Jargon: Exposing the Emporer’s Clothes

You know the fable of the Emporer’s Clothes, in which the king’s fine garments were nothing more than belief in a peddler’s fancy words. In reality, he was bare naked, strutting his imaginary finery in front of subjects who were afraid to speak the truth. This goes on in education, too, and it needs to stop.
In education, the “Emporer” wears jargon. We’re supposed to believe it’s a grand ermine cape but it isn’t. It’s invisible and the Emporer stands in his underwear. As subjects, we can speak out. It’s really okay. No one is going to get executed (especially if we speak up nicely). We loyal subjects pay the taxes that support the King, after all.
A very nice mom on a parent list I belong to shared some frustrations last week about poorly crafted IEP goals. [Out of respect for the family’s privacy and the teacher’s dignity, I won’t share them here. But if I had, your jaw would have dropped and your eyes bugged. They were unreadable]. Not only were the goals inappropriate to her child’s needs, they illustrated the problem of contrived jargon in the educational system.
The IEP goals this mother shared were riddled with the verbs “mand” and “tact.” “Mand” is not recognized in the dictionary.  And “tact” is listed only as a noun, the delicate handling of sensitive subject matter (granted, you can add the suffix –ful to make it an adjective). You can’t do tact—it isn’t a verb. Where do we get off using it that way in IEP documents?
The ONLY place in the entire universe that uses the words "mand" and "tact" (as a verb) is the Special Ed environment. In the real world, people do not "mand." They do not "tact." I’ve never seen these words in lesson plans for general ed students. There is no need to include them in IEP goals unless we plan that our children will stay in Special Ed for a lifetime.
"Mand" and "tact" are behaviorist jargon adopted by educators and speech therapists. While the original intent may not have been to set the educators in a caste above parents, that is the result—a condescending, divisive outcome that we need to stand up against, both as parents and as professionals. After all, we are meant to be a team working together on the behalf of our children.
To be fair, these words themselves do not intend to deceive. Renowned behaviorist B. F. Skinner coined the terms in 1957 to describe specific verbal behaviors. But just because B. F. used the words does not mean they belong outside his behavior lab. I could be stretched to agree that when educators and speech therapists talk among themselves, the use of these terms could simplify discussion.
But the only purpose for using jargon in an IEP document when simpler terms could work better is to create an appearance that educators know more than parents. Bad, bad.
I insist that IEP goals and objectives be written in plain English. As a parent, I want the document defining my child’s education to be crystal clear. As a teacher, I also want the wording to be meaningful to every person at the table, so I refuse to use such jargon when writing IEP goals/objectives (and it didn't take much to convince my administrators why—jargon can be very difficult to defend in court, should it ever come to that). Any random pedestrian—or judge—pulled  off the street should be able to understand and follow every objective as it is written.
If we want a child to request something, the objective should say "request." Mand? P-tuey.
And tact? What's this? If you want a child to “comment” or even “say,” fine. But tact? Please.
Sure, these words have specific implications for teachers and therapists, but we need to clarify them in our goals. I don’t mean tacking on a definition; I mean spelling out the conditions and expectations. Otherwise the words are meaningless. And not just for parents unfamiliar with the terms; they too easily become meaningless background noise to the very people using them.
When children reach the age where they participate in their IEP meetings, the terminology had better be clear to them as well. In good conscience, how do we look a child in the eye and use a word like “mand” that is reserved solely for a special population? What painful things does that tell the child about himself? Is he so different that we can’t even use the same words we use when talking about other children?
By insisting on lay terms, every team member is forced to think carefully about what needs to happen--what the setting will look like, how the child will respond, what he will learn, how we can tell that he’s learning ... You can only write clear goals when you have a clear meaning in mind.
Contrived jargon is a smokescreen for times when you aren’t sure what you mean, but you want to sound like you do. Unless, of course, you do know what you mean but you want to sound smarter than someone else. That is really, really bad public relations. It happens in all professions but it shouldn’t happen in education where our children are at stake.
I suppose some educators might worry that parents will think we’re “talking down” to them when we use simple terms. Quite the opposite. We speak as equals when we use vocabulary that is commonly understood.
We should all want honest, straightforward goals and objectives. It’s the only way we’re going to move kids ahead. And isn’t that what we’re all in this to accomplish?
My challenge to teachers is to say what you mean in your goals for your students. You’re likely to get better results from your students, better buy-in from parents, better follow-through from your support staff. When everyone is clear about what is expected, the chance of meeting those expectations increases dramatically.
My challenge to parents is to insist on plain wording in your child’s IEP. You are the expert on your children and you hold the ultimate responsibility for their progress. There is no need to allow educators to skew the balance of power with contrived jargon.
The words used in your child’s IEP goals should paint a clear picture of what is happening at the time his performance is being measured. If they don’t, chances are there is no clear picture, and that situation needs to be corrected immediately. Don’t be afraid to ask teachers and therapists to reword IEP goals in terms you understand. 
“Mand” and “tact” are just specific examples of a larger jargon problem. What educational terms have you run across lately that should be stated more simply and clearly? Please share them so we can all be ready to offer real words at our next IEP meetings. Thanks!


Anonymous said...


The Emporer is indeed nekked!


Rose-Marie said...

Thanks, Barbara! I did my best to exercise tact (as in the noun) on a topic that raises my hackles. I means a lot to know a professional like yourself supports replacing jargon with terms that have meaning for everyone on the team.

Hmmmm. We could be nice little subjects and hand the Emporer a beach towel. What do you suppose would be a good saying to print on it?

Anonymous said...

If I don't understand did you really say it?