Ko tōu reo, ko tōku reo,
te tuakiri tangata.
Tīhei uriuri, tīhei nakonako.
Your voice and my voice are expressions of identity.
May our descendants live on and our hopes be fulfilled.
(Learning Languages Whakataukī, NZC 2007)
We language our world and ourselves into being. We have ideas. We think thoughts. We express these things to ourselves and to others using words. The words we choose to use say something about the person we are, and the way we perceive the world to be. So we may say that language shapes our culture, and shapes our identity.
Words, to perhaps use a construction metaphor, are the building blocks of stories. Words, strung together in sentences, held together with the mortar of grammar (and punctuation, if the words are written down), create worlds and the characters who inhabit these worlds. Some of these characters become ‘larger than life’: Māui, Harry Potter, Gollum… By the words we choose to use, and the stories we choose to tell, we convey important messages and ideas about who is important, what beliefs are valued, whose perspectives we honour. In this way, words and stories, and storytellers, have infinite power. Hana O’Regan spoke about this kaupapa at uLearn this year.
Let’s consider a couple of examples.
It is reasonably commonplace these days to speak of the ‘industrial model of education’. This phrase employs factory metaphors. We can see these ideas in words like ‘classes’, the ‘timetable’, and teaching ‘units’ to make sure students know all the necessary ‘nuts and bolts’. The overarching factory metaphor suggests that we see knowledge as ‘stuff’, and that education is about putting knowledge into people’s (empty) heads. And that this is best done by breaking knowledge down into small, manageable chunks, and telling people what they need to know, because we store knowledge in our own individual heads (see Gilbert, 2005).
When we say that we’d like to embrace ‘21st century’ or ‘future-focused’ teaching and learning, alongside unpacking what this means for us, we also need to examine the words we use to imagine and conceive of school and its purposes. Often we’ll find it very hard to move away from these words, as they are the signs that show us that we still think about education in this way. Finding new words, embracing new metaphors, telling new stories until these become ingrained, is a challenge.
Or perhaps this example:
We need teachers to come on board with our new initiative or strategy, or to adopt a new practice. Some teachers seem quick to embrace this innovation. When this happens, we sometimes say that they are the ‘early adopters’. This is a reference to the popularised research by Everett Rogers in the 1960s (see also the Diffusion of Innovation theory). ‘Early adopters’ we might find to be a comfortable phrase or label, but who is at the end of the scale? The ‘laggards’.
Can we use one term in isolation from the other? Who would choose to be known as the ‘laggard’? What do these words suggest about how we think of others – of our colleagues and peers?
When we tell stories, we generally speak from our own perspective, and because of this we tend to make ourselves the hero of this story. Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston explore this idea in their book Simple Habits for Complex Times. It can be useful to keep this in mind when a colleague does or says something that you struggle to comprehend. Garvey Berger and Johnston recommend asking yourself: “If I had just done what that person did, and I thought my actions were perfectly reasonable, what story might I be telling myself?” (p. 24). We can use language to practice respect and empathy. We can challenge ourselves to be imaginative and compassionate.
We could apply these ideas about words, language, and stories to many phrases we use in education:
- Priority learners
- Māori boys’ writing
- Those who are ‘resistant to change’
- Teacher aides
- Special needs
And more. What springs to mind for you?
This is an invitation to reflect on your vocabulary choices and what stories they may have to tell about you and the way you see the world around you. How do you refer to your learners? What words do you use to describe them? How do you refer to your colleagues? What words do you use to describe them?
Language is a dense and thorny thicket. Making your way through this thicket is rife with dangers. You must pick carefully your path through. Be mindful; be present – lest your words bite like thorns on the vines.
We can tell this story another way though.
Language is a seed bursting with possibilities. Plant it carefully in rich soil. Give the seed kindness, love and attention. Nurture its shoots, and protect it from harm. Be mindful; be present – so that your words may inspire.
What words do you use? What stories do these help to tell?
- Garvey Berger, J., & Johnston, K. (2015). Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Gilbert, J. (2005). Catching the knowledge wave? The Knowledge Society and the future of education. Wellington: NZCER Press.
- Title reference: 2.2.192 Hamlet