Poets Wanted: Considering the Jargon of Education Reform

In the world of education reform, there is a tendency to talk in a jumble of jargon.  As a university-trained researcher in education policy and practice, lapses into “edu-speak” are a daily occurrence.  In reflecting on this habit, questions arise as to whether the use of insider lingo is helpful in engaging people to face the big challenges in serving our students.  Do words like “21st century learning skills” or “technology-rich environments” pluck the heartstrings that change people’s behavior and collectively conduct the music of action?  Or, are researchers, policymakers, and practitioners generating a language gap that unwittingly colludes with 150 years of tinkering in public education?

In the book, Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the authors speak to the issue of the language gap, something they call the “Curse of Knowledge.”  This is the phenomenon by which we understand our own idea so completely we forget what it was like not to know it.  And, because of this cursed frame of mind, we find it difficult to communicate and share our knowledge with others who have a different state of mind.  There are only two cures for this curse:  to either not learn the knowledge in the first place (since un-learning is not possible) or to re-frame the knowledge to better connect with the audience’s state of mind.

Coming from a business background into the social sciences, I was faced with more than an academic language gap, it was a chasm.  To cross the divide, I kept an ever-growing word list – my own farrago of argot— a jumble of jargon.  The top ten offenders in order of annoyance: a priori, heuristic, sine quo non, normative, de jure, didactic, epistemic, hermeneutic, ontological, quotidian.  Time and again I would look up the definitions, but there was little to no stickiness, no pulling of a heartstring to connect with the song of better learning for all students.  While the ivory tower of academe is a rather extreme example, similar tendencies are found in the sound bites of policymakers or the acronym-filled discussions of practitioners.  We all have education buzz words we just can’t bear to hear one more time.  We set up a jar to put quarters in when someone says “contributing to the state of the field” or “scaling up.” And, yet, bringing useful knowledge to enough people to make a lasting change is actually an important outcome.  An outcome not to be lost in the jumble.

So, what to do? The American novelist, Wallace Stegner, wrote “We agree, until it has had a poet, a place is not a place.”  Perhaps what is needed to help re-imagine our places of learning is the leadership practice of poetry.  This is not as far-fetched an idea as you might think.  Consider poet and Fortune 500 consultant David Whyte’s book, Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, which illuminate his efforts to lead change and re-envision the business world through poetry, reflection, and creativity.

Recently, I sat in on a meeting with several school district superintendents. The conversation swirled around difficult issues such as teacher tenure, investment in teacher and principal training, and education funding.  The discussion was punctuated with the acronyms of CDE, LCCF, ESSA.  Somewhere in the mix, one statement emerged that stuck with me long after meeting ended, “Our goal is happy kids with healthy relationships and financial stability.”  Simple, meaningful, and very sticky.  When attention drifted from the often-praised “college, career and civic readiness,” both the mind and heart perked up at the thought of happy kids creating healthy relationships and finding financial stability.  The statement plucked at a personal string:  What we want for ourselves is what the next generation deserves.  This seemed to me to be a very poetic statement, one that could connect with others and drive action.  While, most likely, the superintendent does not have “education poet” in his job description, a statement of this nature points towards the poetic self – a part found within each of us – that can emerge and communicate a deeper meaning.

Finally, I would suggest we can’t wait for a National Poet Laureate for Education to model a practice of poetic leadership, although it would certainly be helpful to have one.  But we can call upon our own inner poet to traverse the language gap in education reform and better connect with the minds, hearts, and hands of those working on behalf of our students.  Consider how we might make poetic communication an essential condition (yes, professor, a sine quo non) in re-imagining the experience of schooling in America.


(c) 2017 Wayfind Education.