Friday, 22 February 2013
The uses of jargon
Yesterday, we saw a regrettable outbreak of jargon being used in the comments on this blog. I have not the time to go deeply into the reasons why people use jargon. One common reason is to obscure the meaning of essentially simple ideas and so muddle up those who wish to debate them. Often, as a by-product, those listening to a discussion feel a little confused and overawed; thinking perhaps that because they cannot fully follow what is being said, it must all be very clever and above their heads.
Two assertions were made in the comments to yesterday’s post. One was an obvious, but misleading statement of fact; the other a wholly unwarranted conclusion which was presented as leading logically from the first premise. Needless to say, this initial premise was not stated plainly, but supported by expressions such as;
‘intrinsically motivated process of identifying one’s impressions in conceptual terms, of integrating every event and every observation into a conceptual context,’
‘expanding one’s knowledge into an ever-growing sum’
‘no way of either knowing or controlling what knowledge is integrated nor how it is integrated’
‘driven by someone else's desire to create my inner map of a particular shape.’
What was being said, may be put in far clearer terms than this. What it boiled down to was that when teaching children, we cannot be absolutely sure which parts of the material being taught will be learned and subsequently remembered.
Now this is of course true. The conclusion which was reached though was an astonishing non sequitur. We cannot be sure which parts of what we teach children will be learned and remembered, therefore we should not teach children anything. I have seldom seen such an weak argument in all my life! Of course an equally valid conclusion would have been; we cannot be sure which parts of what we teach children will be learned and remembered, therefore we will take greater care with our teaching methods and try to modify them so that they are more effective. No wonder it had to be disguised with a lot of fancy language, so that that it looked impressive! In any case of course, even the first statement is irrelevant. We cannot, it is true, be 100% certain that the material we set before children will be absorbed, but we can vastly increase the chances of this happening. Let us conduct a little thought experiment. My aim is to cause thirty children to absorb thoroughly the approximate value of Pi. I also wish to ensure that they understand the concept and do not forget it.
If I announce in a quavering and reedy voice, half way through a maths lesson, that Pi is roughly 3.14; then I doubt many children will learn the fact. Suppose though that I set up a large picture, showing how Pi is derived from the ratio of the radius of a circle to its circumference? If I show this visual aid, while talking clearly about Pi and its significance, more of the children might pay attention and remember the lesson. What if I got the whole class to chant ‘Pi equals three point one four’ for half an hour? Does anybody doubt that the information would have a better chance of being retained? Or here’s an even better idea! Suppose that the pupils knew that those who recalled the figure for Pi and could explain to the teacher about how it was calculated, would be rewarded at the end of term with £1000 each? Does anybody doubt that we could make it more likely that this piece of knowledge would be absorbed by the children? What if they knew that their mothers and fathers would be shot if their children failed to learn about Pi? Would this help it stick in their minds better?
I am not of course advocating seriously any of the above ideas. Rather, I am pointing out that while it is impossible to be completely sure of getting a child to learn some information, the process of fixing it in the mind is not, as was suggested here yesterday, random. There are ways of making it more likely that what is taught to children will stay with them; sometimes forever. We only need to examine our own memories to see that this is so. I have information which was presented to me as a child, fifty years or so ago, which I have been unable to forget. It has truly become, to use the jargon, 'part of my inner map'! I never wanted or needed to know that the Plantagenets came before the Tudors, but under the threat of the cane; I managed to do so. I am sure we all have similar knowledge.
The real question is not an educational one, but an ethical consideration. It is not, ‘Can we teach children effectively, so that they retain much of what they are taught?’ It is really, ‘Should we do this?’ Is this better for their development and future lives than not teaching them?