Weasel words in education: “-based”

Some of the worst abuses of the English language today occur in education, and one that I dislike particularly is the suffix “-based” when applied to pedagogical methods. In particular, the terms weasel-words academically-based and research-based make my muscles tense up and my skin crawl, and ought to be banished forever from any kind of discourse.

You hear the term “academically-based” applied to early childhood education. I know this because my 3-year old started her Montessori preschool program this morning after having gone to two different daycare centers previously. When we were looking for daycare centers, we chose the two that she eventually attended because they touted themselves as having “academically-based curricula”. But more often than not, this meant half-hearted attempts at leading the kids through counting from 1 to 5, and that’s about it, while the harried daycare worker instead spends most of her time trying to keep the kids from killing each other.

At the Montessori school, on the other hand, they learn numbers, words, counting, the planets, the seasons, the continents… it’s a curriculum. There’s a plan. And all curricula — all real curricula — are either academic, or they aren’t. You don’t start with something academic and then veer off into a different direction, and retain the academic quality of the curriculum. There’s no “-based” to it.

And you hear the term “research-based” used by those who have way-cool, whiz-bang new pedagogical ideas — and grant proposals for funding them — and who want to make their ideas sound like they have more credibility than they really do. More often than not, this term is used for compensation purposes. The person behind the pedagogy knows that there’s nothing but her or his opinion to suggest that their idea is any good. So instead of presenting actual research to support her/his claims, they say it’s “research-based”, meaning that there’s research out there — there must be — that supports my idea, and I could look it up if I really felt like it.

And the frequency of use of the term is usually inversely proportional to the actual scientific credibility of the idea. I mean, if you have to keep clubbing me over the head with how research-based your stuff is, then why don’t you just show me the data? Pedagogical techniques either arise from legitimate scholarship or they don’t. There’s no -based to it.

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