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Dec 11

Chris Smeaton

Keep it simple!

I grew up with a friend who was absolutely brilliant and he had a vocabulary to match. You almost needed a dictionary to understand the words he used on a fairly regular basis. When I did understand his vocabulary (which was usually rare), I would often tease him by rephrasing his statement in common and simple language that was better understood by most. While it was a game for us back then, I’m often brought back to the notion that especially in education, we like to use a vocabulary that is complicated and understood by few. Throw in a few acronyms that riddle the educational field and the language of “educational babble” is born!

But why? Why do we insist on using language that is difficult to decipher? Why do we take a short message and make it into a run on sentence filled with so many descriptors that by the time we finish reading, we’re not sure of the intent? Why don’t we just employ the phrase, “Keep it simple!”

There are people like my high school friend who just have that expanded vocabulary and their use of language just comes naturally. I can live with that. However, I’m not as patient with those who use their language to make themselves appear smarter, or worse, who use it to intimidate or demean others. Most educators do not act in this previous manner but even so, education babble continues to persist.

I have the pleasure of teaching a graduate level course for Gonzaga University entitled, Leadership and School Improvement. One of the culminating activities is the development of a school improvement plan. I ask students to complete a plan that highlights one or two priorities in their own school, develop a couple of SMART goals for each of the priorities, link some effective strategies and ensure measurement tools are clear and targets are set.

While the assignment is straightforward, the first drafts are generally full of “educational babble.” This is not in any way a slight to my students but rather to our educational systems that promote more compliance and less commitment; Where vagueness is favoured over specificity and words are more important than actions.

When reviewing the plans, I always ask my students the following questions:

  1. “Do you understand what this means?
  2. Will your staff understand what this means?
  3. Will the parents understand what this means?

einstein-on-understanding

I’m not quite as eloquent as Albert Einstein but I do convey the same message if my students have some difficulty articulating their meaning. But it is the 2nd question that is most important for school improvement because without a common understanding by staff, nobody is accountable. School improvement plans must be commitment driven, not compliance manufactured. Commitment cannot occur without personal accountability. And personal accountability cannot occur without common understanding on both the meaning of the goals and on what each member of the team agrees to do to accomplish the goals. Fancy articulations rather than precise language results in a beautiful document that means next to nothing in terms of improvement.

Finally, the language in our plans must be parent friendly. We can only gain the high trust we require from our parents (and community for that matter), if they can understand what we intend to do. If we want to truly move from only accountability to the government to assurance to parents and the community, common understanding is a prerequisite. Why would parents want to become partners in education when all the language appears to talk down to them.

keep-it-simple

Keeping it simple does not imply “dumbing it down!” What is truly means is ensuring substance overshadows style and commitment replaces compliance. Before you send a message out, ask yourself if you truly understand the content, whether other staff understand it and finally will it be meaningful to your parent population. Keeping it simple usually means better understanding for all!

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