How Language Shapes Solutions

A few years back, when I was training for a marathon, I would secretly cringe when someone said, “I saw you going out for a jog.” Even when I was slower and still at a jogging pace, the term “jog” seemed to trivialize the intensity of a workout. Although it sounds picky, the verbiage mattered to me.

I notice the same thing in education. Students responded more positively to the term “writing idea” (meant to inspire writing) than to “writing prompt” (meant to require writing). While the intent is similar, the term “idea” conveyed the choice and the enjoyment of writing in a way that was different than prompt. In the same way “feedback” sounded different than “grading” and “conversation” sounded different than “conferences.”

To some, this might seem like splitting hairs. However, language shapes the way we view questions and the way we shape solutions. It shapes our approach to things. It’s why “undocumented immigrant” sounds different than “illegal alien” and why “kill and drill test” sounds different than “summative assessment” and why so many teachers hate the term “achievement” when it is simply a code word for “test scores.”

So, this has me thinking about the way we talk about education and change. If we ask, “How do we make education more innovative?” there’s an implied belief that new is better than old. By contrast, if we ask, “How do we reform education?” there is a connotation to the word “reform” that people associate with bringing something back that was lost.

When we say, “How do we fix education?” there is an implied belief that it is broken. By contrast, when we say, “How do we improve education?” there’s an idea that the system might be good but simply needs improvement — or even that it is flawed but not entirely broken.

Implied Metaphors

Things get even trickier when we think about the implied metaphors about the education system. We know that education is a social institution. However, people have implied metaphors about what this actually means.

Some see education as a business. They use “real world” to mean “business world.” Here, data, analytics, metrics, benchmarks, branding — those all fit in with the idea that school is a microcosm of the corporate world; a sort-of minor leagues for what kids will experience once they hold jobs. Others see schools as civic institutions that ultimately lead to citizenship. In this mindset, critical thinking is about challenging existing systems and fighting for social justice.

Even the term “system” is layered in metaphor. To some, systems are structures and processes. A broken system needs to be fixed. A bad system needs to be discarded. When we use the term “fix” we are seeing the system as something physical, tangible, impersonal and concrete. Those who resist change are simply getting in the way of a solution.

Others see school as an organic system. Instead of viewing it as a structure, they view it as a community. They see it as inherently human. In this mindset, a school is not broken so much as unhealthy. It needs to heal. It needs to grow and improve. The idea of “blowing up” or “discarding” this system would be akin to abandoning the idea of strong families simply because there are some families out there that are abusive.

Is there a solution?

Ultimately, we have these intense conflicts in education that begin with the implied metaphors. The hardest thing is that it’s so easy to forget that other people are using language tied to a metaphor that is vastly different from your own. What feels cold an impersonal to some makes sense to others. What feels shallow and subject to some feels warm and human to others.

So with clashing metaphors and varying verbs, it seems almost impossible to reach consensus on change. However, I’ve noticed a few things that certain leaders do really well. Actually, I noticed this with my principal this last year:

  • Learn to speak the language of other people. I am a huge fan of meaningful feedback and authentic assessments. However, I am not afraid to use the word “data” when describing the feedback. Similarly, I hate the word “intervention” but I will use it even when I prefer the term “personalized help” instead. 
  • Pay attention to the language that you use. If I say “let’s just blow this system up” or “we need to fix this” it’s going to sound different than”let’s see how we can keep improving.” 
  • Recognize that the language people are using comes from implied metaphors that are deeply rooted in beliefs about systems. Sometimes the best way to challenge these beliefs is by asking people to clarify them. 
  • Pay attention to the times when the metaphors are colliding. 

It isn’t easy. I get that. However, I am convinced that paying close attention to language is a critical component to leading change.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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