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Clarity or Confusion

All professions use jargon and education is no exception. How many schools start the year by proclaiming something like this: “We will differentiate classes, employ mini lessons, and focus on DEIJ work this year.”

In theory, jargon allows practitioners to share information with each other efficiently and effectively. Even if parents don’t know what differentiation is, educational professionals do, which should allow for quicker implementation.

In reality, jargon tends to obfuscate more than clarify even among professionals. There may be as many definitions of differentiation as there are teachers. And even if teachers share a common definition, few agree on how to create a truly differentiated classroom.

Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, developed an antidote to jargon when he devised the Feynman Learning Technique. To fight jargon, we all should embrace the second step in Feynman’s technique--be able to explain the concept to a smart 6th grader. If we can explain concepts using simple language that anyone can understand then we most likely understand the concept and can explain it to others.

Feynman uses the example of how a wind-up dog moves. If we explain the concept by positing that the potential energy in the spring becomes kinetic energy, we have explained nothing. However we get closer to describing reality in a comprehensible way if we say, “when we wind up a spring by turning the key we make it taut. When we release the spring, it expands which moves the dog’s wheels.” (We do even better when we allow students to take apart the dog and see for themselves.)

Likewise, when we say that we are going to employ mini lessons, we have said little. On the other hand, if we say that “in the first ten minutes of the class, the teacher will explain a concept and then introduce an exercise that allows students to explore and more deeply understand the concept” we are clear about expectations.

As we enter the new year, think about what jargon you use and is it clarifying or confusing.

Postscript: I was reminded of Feynman's technique by reading the excellent Farnum Brain Food blog. For those who want to learn more about Feynman I suggest his light and very funny autobiography, Surely You Must be Joking Mr. Feynman


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