It is not rocket science, it is a mindset! Teaching Technical Acronyms

As I teach students about technology I have as one of my major objectives to demystify acronyms.

I remember my first week at GTE (my first job out of college), they handed me a bound book with other 500 acronyms. There are now over 10,000 at the online IP dictionary . That is when I learned a valuable lesson:

Acronyms are just new words to learn — you don't have to know what they stand for (in some cases) you just need to learn it like you would any other word.

This word was just coined in 1943 ! There are many people out there who have not been taught how to learn acronyms. But, why are people afraid of acronyms?

When students learn a new acronym I want them to apply the same techniques they use when learning other vocabulary words:

What does it stand for (and is it significant to remember it?)

For example, when discussing CRT (cathode ray tube) and LCD (liquid crystal display), I think it is important because the words are often used interchangeably with their acronym. However in the case of NETBIOS and TCP/IP — not necessarily unless they are going to be a computer science major.

What does it mean?

There's always the “techno-geek definition.” The definition that creates as many questions as it does answers! I want them to learn put the word in simple terms.

One of our first computer science acronyms is TCP/IP. This is how I teach it!

Here's the Wikipedia Definition a/k/a/ “techno-geek” (I don't use this one.)

Internet Protocol Suite is the set of communications protocols that implement the protocol stack on which the Internet and most commercial networks run. It is sometimes called the TCP/IP protocol suite, after the two most important protocols in it: the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP), which were also the first two defined.

Here's the Vickipedia Definition (That's me)

TCP/IP is the language of the Internet which allows the computers to communicate with one another. Remember, that the P stands for protocol. A protocol is just a way we communicate. I then show them a clip from Star Wars where C3PO says he is a protocol droid and brags about how many languages he speaks. This gives the students a cue to remember what TCP/IP does and any protocol we discuss, for that matter.

What is it related to? (context)

In the case of TCP/IP — the Internet.

How does it work?

You have to give students pictures! Nothing is better than an analogy to demystify an acronym.

In the case of TCP/IP — I take 2-3 funny pictures of the class at some point in the year. (It's not hard because I'm the school webmaster.) I blow up the pictures and print them on 8 1/2 x 11 paper. Then, on the back of the pictures I write a combination of a letter and a number — the first picture is A so across the back I”ll write A1 – A20 in order left to right. I do the same with the second and third pictures. Then, still looking at the back of the photo, I use scissors to cut the pictures into odd shapes. I mix them up into a bucket and then I'm ready for the demonstration.

We discuss TCP/IP and then I tell the class that I'm going to show them how I would e-mail some funny pictures. I tell them that Jones is using computer A and Owen is using B and Jane is on Computer C. I give Jones, Owen, and Jane some clear tape and tell them they are to put it together when it arrives using the numbers on the back as a guide.

I tell the class that I am going to pass pieces of the picture, called packets, to various people in the room and they are to pass it so that it ends up at A, B, and C computers. I then walk around the room and talk as I am giving pieces of the picture to many different people, some close and some far away from the final destination. The kids are passing like crazy and I tell them that they are like routers whose job is to pass along the packet to the final computer. The final computer has an address called an IP address!

The packets all get there and as the three students are taping everything together, I have the students open up the command prompt by going to Start and Run and then typing command.

Once there, I have them type tracert (our website). What results is a list of all of the routers that the packet of data travels through. I have them read out some of the numbers and look at the variety of hops. At this point I'm usually in Socratic mode and asking questions about what they are seeing. When we conclude they have learned how the Internet works, IP Address, packet, router, and TCP/IP as well as whatever other terms are appropriate!

I want my students to feel like it is no big deal when they hear an acronym. They can look it up and figure out the concept.

So many people think they have to understand how something technological works to talk about it! That is simply preposterous! I know what open heart surgery is and can talk about when it is used even if I don't know how to perform open heart surgery!

I see that my high school students are much more agreeable to this technique and that it only takes several word demystifying tips from me to get them comfortable with acronyms. Once they see the ease at which they can understand acronyms I will throw out new words and set them on an exploration while having them create a Wiki, a podcast, and lead a class discussion themselves. They come up with their own analogies now!

The same ease with new words is not so easy to teach adults and it frustrates me so much!

This is not rocket science it is a mindset!

  • A mindset that I will use the tools that are out there that can help me better do my job and enrich my classroom. I don't have to know what makes a wiki page work to use a wiki page. I hear people say, “I don't know how to make a wiki page.” So what — use a free one at wikispaces or some other place. Takes 5 minutes to set up!
  • A mindset that I will not allow technogeeks make me feel bad because they use more acronyms than the IP dictionary!
  • A mindset that this is life and I will not be excluded from a significant portion of the world because they invent new words every day!
  • A mindset that I will apply the tools I learned in first grade to learn new vocabulary to acronyms. I will treat acronyms as what they are — new vocabulary.
  • A mindset that I will not spoon feed my students but I will teach them to become information acquirers themselves when a new acronym is thrown at them!

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Anonymous January 21, 2006 - 10:48 pm

So many people think they have to understand how something technological works to talk about it! That is simply preposterous! I know what open heart surgery is and can talk about when it is used even if I don’t know how to perform open heart surgery!

If the pupils don’t understand what the acronym means then what is the point in filling their heads with meaningless jargon which will be obsolete in a few years?!

Vicki A. Davis January 22, 2006 - 12:11 pm


They still understand what it means — but there is a big difference betweeen understanding the minutia of the various protocols of TCP/IP such as a technical person who is going into Computer Science would need to know and understanding what TCP/IP does — it is the protocol that allows the computers on the Internet to communicate.

Students still know what acronyms mean but perhaps in not such detail as a computer science geek would believe necessary.

You can simplify acronyms — you don’t have to use acronyms to define acronyms, for example.

I know what heart surgery means — I do not know how to do heart surgery.

And as for your point about meaningless jargon — that is the very point I make continually. THe point is to teach students to learn new words themselves. To teach students to define it themselves. Students should be unafraid of acronyms and have the learning know how to define it for themselves.

If you’ll see my post on “the student-teaching” method — I’m with you on that one.

I have to wonder if you read my whole post? It certainly seems you’ve taken me out of context. Now where to I say not to have a student understand what an acronym means — just do they need to know what it stands for.

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