Why Parents Don’t Understand How To Help

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Why Parents Don’t Understand How To Help

by Terry Heick

Jargon is a necessary evil. Simply put, jargon helps us be more specific.

Pilots in planes don’t ‘go up,’ they ‘gain altitude.’

Forwards in basketball don’t simply “score,” but rather face up the defender to jab step, finishing with an up-and-under move for an ‘and-one.’ They don’t ‘turn towards the basket, they ‘drop step.’

Teachers don’t ‘give tests,’ they ‘assess.’

They don’t ‘go over it again,’ they ‘review,’ then ‘remediate.’

A challenge, though, comes after generations of this kind of jargon casually but persistently accruing in and around classrooms and schools. Teachers end up (ideally) designing diverse assessment forms in pursuit of personalized learning by using adaptive learning technology—just as they are asked to do by peers and edu-media everywhere. Which of course makes no sense to anyone but other teachers.

And as education continues to change, this is a chasm that’s only going to deepen.

Criticism of jargon abounds, usually beneath the implication that someone is overstating something or sounding haughty, calling a classroom a ‘learning environment,’ or content-to-be-learned a ‘learning target.’ But there’s a difference between a classroom and a learning environment, and a different in content-to-be-learned and a learning target, and using less specific language doesn’t seem like the best we can do.

But what we can do is know our audience.

This doesn’t mean ‘dumb down’ what we’re saying. In fact, that’s been part of the problem, resulting in lost capacity to understanding teaching and learning. Families and, in net, communities only recognize the bits and pieces of education they’ve seen before–letter grades, essays, book reports, and report cards.

What would happen if, when speaking to a parent, we slowed down and clarified not just “when the next test is,” but what they’re being tested on and why, and what kind of ‘assessment’ you’re asking students to use and why? And more critically, do the same with students.  The long-term result here should be, if nothing else, a generation of students and parents that have heard all the buzzwords not from the news or second-hand, but from the teachers themselves.

You can also say what you mean and mean what you say. If you mean ‘personalized learning,’ you shouldn’t say “differentiate.” If you mean ‘re-assess,’ don’t say ‘review the material.’

Then, offer examples and definitions of all of the above through teacher blogs, open and closed social media pages, newsletters, and other methods of communication with parents. When your colleagues look at you funny when you talk about ‘fluency’ and ‘digital literacy,’ provided you’re saying what you mean and meaning what you say and know what you’re talking about, well, just keep talking. They’ll either figure it out or they won’t. You can’t modify your thinking to accommodate people unwilling to think themselves.

One problem of a very deep but narrow field of knowledge is the relative inability of that expert to communicate with other fields: the scientist with the naturalist, or the IT department with the humanities folks. This is often referred to as the ‘silo effect.’ This is a challenge not new to education, but because of the unique position of educators as both experts and conduits between formal education and local communities, the burden falls to teachers to not simply paraphrase and translate, but build and transfer capacity from the inside-out.

You can’t be a ‘good teacher’ if the people that depend on you and your skill don’t understand or trust you. Think for a moment of how you feel taking your car to an automotive mechanic, or speaking to a personal trainer or nutritionist. You get a strong sense that they understand things way, way better than you do, and you’re completely at their mercy.

More than anything you feel vulnerable, and it takes a strong personality to force them to communicate to you on more equal ground, with phrasing and metaphors and analogies and depth of thinking that makes sense to you. Most people don’t want to feel stupid, so they don’t.

Think of it as a doctor’s ‘bedside manner,’ but for teachers, and you’re getting close. Here are three questions to begin this kind of thinking:

1. What kind of language, tone, and communication patterns serve the people that are listening, rather than my own professional interests or sense of ‘teacher identity’?

2. Now, let’s have a look at how we run our classrooms and design learning experiences. How can we do so in a way that promotes community understanding, interest, and organic involvement?

3. Now, the school and district. How can we move beyond ‘free chili night’ and design an institution that is centered on people and families? What do we stand to lose by doing so, and what might gain?

image attribution flickr user usdepartmentofeducation