The tyranny of Eduspeak – how jargon and acronym corrode understanding and reputation

In 2008 a charity called the Learning and Skills Network published a guide to improving communication within the further education sector.

‘It’s a communication jungle out there’ reported the results of a survey of just under 1000 further education lecturers, support staff and managers. The vast majority of respondents felt that jargon and acronyms were far too common and inhibited effective communication.

As the then Chief Executive John Stone wrote (with admirable clarity), the findings posed a challenge to departments, agencies and educators. “[They] show that jargon isn’t just an annoyance; it’s a genuine problem that acts as a real barrier to understanding….At its worst, this shared language can colour our communications with communities, employers and even learners – ultimately shutting out the very people we exist to serve.”

What has changed? Not much, it seems. Fresh jargon and acronyms blossom across agency, department, college and private provider communication like annuals in summer. Perennials return; ‘NEETS’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and ‘blended learning’ were among the various banes of 2007, still growing strong today.

The problem, of course, is not exclusive to further education. As a relatively new primary school governor I find this new blend of Eduspeak[i] – from SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) to CAFs (Common Assessment Frameworks) and SENCOs (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators) – a constant challenge. Higher and secondary education have their own argot, of course.

Teaching is a specialised profession. As is research. The management of institutions that educate people typically requires a team of diverse professionals, from accountants to facilities managers, human resources practitioners to caterers (in some settings now referred to as ‘midday supervisors’, as if they were The Guardians of Noon). It would be naïve to suggest that these groups should and would not develop a professional lexicon. The problems start when – as the Learning and Skills Network study showed – exclusivity inhibits understanding.

A 2012 study of further education employees revealed that one of the main aspirations that teaching staff have for their management teams was that they ‘protect’ the institution from Government policy changes (and the language they come wrapped in). I read John Stone’s use of ‘learner’ with a wry smile; I would argue that the word is a fine example of a failure to protect, of the linguistic imperialism successfully employed by dominant coalitions.

‘Learner’ is commonly used by Government and agencies as a unit of measurement or summation – from ‘learner participation statistics’ to ‘learner voice’. It has now been assimilated into the vocabularies of further education institutions; colleges use it with, to, about and for their students. The problem is – it is jargon. A bean counter’s word, algorithmic, denominational and a barrier to meaning. You can test this by walking into a pub or a corner shop and starting a conversation about education. Count the minutes until someone – excepting the presence of a tired looking lady who teaches in further education – uses the word ‘learner’. You will wait a long time. Moreover, it can alienate; in the (admittedly few) studies we have undertaken which include a question on the subject, a sizeable majority of post-16 respondents prefer to be called (surprise, surprise) ‘students’.  Yet many spend this stage of their education being labelled with a term they do not prefer. If you don’t believe me, try a straw poll among your …ahem….students.

Life gets even harder when a school, college, university, agency or Government tries to communicate with people who neither receive nor work in education.

“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear,” said Socrates. Or, in the words of Steven Covey: “What we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do.”

Language that obscures meaning poses problems for reputation in the way that Socrates and Covey describe it. It is hard to be authentic when no-one understands what you are trying to be. For example, over half of the general public mistakenly think that further education colleges are still under local authority control. It is one of a number of challenges colleges face as a result of widespread misunderstanding of terms like FE and ‘further education’ and it matters because these misconstructions power the reputations of institutions among important publics like parents, press and politicians. These in turn power staff and student recruitment, funding, sponsorship, the policy environment and the melee of other influences that determine what matters most – the quality of education.

These aren’t sixth form centres. They are sixth form colleges. (But the sub-editor that wrote the headline either does not understand the difference or thinks her readership does not.) These aren’t bogus colleges. They are, typically, private language schools. This fantastic paper by the late David Watson highlights common category mistakes made in relation to higher education[ii]. The ‘appalling ignorance among decision makers’ about the world of further education as reported by Helena Kennedy does not exclusively relate to their educational experience. It is in part fuelled by a system still overburdened with qualifications and the jargon that surrounds them. A-level. Degree. GCSE. Got it. BTEC, FD, HNC, HND, NVQ, SVQ, functional skills, traineeships….not so clear.

There is nothing like enough space here to address all the ways in which a college, university or school might improve understanding and aid clarity. But here are three suggestions to start with:

Firstly, test the manner in which you communicate with those with whom you are communicating. For a large organization this might involve qualitative and quantitative research among those groups most important to you[iii]. For a little primary school it might be a few minutes at a coffee morning asking parents if they understood this letter or that policy and if not, why not. At worst, supply or suggest a glossary.

Secondly, use the professional expertise at hand. If you are a college or university and you have a communications team, it is likely to include someone with professional copywriting experience or qualifications, most commonly gained during an earlier career as a journalist. Are they involved in auditing internal and external communications and, if so, with what level of autonomy and impact? Typically schools – though blessed with experts in the application of English – may have to be more creative as regards this type of audit.

Thirdly, and most importantly, be as suspicious of those neologisms and neophilisms as your bones tell you to be. The exciting new initiative announced by the Minister this morning – whether it is a TechBac, EBacc or Teaching Excellence Framework – will suffer from reputation lag. It could be years before internal and external audiences understand the concepts that underpin them. (Colleges bear witness to this every time they are referred to as ‘The Tech’). Or to put it another way, whither the Diploma?[iv]The jargon and acronyms used to decorate these initiatives will further hinder a common understanding. Accordingly, institutions that uncritically welcome the new with open arms and adopt without reflection the language in which they are packaged do their staff, students and broader communities a great disservice.

***

[i] I am a hypocrite. In using the phrase Eduspeak I am of course sacrificing clarity on the altar of vanity, trying to look smart with a nod to George Orwell. Moreover I am guilty of using jargon and acronyms in my professional career – although I am now trying to kick the habit.

[ii] Which includes a dissection and argument against the use of the term ‘sector’ – a sin I have committed here. It’s a hard habit to kick.

[iii] ’Key publics’ in public relations terminology. There I go again.

[iv] This is particularly hypocritical rhetoric, given that I was involved in supporting a national promotional campaign for that qualification.

#PRstack – new ebook on PR (and other free tools)

I’m among the contributors to a new guide to modern PR tools published today, the My #PRstack ebook.

There are 18 contributors and 40+ practical examples of tools used in public relations, content marketing and search engine optimisation (SEO).

You can download the ebook for free.

The section I’ve written focuses on how PR practitioners can use the Government’s Nomis data tool to help define or understand the publics with whom they need to engage.

If you are interested in public relations research and evaluation, here’s something I wrote in 2013 about free online research resources for PR; it includes data sources on attitudes, media consumption, political opinion and trust.

Other free tools that I have come across since writing that piece include:

  • the fun YouGov profiler, a free to use app built to showcase (paid for) YouGov profiles, a segmentation and planning tool that allows users to build target profiles using the data from 200,000 YouGov members. (Just don’t mention the election).
  • the London datastore for demographic data from the capital

Very pleased to hear about other free demography, awareness, attitude, behaviour resources that practitioners find useful.

Science PR and communication – headlines from our background research

I am shamefully late in posting to this blog – we have been extremely busy with a number of research projects, but that’s a poor excuse.

Those projects include a study of science public relations and communication that we are conducting for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

In this predominantly qualitative piece we’re looking to understand more about the dominant themes in science PR and communication through the experiences, attitudes and behaviours of practitioners.

At the time of writing, we are particularly keen to find in-house private sector practitioners in order to better represent that population in the study – do please get in touch if you fit that bill and you would like to volunteer for a telephone interview (or recommend a colleague or contact).

We are currently sifting and analysing the study data and hope to publish in May.

In the meantime, here’s a selection of headlines from our background research to chew over:

  1. Television news and factual programming continue to drive public understanding of science.

However, where we get our information will depend, in part, on whether we are actively seeking it and information sources do differ by age group, according to the BIS/Ipsos MORI Public Attitudes to Science 2014. (There’s an astute summary of this research by Alice Bell in the Guardian’s science blog).

  1. Research and public commentary of science PR is dominated by analysis of media relations.

But PR practitioners working in or for organisations involved in natural, applied or formal sciences are no more likely to be engaged in media relations work than other types of practitioners, according to a break-down of the CIPR’s 2014 State of the Profession Survey.

  1. The Cardiff University School of Psychology is investigating ‘the potential role of press releases in creating misleading reports of science in the press’.

The team studied 2011 Russell Group press releases, the associated peer-reviewed journal articles that the instigated the PRs, and in turn, the news stories that arose. Results are due to be published soon.

  1. If you want to understand the impact on specialist journalists as a result of changes in the print and broadcast media business, then take a look at this 2009 Nature survey of 493 science journalists.

In particular the answers to the question: Do you have any other comments or thoughts that you would like to share regarding science journalism? (in the ‘Open ends’ tab). Often beleaguered, coruscating, sad.

  1. The most prolific sources of science and technology stories in the UK media are publically funded science or medical research.

Followed by ‘industry’, non-Governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civic groups, then the UK Government, according to a study published in 2007 by Cardiff University’s School of Journalism.

Hearty thanks to the individuals and organisations that have helped us with the study so far – a proper set of thank yous to come.

(Pretty) new research into public opinion and attitude – a digest of free sources

I’ve been asked to sketch out a plan for a couple of workshops in communications, reputation and public relations research.

As part of the prep, I’ve been researching free sources of data on public opinion and attitude (as opposed to stats on our behaviours) that might help PR or communications practitioners:

  • Benchmark their own studies against a larger or different population
  • Improve research design (as a source of sample questions)
  • Craft campaigns

During the workshops (as they stand) I will be taking students through some of these in much more detail, but there are so many that I thought it might be useful to list some here.

Attitudes – general

Every year the British Social Attitudes Survey asks 3,000+ people what it’s like to live in Britain, exploring their social, political and moral attitudes. It’s a big study with a long history that looks at attitudes to issues as diverse and important as health, welfare, immigration and transport.

The Office for National Statistics is a treasure trove of public opinion surveys, but only a minority study attitudes (distinct from behaviours).  These include our attitudes to policing and the communities we live in over time. 

Media consumption

Ofcom’s annual communications market reports examine trends in media consumption and attitudes as well as industry revenue and market share data. It is usefully split into different age groups. Their consumer experience reports measure the choice, price and range of products available to consumers, take-up and awareness of media use, as well as attitudes to comparing, switching and protection.

Political opinion – general

Quite a few of the bigger polling companies publish research archives online and these can include recent studies with respectable respondent numbers, intelligent sampling and sound analysis. The topics range from royal babies to housing costs but the most common are studies into our political predilections. They include:

Ipsos-Mori
Yougov
Comres
ICM
Survation
Angus Reid Global (UK research)
Opinium
TNS-BRMB

I think I’ve commissioned research from all of these at some point in the past. They are all members of the British Polling Council, incidentally. (Which has a handy FAQ on public polling on its website.)

Trust

The Edelman Trust Barometer is an international instrument that examines the trust placed in politicians, media and business (to name a few) by 31,000 respondents from 27 countries. Most of the analysis focuses on global results but Edelman’s UK site includes a press release on in-country results.

Energy and Climate

The Department of Energy and Climate Change set up a tracking survey in March 2012 to better understand the UK public’s attitude to energy and environmental issues. There have been five waves of research so far. The research forms part of the TNS omnibus survey, which uses a random location sampling methodology and results are weighted. Roughly 2000 UK adults are surveyed each week.

Social Mobility

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published new research into public attitudes to social mobility issues in June 2013. This was another TNS/BMRB omnibus piece of work.

Labour market information

Even though this isn’t strictly an attitudinal study, I’ve thrown this one into the pot because I lecture on it from time to time and it’s so incredibly useful.  For anyone interested in UK demographic information the Nomis wizard tool is, excuse the pun, magic. It includes the detailed breakdown of Census 2011 data, down to ward and postcode level (in most cases), allowing researchers to answer such esoteric questions as ‘How many people born in Poland have access to a van in this parish?’. It’s also the portal which allows researchers to mine the Annual Population Survey (a residential labour market survey focusing on qualifications and economic activity, among other things) and the annual survey of hours and earnings.

Please do comment or share if you know of other national (or regional?) studies that might be useful for comms bods. Thanks in advance.