Henry Hepburn

Let’s put an end to jargon-ridden language in education

Communication in Scottish education can be so verbose, baffling and, frankly, silly that it could be straight out of a Monty Python sketch, says Henry Hepburn

Let's get rid of the confusing jargon in education, says Henry Hepburn

"Omit needless words.” That is the key advice in The Elements of Style, a classic book on good writing whose influence has lasted more than a century, and which is still cited by luminaries such as Stephen King. While some of the advice in a book published in 1918 has inevitably dated, that central tenet for achieving clarity in writing is as important now as it has ever been.

Verbose and nebulous writing is all around and education is no exception. There was a minor Twitter stooshie recently with the appearance of an Education Scotland job advert, for example, which peppered the words “leadership” and “learning” with such unremitting and baffling regularity that it seemed to be reaching for the performative silliness of a Monty Python sketch.

While it’s easy to arch your eyebrows in amusement and move on after seeing this sort of produced-by-committee word salad, there is a serious point about the importance of good communication in education. Writing that is verbose, obscure and full of buzzwords can be a sign of different things: it can betray lack of confidence in what one is trying to say but it can also be deliberately obfuscatory or betray a patrician arrogance towards the people it is supposedly written for.

Whatever the reasons, it makes life harder – people stress and waste time over vague guidelines and nebulous announcements, and they may even head off in completely the wrong direction as a result of documentation that is suffocated by jargon.

Suffocated by jargon in education

Earlier this week, it was announced that Maureen McKenna would be retiring as Glasgow’s education director after 14 years in the job. One reason why she has stood out in that time is that she tends to call a spade a spade; to not be shy about speaking her mind in plain terms. Whether you agree or disagree with McKenna, it’s usually pretty clear what she’s getting at.

Sadly, that’s often not the case with Scottish education. Teacher and author James McEnaney, whose book Class Rules: the truth about Scottish schools is published this month, wrote online for Tes Scotland last weekend about four essential areas for change in Scottish education, one of which he summed up as the “Bonfire of the Es and Os”. The Curriculum for Excellence “experiences and outcomes” – to give them their full name – are renowned for the propensity with which their very mention brings teachers out in a cold sweat.

McEnaney bemoans their “labyrinthine demands” and calls for “a vastly simplified curricular structure outlining what students should know and do at each stage, accompanied by clear examples of different levels of performance”. For McEnaney, it’s an issue of trust: if teachers were trusted more to do their jobs, then such overlong yet under-detailed guidance would never have appeared.

It’s an observation that chimes with a report on Scottish education by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, published on 31 August, in which Gordon Stobart advocates the “decluttering” of the exam system and for placing greater trust in teachers to shape assessment. (Issues of trust and cluttered thinking apply not only to the language used in Scottish education but to many of the issues it describes.)

Unclear and jargon-ridden language, then, can be far more than a mere irritant: it alienates and it exacerbates muddled thinking; it can be symptomatic of failures at a system level, of a reluctance to devolve responsibility.

Of course, better writing and clearer messaging with not solve all of Scottish education’s ills; McEnaney, for example, also highlights how crucial it is to reform assessment, produce better data and reduce teachers’ class-contact time.

But greater clarity in communication is crucial, and it’s not only about making people’s lives easier – it is also a basic act of respect.

@Henry_Hepburn

This article originally appeared in the 10 September 2021 issue under the headline “We’ve had enough jargon – now for something completely different”

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