documents that made any sense, he said.

"If you have a field that has folks in it who only have pretensions of serious scholarship, then how are they going to make themselves look smart? They use four or five words instead of one. They won't say teach students to think, they'll use words like 'reflect.' But that is not enough, you have to teach students to 'engage in the process of reflection.' Now, that sounds like a lot more than thinking."

Carol Rolheiser, associate dean of the OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), said that, unlike in the United States, where teachers are given guides to Edspeak, there is no point printing them here because the terminology changes so quickly.

Ms. Rolheiser plans to introduce her students in this year's teacher training program to the new language. She will quiz them to see if they know the difference between diagnostic, formative and summative.

"It is hard for parents to keep abreast, but it is also hard for teachers. With each new government comes a new set of words," she says. "In Ontario, we have gone from having objectives to outcomes to expectations."

Reggi Balabanov, a Surrey, B.C., mother of two children and president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, says parents ask her to explain what things mean because they are too embarrassed to ask the teacher. "Many parents do not have the confidence to stop a conversation with a teacher and say, 'I don't understand what you are talking about.' "

One of the more confusing terms is learning through play. "To parents, playing literally means playing — free time or recess. Parents wonder, 'what do they mean my children are playing all the time?' "

The word intervention is also used a lot. "Intervention can mean, we now know, just spending some extra time reading with a child. It does not mean he will be sent to a special class or have a doctor look at him or something."

Even government officials often do not understand their own language, she says. "When documents come out, we have a communications department in the ministry that runs it by some people to see if they can understand it. The communications department changes it and ends up altering the meaning because they don't know what the meaning is."


Julie Smyth, "Education language: a lesson in confusion." National Post, (Canada) 6, September, 2001.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

Copyright © 2001 National Post

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