In plain English, your jargon makes me sick: Why are educational theorists torturing the language? Stephen Pimenoff is astounded

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The Independent Online
THE PLAIN English Campaign has achieved some notable successes. It does this partly by heaping such ridicule on the heads of officials responsible for pompous, contorted, jargon-ridden or otherwise obfuscating prose that even they come to acknowledge that their pronouncements could often be expressed more simply, precisely and elegantly.

If the Plain English folk are seeking fresh targets, they might set their sights on some of the material being put out by colleges of higher education. I have before me a handbook sent to schools participating in the Initial Teacher Training programme, and a better object for critical scrutiny it would be hard to find.

Here is an extract: 'Intending teachers need to have a critical awareness of the potential of teaching to promote the processes and realise the factors influencing the acquisition of skills, and an understanding of the effects of previous experience and cognitive limitations in relation to factors of meaningful grasp and deep learning.'

This kind of writing is distinguished partly by its jargon, defined by Fowler's Modern English Usage as 'talk that is considered both ugly-sounding and hard to understand, applied especially to the sectional vocabulary of a science, art, class, sect, trade or profession, full of technical terms', and partly by its monotony of style.

Some jargon is of course unavoidable in a technical publication, which must at times deal with specialised concepts. But there is another, pejorative meaning of jargon: 'The use of long words, circumlocutions and other clumsiness.' Or, as Friedrich Engels more waspishly put it, '. . . a compilation of words and turns of speech which has no other purpose than to be at hand at the right time where thought and positive knowledge are lacking'.

The elements of jargon, in the looser sense, are usually not in themselves objectionable. Every word in the given extract is a good, strong English word which no one need be ashamed of using in its proper place. It is their use together that is indefensible. When put into long, rolling, polysyllabic cadences their effect is to induce in the reader listlessness, ennui and ultimately, nausea (a comparison to seasickness would not be inappropriate).

Those who get beyond the first sentence of the teacher training handbook soon find themselves in the really heavyweight stuff. Course content fills an entire section. It offers, for example, under 'Attitudes, Values and Actions': 'Personal and social representations of reality; stereotypes; the regulation of action including cognitive-social/attributional, reinforcement-based; cognitive limitations in relation to factors of meaningful grasp; self-esteem and identity maintenance; intrinsic and extrinsic motivation . . .'

On and on it goes, filling out its 200-page bulk with waffle. The prolixity is astounding. And most of it is either meaningless or banal. I have mixed a lot with teachers over the years, and have yet to find any who have the smallest use for this kind of thing. Most do no more than skim such manuals. Yet academics continue to churn them out. Why?

The reason may have something to do with the comparative newness of 'Education'. The subject had to fight for recognition as an academic discipline, and is still not universally accepted. Perhaps educationists feel that having their own language will bolster their claims to respectability.

Whatever the reason, a university-based educationist would never dream of saying, 'Children need good schools for proper learning'. Anyone could say that. He must say: 'High quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for the facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.'

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Manchester University, says: 'There is a widespread misperception that it is necessary to present relatively simple ideas in obscure and technical language to give importance. It is the pursuit of supposed gravitas that is responsible for much of the rubbish in educational research.'

Jargon probably has a more deleterious effect on the relationship between theory and practice in education than in any other profession. Scientific papers are written for scientists, medical ones for doctors; but education theory is not written for teachers, who have little patience with any of it. This is the cause of the tremendous gulf that exists between teachers and educationists.

To bridge this gulf, educationists will have to start making their work intelligible to ordinary teachers. They might take to heart George Orwell's elementary rules for good English: never use a long word where a short one will do, and never use jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

In the meantime, there is a role for the Plain English Campaign. In 1979, after they publicly destroyed government forms as the start of a crusade against jargon and obfuscation, there was a marked improvement in the standard of official writing. We need someone to do the same for educational writing today. Does anyone have a match?

The writer was a teacher for many years.

Robert Winder is away.