The Importance of Words in Educational Change

The language of education has an enormous impact on how educators shape conversations about change in schools. That makes sense  - words and how they are used matter. As you know, words in any language carry meaning, and that meaning is developed over the time the word is part of the language it supports.

The language of education is composed of words that all educators understand, and that carry a cultural representation of meaning. Words like teacher, administrator, assessment, lesson, unit, and textbook represent the commonly held vernacular of the spoken word of education. And while that shared understanding of meaning enables conversations and interactions to be understood and to be of value, it is that same shared understanding that limits those conversations and interactions and creates boundaries because of what the word represents and how it is understood among educators. Ultimately, these boundaries may inhibit productive change by constraining thought, and as a result, direction and action.

Consider the word “classroom” and think about what that means. At this very moment, a mental image of what a classroom represents just popped into your mind. And it doesn’t matter if you are a teacher or not, most likely everyone has spent time in a “classroom” and can explain exactly what it looks like. It’s interesting to watch this word used in conversation, and how it is just a “given” among educators. Kids learn in classrooms - that’s the space of learning in schools and it looks like this. When educators talk about changing where students learn they talk about creating “21st Century classrooms.” Why does it have to be a classroom?

It is my belief that the first step in redesigning classrooms is to discard the notion that it must be a “classroom.” Educators interested in changing the conditions for student learning must move beyond the traditional manifestation of what the word “classroom” has meant. Set that word aside for a moment and think in new directions, and perhaps even use new words to help that process.

As an example of the importance of how words influence change, what happens when the word “classroom” is replaced by the word “studio?” What does that word suggest? I might offer that it represents making, creativity, and active engagement. It certainly represents something different than “classroom.” And if a school wanted to shift from a classroom model to a studio model for the location of learning, would the word itself make a difference in the progression and realization of that change?

 My guess is that it would, because words matter.


David Jakes is a recognized leader in the educational technology field, David Jakes focuses on the increased need to develop agile, 21st Century, personalized, and digitally-enhanced learning environments. Based in Chicago, David works with the architectural firm of CannonDesign where he is a Digital Designer and Strategist for The Third Teacher+ and Cannon’s K-12 education practice.  David’s thought leadership encompasses digital storytelling, cloud-based learning environments and their relationship to physical learning spaces, mobile learning, the use and impact of social media in education and how organizations engage in change and improvement.  Before his current position with Cannon, David spent almost three decades in education as a teacher, technologist, administrator, designer and storyteller.  David is a frequent presenter at national and international educational technology conferences where he speaks about the power and promise of a new expedition for learning, and the roles that all educators have in shaping that journey. 

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