Jargon is useful to some, confusing to others.

At its best, jargon is a simple technical term that a group uses among themselves to quickly communicate a complex concept. Thus, jargon is useful to those who understand the complexity behind the term, but it’s generally confusing to those without that background knowledge. At its worst, unnecessarily vague jargon confuses everyone, and pretentious jargon disparagingly suggests to common folks that a simple concept that they clearly understand is really much more complex than they think. College texts and computer manuals are notorious for the amount of jargon they contain.

FAX is an example of a simple useful jargon term that was created by compressing the longer more definitive word facsimile (an exact copy of something), and then limiting its meaning to a specific phoned form of manuscript transmission. It’s probable that most folks don’t know the semantic origins or electronic workings of FAX, but they can correctly use the term and FAX a document. Similarly, DNA is much easier to say than deoxyribonucleic acid, and it’s probable that most folks recognize it as an acronym for a genetic code they don’t really understand. Ignorance of the background meaning of DNA is the more serious of the two because the legal, political, and cultural issues emerging out of the Genome Project will require citizens who understand DNA and genetics. FAX and DNA are thus examples of common precise jargon terms that require different functional levels of understanding—and for most folks, DNA is probably the more intimidating of the two examples of jargon.

Educators use a lot of jargon to simplify their professional communication. Unfortunately, much of it becomes so vague over time that folks conversing about a jargoned concept are often talking past each other. Hemisphericity and Multiple Intelligences are examples of important concepts that have become increasingly muddled in terms of their usage. Learning Styles is an example of a widely used term that began with a vague definition that has become even more vague. Downshifting is an example of a clearly defined term that seemed appropriate a couple decades ago, but a better understanding of how our brain responds to challenges suggests that it’s now an inappropriate term.

Dramatic developments in the cognitive neurosciences during the past quarter of a century created a specific terminology problem for educators who were excited about applying the new discoveries, and wanted to distance themselves from the social and behavioral science perspective that dominated educational policy and practice.

Two identifying terms emerged early in this period, and regrettably they’re still frequently used—brain-based education, and brain-compatible instruction. Questions about the appropriateness of the terms are obvious: Brain-based? Was education formerly kidney-based? Brain-compatible? Isn’t all instruction compatible with a brain’s capabilities? A brain may not prefer the instruction, but the instruction’s compatible if a brain can process it.

I’ve discovered that too many folks mistakenly believe that current purported brain-based and brain-compatible programs emerged out of recent cognitive neuroscience discoveries. I’ve read many books and articles that use the terms in their title, and although I wouldn’t question the value of many of their instructional proposals, I rarely see citations to cognitive neuroscience research to support what’s implied by the jargon.

John Bruer’s The Myth of The First Three Years (1999) is very critical of the belief that brain research drives current educational practice. Current practice is driven more by professional folklore that’s bolstered by educational and psychological studies identifying what works. Nothing wrong with this; it’s just not brain research (which currently focuses more on medical problems) that validates most current instructional practice. I believe that cognitive neuroscience research will eventually validate much of what educators do that works—but such evidence is still quite inferential, and so we shouldn’t use misleading terminology that leads to misinterpretation.

The Genome Project and recent developments in our understanding of the interconnectedness of our brain, immune system, and endocrine gland system suggest that our brain is probably only a part (albeit a very important part) of what teaching and learning are about. Indeed, emotion researcher Candace Pert uses the term bodymind when it’s difficult to separate the roles the two play (1997). Thus, jargon that limits learning to brain activity is in itself suspect.

Jargon is dangerous because it’s a godsend to critics. Since jargon is often vague, critics can easily redefine the term as they wish, and then criticize their definition of the movement. Solid educational innovations from Progressive Education to Values Clarification to Outcome-Based-Instruction were all unfairly criticized in that manner.

So brain jargon creates a personal dilemma that I was only able to resolve when I quit using brain-based/compatible-education terminology over a decade ago. I understand and appreciate what educators who use the terms are trying to communicate, but I believe the terms lead to much more misunderstanding than clarification—and even more so now that learning appears to be more biologically complex and encompassing than we thought when the simplistic brain-jargon terms first appeared a couple decades ago. It’s jargon that’s outlived its usefulness (if it was every truly useful).

Although I’ve puzzled over the problem for years, I have no imaginative suggestion for a new simple term that adequately describes the marvelous period we’re now experiencing—a period in which a growing number of teachers are: (1) improving their personal understanding of the development and organization of their students’ interrelated biological systems of the brain and body; (2) searching for positive connections between biological capabilities and instructional possibilities; and (3) helping their students to understand their own biological processes. How does one put all of that into a single simple encompassing term?

The best I can come up with is a suggestion that we just use a term like “appropriate instruction” to describe the current thrust of educational practice. It describes what teachers have always tried to do and hope to do in the future. It further suggests, by eliminating the need for a biological referent, that we’ve now come far enough to realize that all learning has a biological as well as behavioral substrate. But again, it’s such a vague term that can be interpreted in so many ways that it will probably create another version of the same problem it seeks to eliminate.

If we need jargon to describe what we hope to do, let’s settle on something reasonably clear that can easily adapt to new biological developments.