De-jargoning education by dean Jon Foster-Pedley, Henley Africa on Business Brief

We junk jargon, we kill clichés, we’re simple enough for clever people. Three simple concepts but ones that you’re going to be seeing a lot more of on billboards in and around Johannesburg soon. But they’re far more than that. Dejargoning education isn’t an advertising campa

WE JUNK jargon, we kill clichés, we’re simple enough for clever people. Three simple concepts but ones that you’re going to be seeing a lot more of on billboards in and around Johannesburg soon.
But they’re far more than that.

Dejargoning education isn’t an advertising campaign, it’s a real statement of intent. I speak from personal experience; I was a pilot once and pilots speak in jargon, as do doctors, lawyers – in fact any group of highly trained specialists who need to use jargon to convey complex information in a very precise and quick manner.

But when you start using it outside its proper context it becomes problematic on a number of different planes – especially when the intention is not to include but the opposite – to put a distance between the speaker and the listener. The first time I came across this was working with others in the aviation industry who had also done their MBA – my bullshit antennae quickly told me that a lot of the big words they were spouting was designed only to boost their perceived status and ego at the expense of everyone else around them, who might know less.

Business schools are redolent with jargon; finance, marketing – you only have to think of the 4 Ps or the five forces, the 6I or the 7S models, but the truth is these aren’t truths in and of themselves; they’re only frameworks of knowledge that help you to analyse situations. The more you apply them, the more you start critically thinking about them and what changes is your ability to make sense of the conundrum.

The very best teachers are those who take complex things and make them accessible to as many as possible; that doesn’t mean oversimplifying issues because often that’s just as bad as over complicating things. The holy grail is to simplify concepts to a point where they can be grasped and understood – very few people can do that.

So why the rush? Why now? It’s simple, our country is in the throes of its worst crisis since emerging from apartheid, a crisis of bad government and bad business practice that was aided and abetted by our inability as a society to think critically about what happens. To prevent this recurring, we need to create a new cohort of leaders, not a new hyper-elite. Leaders who are exclusionary use language like a suit of armour to protect themselves. They make learning arcane and demonise critical thinking, creating a culture of confusion from where they can manipulate events to suit themselves. We know all about that, we’re still picking through the wreckage of state capture.

Learning occurs when we learn from the exceptions, not the unchallenged theory. When we say the exception proves the rule it doesn’t mean that the rule is proved right, it means it has been tested, just like a gun barrel is ‘proofed’ not to explode. We learn from exceptions that test the theory, not by blindly learning the theory. But how do you apply the theory if it’s cloaked in ominous terms and anchored in hecatombs of self-serving argument?

Dejargoning education is another of the movements we have introduced at Henley Business School Africa, like MBAid which we created to provide action learning for students immersing themselves in the work of NGOs re-engaging executives with grass roots and relevance while showing that business schools could be both a force for social good and incredibly relevant to their local communities. Dejargoning education is not intended in any way to trivialise education or undermine the richness of thought or valuable research, but rather to cut through the obscurantism that is often our greatest enemy.

Our reality, as we set about rebuilding this country from a decade of kleptocracy, is that we can’t address this crisis through abstract theory, only action. When, like so many business schools, we are working in an environment of predominantly second language students, some of whom have all the ability and experience but a less than optimal education, it becomes even more vital to ensure that jargon is not a further exclusion to accessing the kind of clarity, the systems thinking and design thinking, that will be critical to our efforts to effectively narrow the Gini co-efficient.

Elon Musk speaks of the need for first principle thinking; the relentless unswerving descent to the heart of a problem, the self-evident truths. We asked ourselves, what the role of a business school is in that case. It’s about running businesses and building economies – or building the people, who build the businesses that build the country and the continent – it’s not about awarding degrees as such.

But you can’t teach first principle concepts if they are enmired in jargon. Teaching first principles doesn’t require reverence to academia, it requires respect for good thinking. And yes, unfortunately, the two can often be mutually exclusive. We are a business school making sure businesses and organisations work in the real time without managers having to run for their text books in a moment of crisis.

Academia needs to be servant of learning, but all too often it’s the opposite, with the tail wagging the dog. Sadly, this is a revolutionary concept for academia, it shouldn’t be. To revitalise academia, for us to unleash the change we need, education has to be massified so that it is accessible – and useful – for far more people than it is. For that to happen knowledge cannot be rendered arcane by jargon but rather be made far more available, able to be learnt in multiple different ways; visually, audio and in action. The last thing we need is more complex theory at a time of crisis, with high
barriers to comprehension and implementation, when we are already frazzled with the sheer volume of information that is already threatening to swamp us.

That above all is perhaps the truest form of decolonising education: making the jewels of education available and accessible to people of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds – and accordingly different frames of reference. As the billboard are going to tell you, we have to be simple enough for clever people because the truth is, we dare not lose this momentum to be the change that we have to be. We need to enthuse a whole new generation of critical thinkers and business activists to build the Africa we all deserve.

Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director Henley Business School Africa

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