Change the practice by changing the words!

George Couros is a thought provoking educator whose blog is a daily read for me. His post of today titled, “5 Terms We Need To Rethink In Education” has inspired me to write (which is one of the main reasons I read blogs!).

In his post, George asks us to rethink the terms we use in education, to unpack the perception of their meaning and the possibility of what they SHOULD mean. I agree completely, and write to extend the thinking.

My proposition is that our educational reality is strongly shaped by the words we choose to use. Let me illustrate.

A few years ago I was tasked with leading a K-12 school, which had not previously considered itself a “K-12” school. It had always had a Kindergarten program, elementary grade levels, middle school classes and a high school. It was lead by a Director, an Elementary Principal and a Secondary Principal. But they had been “Divisional” principals. The culture had never been K-12.

So upon my arrival, with the leadership structure changing to include a K-12 Principal, I changed the words.


We began to use the word “sub-school” instead of “division”. There was no longer an elementary division, or a middle school division or a high school division. We deliberately chose words to reinforce the thinking required to build a K-12 culture. We referred to the elementary sub-school, the middle school subschool, and the high school sub-school. A little bit wordy, but important. Now in year three of making that seemingly simple change, we are almost at the point where the word “division” is no longer used. Almost!

We also discussed the idea of banning the word “homework”! Not banning the activity of homework, but banning the word “homework” to describe the activity of doing school work at home. Instead, I was suggesting the terms “preview” and “review” be used. The ensuing discussion was one of the most animated, charged, emotional, informative, full-participation discussions I have ever experienced in a faculty meeting! Just to change a word!!!

A school-wide blanket ban of the word “homework” was a bridge too far for the present faculty, but a number of faculty members DID rename their school-work-at-home and reflected that it did result in some changes in their practice.

As George prompts us to reimagine or rethink what the words we use in education mean, I am prompting you to be very critical when choosing which ones you will use. Words are very powerful influencers of practice.

What practices in your school or classroom can you change by changing the words you use to describe them?



Building a bridge with care

Over the past few months I have had a real opportunity to learn about the culture of my new school. I have shared with a number of people that learning ones way through a culture is somewhat akin to tip-toeing through a field of land mines. It is not until you step on one that you find out it is there. Within the cultural context, it is not until you disturb a cultural norm that you being to understand how deeply that norm is felt.

What is obvious at my new school, is that everyone cares! Teachers care. Students care. Parents care. Finding out what each of these groups care about, and how deeply they care about it has been, and continues to be, the walk through the minefield, as these are the two variables so intimately connected to culture.

What we care about and the depth to which we care about it are extremely culturally connected, so much so that it is often difficult to articulate. It is not until those things we care about are brought under the microscope and become focussed topics of conversation that we begin to sense and understand the depth to which those things are cared about. Often it is a surprise. Sometimes it cannot be explained. We are all cultural beings.

A recent parent discussion I was a part of helped me understand in a very real sense the fact that sometimes we can care deeply about things that in the end are not helpful to solving problems or reaching resolution. When these pieces are deeply ingrained through our culture, the challenge to move beyond them is significant, and in all honesty, may seem to be impossible. Deep seated cultural “values” do not move easily, and sometimes, do not move at all.

The mission statement of my new school drives us to bridge the East and the West, which, from a cultural perspective is a significant challenge. While there are elements of East and West that are complimentary and even sometimes symbiotic, there are also elements that are oppositional, contradictory, and at times, adversarial. I deal on a daily basis with students and families for whom the world is framed through the cultural lens of the East. My school is bringing an educational philosophy and practice being framed through a Western lens, with Western voices. Moments of contradiction cannot be avoided.

It is these contradictory moments that should inform us most deliberately about how to build our bridge, because in it’s most real sense, a bridge links two different places. A bridge is a solution. A bridge allows movement from one point to another, most often over something that would normally prevent that movement. A river, a chasm, an ideal, a danger.
Bridging the differences between two cultures requires us to focus not on the differences, but the commonalities. By focussing on what is common to both cultures, a conversation can begin and work can start on building the bridge.

What is obvious at my new school is that everyone cares! It is obvious in the extra lengths that teachers take to know and support their students. It is obvious in the hours that teachers spend outside of their classrooms providing opportunities for students to be challenged in non-academic pursuits. It is obvious in the care and attention teachers give to providing feedback to students on their learning. It is obvious in the emails that teachers send to parents, eliciting support, sharing successes, requesting dialogue. It is obvious in the passionate advocacy parents show for their children. It is obvious in the conversations students have with their teachers about their learning. It is obvious in all that we do at this school.

And it strikes me, that as we go about building our bridge, we could not hope for a better foundation than “care”.


The song that made me change my mind!

Is this the worst piece of creativity I have ever had the misfortune of watching/hearing? Undoubtedly!

You have to wonder about the state of the recording industry and fame in general when a song with lyrics like,”One good girl is worth a thousand b**ches. BAM! BAM!” and “She asked me what I wish for on my wishlist. Have you ever asked your b**ch for other b**ches?” has received 6942810 hits on YouTube. With a half-naked woman, famous for simply being famous, astride a motorbike in the video clip, there is a question whether the youtube visits have been for the song of for the half-nakedness, but even that is concerning.

What is this saying about fame and art?

Here we have a famous rap artist serving up a song which, to my ear, not a single moment of artistic worthiness, with a video of similar pap. And now 7107793 have watched it! That is 165000 more views in the time it has taken me to type this post. That is BONKERS!

Again, what is this saying to our students about fame and art?

Another line in the song caught my attention… “I wanna f*** you hard on the sink. After that give you something to drink. Step back, can’t get spunk on the mink.” REALLY! What the hell is this? If this is songwriting then something has gone terribly wrong! Terribly, TERRIBLY WRONG!!!

Now, up until today I have always been one to argue that all music is there to be appreciated. There is no such thing as bad music, just music that I don’t prefer to listen to. Well, today I have changed my mind.

I’m going to, for the first time ever, go on the record and condemn this song as an insult to music, an insult to anyone who has the misfortune of having it crawl into their ears, and a complete insult to the notion of creativity.

And then, as I sit back and try to scrape the refrains of the inane and sad self flagellatory words out of my ears I am actually inspired!

If this is now what passes for popular music, there is hope for us all, even my daughter, who is 6. The songs she sings in the bath are better than this s*** any day!!!!!


Culture, defining moments, and my daughter.

2013 is an hour old and I find myself reflecting on the events of the last week and a bit of my Christmas break. Finding myself back in the culture in which I grew up, from an extended time outside of that culture, I find myself noticing things. Things that maybe I would not have noticed if not for my other-culture experience.

Like my daughter winning the almond in our family’s Danish Christmas tradition of mixing an almond into the bowl of rice pudding. Like walking into a music festival with my daughter (at 5 years old) and watching her dancing to the strains of an Australian music legend. Like clinging on to a giggling Ms K as she (and I) negotiated the waves of the Pacific Ocean together for the first time.

Watching my daughter experience these things for the first time has made me feel something that I am having difficulty putting into words.

It has forced me to reflect on what it is that constitutes “me”.  And to be honest, I have been surprised at how emotionally I have responded to these recent moments. I have always known that these things are important to me – family traditions, live music, surfing – but until these last few weeks where I have for the first time experienced each of them with my daughter, I have not understood how largely they frame “me”.

So what will define my daughter? How will being born in Thailand, toddling in Laos, pre-schooling in Saudi Arabia, schooling in who-knows-where and doing whatever from wherever after that, define her moments?

Granted, it is a big question to ask, more rhetorical than literal, but worth asking all the same. Culture, defining moments, what’s important!

And now nearly two hours into a new year, as I contemplate resting my weary head upon my pillow, I know what I will be pondering as my eyes close.

Culture, defining moments and my daughter.


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