Creating a common language

Teachers and scientists talk to share their expertise
Andrew Moore, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0
Andrew Moore, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

It is often suggested that building a common language between teachers and scientists will help with the translation of scientific research to the classroom. In turn it is hoped that this will ultimately improve teaching practices. But the creation of new vocabulary is not necessary; instead, knowledge exchange and communicating clearly will enable teachers and scientists to better understand each other.

Empowering teachers to apply the best scientific evidence is a key goal of educational neuroscience. Creating a common language – working towards a shared lexicon – is thought to be an important way of ensuring that teachers can access relevant research, and that scientists can tailor their research to the needs of the classroom. If scientists and teachers are using clear and mutually recognisable language, each will understand the other better.

Possessing the language with which to describe their pupils’ specific needs will make it easier for teachers to source useful information. For instance, if a teacher knows their pupil has working memory difficulties, they will be able to seek appropriate materials on how best to support these pupils.

A further benefit of teachers being familiar with scientific language is that they may be better placed to conduct their own research, situating it within the existing academic literature. For example, if a teacher wants to run a study to see if interleaving in maths is successful, they can use the necessary scientific language to find academic papers relevant to their interests.

Finally, an understanding of the language that researchers use may allow teachers to describe the science of learning to their pupils more effectively. Pupils in turn may come to understand their own learning better, and thus be better able to utilise effective strategies for remembering.

“Just as scientific language may seem daunting to teachers, the language used by teachers can seem complicated and lacking transparency to scientists.”

Scientists may also benefit from a common language with teachers; this is not simply about teachers learning the language of scientists. Teachers, too, communicate in specialist vocabulary, for instance in relation to school processes, curricula, exams, and qualifications.

Just as scientific language may seem daunting to teachers, the language used by teachers can seem complicated and lacking transparency to scientists. Having a good understanding of these terms and their associated processes could help researchers to ensure they are working with the classroom in mind.

If researchers truly want to impact education, they need to understand the context that teachers work in, and part of this comes from understanding the language. With greater insight into the school setting, scientists may have new ideas for research, or gain a better sense of how their research might translate within a school setting.

“With greater insight into the school setting, scientists may have new ideas for research, or gain a better sense of how their research might translate within a school setting.”

Exchanging expert knowledge

The potential benefits of scientists and teachers understanding each other are great, but it is clear from these examples that this is not really about creating a common language, since no new language is being introduced. The process of creating a new, shared vocabulary would be difficult, since there are already set ways of talking within science and within education.

Instead, what drives this increased understanding of different language is knowledge exchange and communication. This means sharing expertise and the language that comes with that. The goal is to understand concepts and processes from one another’s perspective. Both teachers and scientists should therefore aim for clarity, define acronyms, and ask for explanations where things are not understood.

“Experts speaking clearly and sharing their knowledge will enable the field of educational neuroscience to move forward.”

To aid this process, there needs to be easy access to materials that demystify different terms, and an appreciation that scientists and teachers may use the same terms in slightly different ways. For example, a scientist might use the word ‘learning’ to describe neural changes in response to environmental input, while a teacher might use the word to describe acquisition of a new skill.

There are more and more examples of knowledge exchange happening. Conferences, online resources, and collaborative research projects all bring teachers and scientists together, so that they can share their knowledge, and learn to speak each other’s language. Increasing knowledge exchange will mean that information is less likely to get lost in translation.

Experts speaking clearly and sharing their knowledge will enable the field of educational neuroscience to move forward, so that efforts to improve teaching and learning are given the best possible chance.

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