It doesn’t take much exposure to conventional education to see (or remember) how very jargon-laden it is. To take a mere sampling, you’ve got IEPs, IB, AP, and STEM/STEAM; No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and Race to the Top; scaffolding, silos, and interdisciplinary subjects; project-based learning, portfolios, and your local state’s version of the standardized test du jour.

Sadly, this is nothing new. In my own school days, first as a student and later a high school teacher, it was Back to Basics and Outcomes-Based Education, respectively. And of course the business world has its own lampoonable tendency toward an alternate reality, as evidenced by the widespread popularity of Scott Adams’ Dilbert. Categorizing and labeling reality ad absurdum, it seems,runs deep in our culture.

Given my twenty years as an educator in both conventional and Sudbury schools, as well as my relatively recent foray into the Twitter-sphere, the absurdity of edu-babble has been on my mind a great deal lately. What impresses me in particular are the many words almost universally familiar in traditional schooling that seem to appear nowhere else in our culture.

For example, take the negative terms tardy and detention. In general society people are “late,” and “detention” is something that happens only if you’ve either broken, or are suspected of having broken, the law. But tardies and detentions are so ubiquitous in conventional schools, chances are that if you attended one, you and/or your friends probably earned a few (though perhaps your school used the more archaic demerits).

On the more positive side of things, how many of you were awarded extra credit? If so, did it boost your chances of making the honor roll? Well, how many of you made the honor roll at work this semester, or asked your boss if you could do some extra credit? Such are the carrots used to balance the sticks of detentions and suspensions. (Incidentally, if you haven’t heard George Carlin’s routine on parents of honors students, and if you’ve the stomach for a blunt blasting of that mentality, I recommend it. In fact, I’ve long wanted to see a Sudbury bumper sticker that reads, “My child is an honored student.”)

Whether you were a good, bad, or indifferent student, chances are that if you needed a drink of water or to use a bathroom, you had to ask for a hall pass, an object ranging from an actual piece of paper to—I kid you not—the top of a toilet seat. Granted, many secured areas require that only authorized personnel enter, but in how many places do you need permission merely to attend to your most basic physical needs?

Only in conventional schools, it seems, do you see a computer or language lab. Libraries may have computer centers, but I don’t believe they’re typically viewed as laboratories. Only in schools is working out or learning a sport called physical education; only in primary and secondary schools do you see social sciences demoted to social studies or the study of writing and literature transmogrified into the language arts.

Only in conventional schools are people segregated according to their “date of manufacture,” as Sir Ken Robinson puts it. Try to imagine workplaces in which the 22-year-olds are kept in one location, isolated from the 23-year-olds, the 40-year-olds, etc. And of course, age-based grades (1st, 2nd, sophomore, senior) are accompanied by letter and percentage-based assessments of students’ every academic activity. How have your grades been lately? Are you still an A-worker at your place of employment, or has your GPA slipped a bit? (Perhaps you need some more extra credit.)

Younger students are magnanimously allowed recess (well, less so these days, but that’s a topic for another post), a term that, like detention, seems to abide only in educational and legal settings. Older students may instead schedule a daily study hall, or time during the school day in which to work on assignments and prepare for exams. If students are made to join forces on projects, it’s called group work, not collaboration; if they collaborate on exams, however, it’s called cheating, especially if we’re talking about finals.

Teachers are subject to this bizarro vocabulary as well. When I was a pre-service teacher, one of the hot subjects was classroom management, which perhaps sounds more scholarly than discipline or crowd control. Once I got my first job, I had an incentive to learn how to hold on to it, or acquire tenure, a concept based on the assumption that teachers need special protection of their right to free speech.

To be honest, when this topic first occurred to me, I had no idea I’d be able to come up with this long a list. Thank goodness I no longer work in a setting where bells would sound every 50 minutes or so and I’d have to move on to another subject and another supervisor, one who’d likely frown upon my continuing to work on something I was really getting into.

Seriously, writing this post deepened my already profound appreciation for the philosophy and structure of Sudbury schools. While we’re not without our jargon (e.g., School Meeting, Judicial Committee, certification), at least the focus is squarely on individuals learning what they most need in the ways best suited them, treated with full respect and allowed to grow up powerful and intact. In the words of a testimonial we once featured on the Alpine Valley School website, “here it’s not about the child fitting the system, but the system fitting the child.”



Filed under Sudbury

6 responses to “Edu-babbling

  1. Crystal Isensee

    I appreciate your insight into teaching. I do not know that you will remember me after almost 20 years but you were a teacher that I still think of as having had an impact on me. I was in your classes in Columbia, MO and part of the small group of students that gave you a going away party when you left. I am starting this fall in a public school system and was thinking of teachers that had made my time in school more interesting. You are one of those on a very short list so I started to search through the internet and found that you are still teaching, just in a different way. I will continue to read more, and follow, your blog as I have always respected you and your opinions on teaching and the way students should be able to learn.

  2. Wow, Crystal, thanks! (But did you have to say “short”? 😉 ) Of course I remember you: in fact, I recently saw a piece of the banner you guys made for that going-away party. It’s wonderful to hear from you, and I’d love to learn more about where and what you’ll be teaching, as well as what you’ve been up to these past decades. I wish you all the best as you enter the field, and please let me know if I can help in any way–even if it’s just listening.

    • p.s. I hope you’ll let me know if and when I cross any lines in my criticism of conventional education. For all the joys of working with people like you, my first teaching career involved a level of stress that still colors my perspective and sometimes makes it difficult to speak from an awareness that everybody’s just doing the best they can.

  3. Matt

    Bruce- Again, well said. I have sent this into the “twitter-sphere”, and continue to admire the poignant insights into what really boils down to common sense and natural intuition. Keep up the great work.

  4. Pingback: The Reluctant Reformer | Write Learning

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