The language of a professional educator

Educators refer to themselves as professionals. However, the language of educators is very much the common language of the general public. Given that everybody has gone to school, everybody has become an expert; what is or is not effective education is described using everyday language from a variety of points of view, often drawn from memories of past experiences in school.

A language is a system of signs and symbols that conveys meaning. Languages have syntax; they contain specific vocabularies and dynamic structures. Each academic discipline and the applied professions reflect unique language characteristics.

We often hear complaints among the general population about the meaning of language expressed by various professionals, whether they call themselves geographers, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, medical doctors or lawyers. Doctors are often accused of speaking mumbo-jumbo, and lawyers use a legalese that no mere mortal can completely understand. In fact, this has prompted official rules that require specialized languages be translated for the general public so they can know better what is being communicated.

Nevertheless, specialized languages are essential for meaningful communication within any profession. The language of each discipline and that of applied professions distinguishes its practitioners from others and serves to identify the scope and depth of their expertise. College degrees and licenses are granted on the basis of supposed mastery of the language of specific disciplines and professions.

A direct result from educator-language that does not have a specific syntax or a shared technical vocabulary and remains rigid in its structure is an opening for criticism and imposed changes emanating from the moneyed business community and other self-appointed “experts.”

Educators (especially those decision makers who are in charge of teacher preparation and in-service education, including those whose goal is to maintain the existing system) should blame themselves for the situation where all educators now may have lost control of the enterprise they once thought was held in high esteem. Those in charge have been given opportunities to reverse this situation, but have resisted.

In defense of their territory from an invasion from outsiders, practitioners in education along with parents revert to past vocabulary and practices that the general public expresses in common language. That is not a convincing defense against those who are savvy in manipulation of public opinion.

Lacking a specialized vocabulary with syntax and a dynamic structure, based on a shared understanding of the foundational components for education, educators communicate in ways that do not show agreement about the elements important in working with learners. Their vocabulary seldom reflects a sophisticated language that describes the dimensions of individual development and behavior, communication and group processes, especially group development, the nature of knowledge and knowing, including “genetic epistemology.” If they cannot use these languages from an in-depth understanding, they will continue to have difficulty convincing others they represent a profession and all that it implies.

If this criticism is viewed as too severe, consider this example among others. Early childhood teachers recognize the natural characteristics of young children. When asked why they feel these children should be given the freedom to explore instead of sitting quietly during teacher-directed instruction, they insist these children need to play. While “play” is understood by parents and other members of the public to be expected behavior for early childhood youngsters, when teachers insist what is needed is play, their language is that of the general public, not of a professional educator.

What would a professional educator say differently when responding to what is viewed as an impending threat from formal instruction, likely to cause problems for young children? Operating from knowledge and insight about the work of Jean Piaget, who identified the four levels of children’s cognitive development, or of Lev Vygotsky who described children’s language development, or Viktor Lowenfeld who studied children’s aesthetic creations, they would explain with authoritative language why formal instruction is developmentally inappropriate for most young children. Adopting the language of cognition and other valid models of development would distinguish these educators as professionals.

Most kindergarten youngsters are at the level of pre-operational or pre-logical cognition. Lawrence Kubie, MD, described them this way: “It has long been known that in early years children have an extraordinary inventive imagination, transposing experience freely among the various sensory modalities, using delightful and original figures of speech and allegory.” Interrupting this explorational curiosity with formalized instruction is not only a waste of time; it is damaging to the pre-logical individual’s healthy development, intellectually, socially and emotionally. Since instruction presumes that youngsters at this level can process information logically, failure to do so will foster self-doubts.

Educators as a group must draw concepts and vocabulary from reputable authors who have studied human behavior in depth. They need to adopt the professional language that describes behavior in sophisticated terms. Unfortunately, we find some educators who consider sophisticated language important to their profession as mumbo-jumbo; that is a serious problem.

For many, their teacher education programs, both pre-service and in-service, have not satisfactorily provided the opportunity to develop and internalize language that expresses sophisticated concepts, so they present an image not unlike what is typical of the general public. Their established dedication to helping others is not enough.

If educators expect to restore respect for their place in the world as professionals with a sound plan for change and with expertise that will successfully explain and counter the devastating results from the current version of standardization in our public schools, systemic changes are required that convey through their language the sophisticated theories and practices important in the conduct of education.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.