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Indecipherable 'edubabble' is lost in translation to students

At the Ig Nobel Awards Show held in Dundee in March, I learnt why pregnant women don't fall over, how to turn a brassiere into an emergency face mask and watched sword-swallower Dan Meyer demonstrate his complex skill with increasingly lethal-looking swords.

The awards began as an irreverent homage to some of the dafter scientific research going on, but they now celebrate quirkiness and aim to interest people in science in general through entertaining them, making them laugh - and making them think.

The research papers themselves, of course, are couched in proper scientific discourse, and the disjunction between the language of the papers and the witty presentation of the findings has its corollary everywhere in education. The research projects were obviously a lot of fun, but lost something in the translation onto the page of the scientific journal.

But we're good at knocking the fun out of education. In FE, our learners choose to follow their passions. They come to dance barefoot on the stage or to cook wonderful desserts and arrange them on a plate so it looks like an edible painting. Glance at the language used to describe these activities, though, and you're in the grey world of "edubabble".

I've produced a fair bit of edubabble myself in my time. You decide what you want your learners to learn. You write a course. You couch it in the acceptable discourse and format. You use active verbs such as "learn", "analyse" and "offer". You set out the knowledge and skills which must be displayed in order to pass. It's all very professional. You know it's professional, because it's really only your professional colleagues who can understand it.

And if they can't, then help is at hand with the recently-published online dictionary compiled by Donald Gillies, which explains current concepts used in education which might otherwise baffle. No doubt the effect of the dictionary will be to encourage edubabble.

Not that it needs much encouragement. It is highly infectious. Edubabble creeps into your conversation so that you are surprised when "acculturation" or "cascading" are deemed jargon or when familiar concepts dear to your heart such as "virtual learning environment" might just as well be the place where the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, comes wiffling through the tulgey wood.

However, it seems we're growing increasingly uncomfortable with jargon. Words that madden most, it seems, are "upskilling", "worklessness", "e- maturity" and "scaffolding learning". But who's not going to demonstrate that they know the jargon? You wanna be in my gang? Then play along.

So you use the jargon. Once a course is written, you will spend even more time unpacking the edubabble into language your learners can understand and devising ways to develop the knowledge and skills required.

So what do we want? We want less formality and teaching that is less po- faced and a lot more, well, showbiz. If we want to amaze our students we need to entertain, to make them laugh - and to make them think. We need a sword-swallower.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer in creative media.

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