We Need a New Set of "Words, Words, Words"

Leadership, Learning, Organizational Change

On the radio this morning, I heard three different stories about public education reform. In each story, I heard the same three words — data, testing, and accountability.
Before I get any more depressed about how uninspiring this language makes me feel, I have a proposal to make: let’s stop the madness and start identifying some new words that can more accurately describe the changes we seek for children.
Fittingly, the person who first made me aware of the power of language was none other than William Shakespeare, whose plays I used to teach in a variety of classrooms across the boroughs of New York City.
Hamlet was always my favorite. He is, like most teenagers, a searcher, occasionally brooding and introspective. He has visions of his future that don’t align with the visions the adults in his life have for him. He is an artist, an actor, and a dreamer – a person more comfortable in the world of words than the world of actions. And he is in love. But Hamlet is also the future King of Denmark, which means he is bound by custom to avenge his father’s murder – a duty that leads to his untimely death, in no small part because the act of killing goes against his very being.
No matter your age, then, to read the play is to watch a fellow human being struggle between staying true to his nature or accepting the role society has assigned him. Hamlet’s struggle also illuminates an essential question of human nature, not coincidentally posed by the first two words of the play – “Who’s there?”
This is not a question many of us choose to ask of ourselves. Instead, we keep busy with work and other distractions. We ignore the inherent, unarticulated contradictions between our internal passions and our external actions. And we wonder why we are left feeling unfulfilled.
Everything we do as individuals is determined by who we think we are — or, in the case of school reform, by what we define as our ultimate goals. And yet part of Hamlet’s challenge is that throughout his struggle, his only recourse for greater self-understanding is to “unpack [his] heart with words.”
This tension between thoughts, words and actions continues throughout the play. At one point, Hamlet finds himself standing directly behind the man who killed his father – the King’s brother, Claudius. All the young prince needs to do is unsheathe his sword and complete his duty. But Hamlet feels paralyzed, even as he struggles to talk himself into the act. He tries to “suit the action to the word, the word to the action” – but to no effect. Later, Hamlet bemoans the futility of “words, words, words” – at once his (and our) greatest resource and chief source of frustration.
Shakespeare’s exploration of the relationship between thoughts, words and actions illuminates a universal human tension, and a particular challenge I see reflected in our current efforts to create a more equitable school system: Before any of us can use our talents to make ourselves seen and heard, we must first understand how to “suit the action to the word, [and] the word to the action.” And before we can ever hope to become the most effective teacher, parent, boss or school leader, we must be willing to do the internal, reflective work necessary to answer the question, “Who’s there?”
If I apply this question to the current reform landscape, it’s unquestionable that the words we use are somehow divorced from the essence of what schooling is all about — helping children unlock the mystery of who they are by acquiring the skills and self-confidence they need to be seen and heard (at college, in their careers, and as citizens in a democracy) in meaningful, responsible ways.
Why is the significance and power of this goal so absent from the most common vocabulary of the current reform movement? The optimistic side of me says it’s simply because we haven’t thought about it enough. The pessimistic side wonders if it’s because we’re so blinded by the current charade of labeling schools (or reform efforts) as successful or unsuccessful based on a single measure of success that we’ve come of believe our own press clippings: if the scores go up, we really are closing the achievement gap. If the scores stay stagnant or go down, we’ve made no progress whatsoever.
As anyone who has studied Shakespeare knows, a worthy plot line is more complicated than that. And so is the work we have ahead of us.
To get us started in the right direction, I have three simple proposals:

  1. Every time you find yourself wanting to say data, say information instead. It’s a good thing, for example, that we’re more concerned now with acquiring relevant information about whether or not kids are learning, and how well or poorly our schools are creating healthy learning environments for kids. But the fact that schools now talk about “Data Days” at their school suggests to me that we’ve gone a little too far in the direction of valuing the number and not the story behind the number. We need both, and information strikes me as a more neutral term.
  2. Every time you want to talk about testing, talk about learning instead. Tests will always be a component of our education system. But take a moment to reflect back on your most powerful personal learning experience, and I can guarantee you it did not involve a test. I know this because I was part of a powerful data-collection campaign — I mean, information-gathering campaign — to uncover the core conditions of a powerful learning environment, based on people’s lived experiences. After hundreds of individual stories were collected, we made a word cloud of the most essential conditions, and, no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention in their life, the top five were challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive and experiential. So let’s stop playing it safe and focusing on tests that can only skim the surface of what real learning looks like, and let’s start asking ourselves, relentlessly and collaboratively, How can we create more learning opportunities for kids that are challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive and experiential — and how will we know if we’ve succeeded?
  3. Every time you want to talk about accountability, talk about sustainability instead. What we seek is not just a system that holds people accountable — after all, the most successful systems are the ones where people are intrinsically motivated to do that for themselves. No, what we seek is a system that can sustain its capacity to use meaningful information to improve the overall learning conditions for children. And in case you think this is flowery progressivism at its worst, you should know that I’m partially basing this notion on the insights of renown business guru Jim Collins, who says the best organizations create environments where employees need no motivation, and leaders trip up when they destroy that drive.

In part, Hamlet’s story ends so tragically because it was written not by him, but by the expectations of the society in which he lived. Educators today are not similarly constrained (despite how it may feel). But we still need to learn how to use words and language to focus on the right goals – the ones that will connect us to an aspirational vision of the knowledge and skills every child will acquire over the course of his or her schooling. We need to learn to ask the right questions – the ones that will help us create optimal learning environments. “And this above all; to thine own self be true.”