This Is Going To Hurt: Medicalised Words in Education

‘“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

Through the Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll


I’ve been wondering why there are so many medicalised and anatomised words in education.  It’s an itch that I love to scratch; it’s word pedantry eczema.  Some have been creeping in over the past few years, almost unnoticed, like rampant edu-chlamydia.  I wonder if it’s because there are things (symptoms?) in our profession that are seen as needing to be treated, and therefore it’s perceived to be more straightforward to name, classify and ‘treat’.  And I’m not arguing that there aren’t things that need treating/sorting/improving.  But why our educational lingua franca is so blotched with these ulcerated sores of words is odd, if not fascinating. 

So here goes: the stain and pain of medicalised words in education.  And this is going to hurt.


1. Lens

OK, so we’ll start with a relatively innocuous one, but boy is it lazy.  I hear this time and time again, usually in the language of perceived effective ‘leadership’, often uttered by the chin-stroking, musing type.  And it frequently belies someone who’s not really thought of anything useful, but has swallowed a few ‘leadership’ books and vomited up something they think sounds sage.  ‘Lens’ is often used thus:

– How interesting.  Let’s look at that through the lens of…

– I do think we need to see things through the lens of…

– Have you considered thinking about that through the lens of…?

Enough already.  What you mean is from a specific perspective.  Let’s be precise.  Let’s not get all unnecessarily opticianal.  Or next time you say that I’ll squirt you with saline solution.  Stop it.


2.  Diagnose

This is one of the many medicalised verbs that have stealthily wormed their way into our staffrooms, usually in the context of looking at data.  Even without the innumerable problems with the use of data in our schools, I have an issue with ‘diagnose’.  Diagnose suggests there’s something wrong: a problem or symptom that needs examining and classifying.  It also implies that whatever the perceived problem is can be ‘named’.  And this is a concern in itself, and is symptomatic (ha!) of so many of us looking for easy solutions to complex issues in schools.  I don’t blame schools for this; often it’s the pressure that many of us work under.  Which leads me neatly on to…


3.  Therapy

This is the one I love to hate.  It propels a bit of sick into my mouth, and has done, annually, since I first heard it a few years ago.  This is an appalling noun to use in my opinion, for two reasons:

  1. It suggests that there is some form of faux psychological talk show Ricki Lake-ness to schools, and that schools, or challenges in schools, need ‘therapy’.  This lurches and skids over its mindfulness colouring books to huddle under the oft seemingly-psychological umbrella of ‘wellbeing’.  I find this problematic.  You can read my views about ‘wellbeing’ in schools here, and here.
  2. It also implies that there is an illness or a disease in our schools (presumably that the data will reveal to us), and that there should definitely be some sort of salve or ointment to ‘treat’ it.  Perhaps a few spoonfuls of sugar.  Perhaps a ticklist, worksheet or poorly-used knowledge organiser.  Perhaps a sit in the mindfulness yurt (thanks to Tom Bennett for that one).  Perhaps a pet of the wellbeing dog is an ‘intervention’ that will work?  Don’t get me wrong.  I like dogs.  I even like yurts.  And I definitely like knowledge organisers, and I like sugar.  But ‘therapy’ goes straight into my edu Room 101.


4.  Dissect

This is a new entry, and gruesomely weird.  I’ve heard it in the context of both data and lessons.  Sometimes that the data needs ‘forensically dissecting’ (whoah there CSI senior leadership teams!), but also in terms of cutting up a lesson into parts.  I thought we’d seen the last of four-part or six-part lessons, but it seems that in far-flung realms of social media they’ve made an unwelcome comeback.  Lessons are ‘dissected’, so that the most important ‘organs’ (say whaaaaat?!) are included.  This is a checklist-cum-operation, where useful stuff has become more about process than what works in our classrooms/operating theatres.  And it’s just really, really odd.  Lesson autopsy anyone?


5.  Clinic

Let’s end with another innocuous one, and one that has again been around for years.  This noun is usually used to mean ‘a drop-in session to help teachers with something’ or ‘extra CPD’.  Now this is fine.  But ‘clinic’ has a whole weeping carbuncle of unfortunate connotations.  CPD is fine.  Drop-in session is fine.  ‘Clinic’ is essentially an edu-swab.