Breaking Through Educational Jargon

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Breaking Through Educational Jargon

The school is to your child what a foreign country is to a tourist:  exciting, scary, interesting, or boring, and almost always different from his home culture. The values expressed at school, by the teachers and your child's peers, may be quite different from yours. The language they use can be unique, too. To be a strong advocate for your child's best interest in the school, you need to understand the terms educators use to describe their craft. 


The best way to understand the educational language of your child's school is to ask questions. When you hear the teacher use an unfamiliar term during a conference, ask what it means. When you see a new term used in a school bulletin, ask about it. It is also a good idea to read an article or book about the term in order for you to gain a perspective on the subject from outside the district. An excellent resource for this is E. D. Hirsch, Jr.'s book, The Schools We Need. Hirsch includes a glossary that, alone, is worth the cost of the book. 

Each teacher will apply a particular teaching term differently. So, it is important to ask the teacher how he or she uses it. Here are four key questions to ask your child's teacher about terminology that is new to you:

  1. What does it mean?
  2. How is it being applied to my child's education?
  3. How does it improve my child's education?
  4. What are some possible problems or abuses that may arise from improperly implementing it?

Don't be too embarrassed or too intimidated to ask what something means and how it is used with your child. Question four will require the teacher to think objectively about problems that, obviously, some other teacher may have. 

Child-Centered Classrooms

Here's an example of how the four questions might help you understand the term "child-centered classrooms." Your first question should be, "What does it mean?" The answer is, it means educators focus on the emotional and social needs of the child, as well as his individuality, not merely the academic learning (also known as "subject-centered" education). A favorite phrase of those who adhere to this approach is, "Teaching the child, not the subject." 

In answer to the second question, child-centered classrooms tend to employ more interactive lessons, hands-on projects, and feelings-oriented activities. 

How does it improve your child's education (question three)? When used properly – and sparingly – "child-centered" activities enrich a lesson. It can also mean the teacher paces the lessons to better fit the child's pace of learning and takes into account more carefully the child's previous learning. 

However, question four may bring out a few red flags. By definition, child-centered classrooms have an opposite emphasis than do subject-centered classrooms (which is a completely unnecessary polarization). But shouldn't a teacher emphasize content more than merely a child-centered process? Does the shift away from content mean a decreased emphasis on knowledge acquisition and skills development? Will a less skillful teacher use the term "child-centered" to mask the fact that he is not challenging the students academically? 

By using the four questions, after you've done a little homework of your own, you will have a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your child's classroom. This will better equip you to manage your child's learning despite the jungle of educational jargon growing around him. 

© 2012, Eric Buehrer