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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Difference in Language Used between Academic vs. Military Subject Matter Experts

Impacted Unschooling Rules: 
21. Is it better to be “A Great Reader” than “Addicted to Computer Games”? 
55. The only sustainable answer to the global education challenge is a diversity of approaches.


The most competitive academic institutions teach students to use obscure, intellectual, and conceptually precise words and phrases to describe a situation (such as "Orthogonal" and "Force multiplier"), classic metaphors (such as "Manifest Destiny" and "The Sword of Damocles") based on cultural literacy, or specific research citations.  But I have found the best subject matter experts (SMEs) for the work I do, creating educational simulations and serious games (pdf), speak in highly vivid, simple, and visual metaphors.  They use basic examples or abstractions to make complex processes very clear.

For whatever reason, experts in the military cultures do this incredibly naturally.  Here are some metaphors I heard, including common and more obscure, over the last month that led me to know I had identified the right expert.

  • Put out the bait and see if he bites.
  • I don't have a dog in that fight. 
  • I started poking the bear...
  • ...Too much fog of war...
  • That was the secret sauce...
  • That dog won't hunt.
  • Take out the calipers and measure...
  • ...Looking to scratch that itch.
  • Wire brush the bolts...
  • Get a shoe box and put in a bunch of 3 X 5 cards...
  • Crash and burn.
  • That idea ricocheted around the room...
  • Just a vacuum cleaner, sucking up data...
  • If we just wanted to lay bricks, we would...
  • It went through the process like a pig in a python...
  • At that point we were just pounding sand...
  • There are three kinds of people: racehorses, clydesdales, and donkeys...
  • (And, of course, many sports analogies.)
It should be no surprise that academic experts habitually talk with a cultural value put on knowing something, while intentionally projecting a competitive status and unintentionally betraying any stove-piped thinking, while often obscuring the final message.  It is such a relief to talk to experts who instead, talk based on a value put on doing something, while actually communicating to an audience instead of trying to impress them.


See also: Should Education Reform be Led by Ph.D.'s?

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