The Importance of Common Language

If we’re talking about kids and schools, and I say “success,” what do you think of?

How about “achievement”? Or “high expectations”?

I’ve written many times about my surprise at how little consistency I find among groups of teachers and leaders from the same school have around the word most basic to our work: “learning.” If the definition of learning changes from classroom to classroom, we create huge inconsistencies for our students.

But it’s not hard to make a list of dozens (if not hundreds) of words like the ones above that we bandy about on a daily basis in education. Ones that when pressed to define them, especially in larger groups, we struggle to find any real coherence in what we mean when we say them.

The reality is that when it comes to education, we assume that everyone understands those words…until the ambiguity becomes obvious.

As a case in point, I tried an experiment recently during my last keynote of the year. I was presenting to a group of about 120 superintendents who were all a part of an organization that had created a list of shared beliefs to frame their work together. Let me just say that I think that’s a great step to take for any learning organization, and in what follows I’m in no way suggesting that their intents aren’t absolutely pure in terms of making schools better places for kids.

But as I was reading their list, it struck me how much of it was open to interpretation. So, in preparation for my talk, I created a slide that listed their principles:

beliefsThen, I asked a question: “What assumptions are you making in terms of the words you use in this document?”

Now, mind you, this wasn’t the most comfortable moment I’ve had in my speaking career. I didn’t know how they were going to react when I showed my next slide, the one where I highlighted every word on the page that I felt was open to multiple interpretations:

beliefs2Let’s just say, there was an interesting pause.

To be sure, I’m not perfect when it comes to this either. I’ve tried to do a much better job in my own speaking and writing to clarify my terms, so to speak. And whenever I get on a planning call with my “clients,” I’m conscious of the words that come up that aren’t universally defined. I make sure to be precise.

But when you look at that second slide, what to you think? Am I being picky? Or am I making my point?

We should acknowledge the ambiguity and not just assume that we’re all thinking the same thing when those words come up.

It’s hard, really hard to come to some coherence around many of the terms that we use in our everyday conversations. Even the fundamental ones. Like, what is an “education” these days? Is it just what we accrue in schools? Is it something we can actually “get” as is so often suggested? Is it different for each person?

And I’m not even saying that we have to come to complete consensus about what all these words mean. But we should acknowledge the ambiguity and not just assume that we’re all thinking the same thing when those words come up. We should all be willing, I think, to continually ask “So what do you mean by that?” Just to be clear.

By the way, I left that pause in the room linger. (I’ve come to love uncomfortable silences and tend to let them hang there until people either start speaking up or shifting miserably.) My sense was that they got the message. I’m not sure they’re headed for a revision, but…

The story ends on a pretty high note (at least in my eyes.) At the end of the day, long after I had left for my plane, one of the participants Tweeted a picture from a discussion they had had around a “Learner Bill of Rights.” Here’s what they had come up with:

bill of rights

You may agree with the sentiment, or not. But you have to admit, there’s not a lot of ambiguity there.

As always, would love to hear your thoughts.

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Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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