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Nov 19, 2011

Who is in the audience?

There is an essential tension hidden in our professional language. On one hand, every profession needs its jargon. The special language signifies the profession’s separateness, its special knowledge. Moreover, the professional language is an important claim to authority. Using common language in professional work would be exhausting, because we would need to redefine over and over again whole concepts and theories compressed into the specialized professional words. There is no legal profession without the legalese, and no medical profession without the doctor-speak. On the other hand, we in teacher education are subject to more and more scrutiny, and often public criticism. The public does not know what we do and how we do it. When criticism – fair or unfair – comes our way, the response cannot be presented in the esoteric language no one outside the profession understands. Additionally, what we always treated as our internal documents – programs, catalog entries, program outcomes, learning objectives – all of it became public, instantly available to potentially much wider audience. Our closest partner communities – teachers, principals, superintendants – are demanding their opinions to be considered in teacher preparation. And even though their own professional languages are much closer to our own, they need extra assurances that we are attentive to the rapid changes in their professions, which we serve. And finally, our own students should become partners in their own preparation. To reach out to them, we must be able to explain our purposes and processes in a language they can understand.

We still need to maintain the professional language; without it, we lose identity and dumb down our thinking. And yet I believe we are now faced with an additional challenge, a task to translate our thinking into the everyday language. I must say, we are not good at it. Most of us are not great communicators where it comes to media, and to just simply crossing professional boundaries. Look through our brochures and websites. Nowhere do we explain simply that students go through a number of practical hands-on experiences, that we evaluate and monitor their every step, or that we have an extensive set of screening mechanisms. The simplest things – like what we want future teachers to be able to do – is expressed in professional lingo that has very little meaning for a lay person. See for example, RIPTS or our conceptual framework competencies. They make perfect sense to you if you are within the field, but not to anyone outside. Just try imagine a reporter asking– what are you trying to teach the future teachers? Well, we have a set of twelve competencies, in four groups. For example, “Human Learning and Development: Reflective practitioners have a solid grounding in educational psychology, the branch of psychology that specializes in understanding teaching and learning in educational settings. They know the four pillars of educational psychology: human development, theories of learning and cognition, classroom management, and assessment.” Well, can you explain to our readers what does it mean, exactly? We can’t do that right now, nor did we ever identify it as a priority to do so.

It is important to us to become better public communicators. We need to translate our program’s purposes and practices into the regular lay language, and keep those translations not only publicly available, but also committed to memory. Our audience has expanded, and we may not have noticed.

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