And What Do You Mean By…

People listen to leaders. Whether we’re talking about true leaders or people considered leaders because of status or authority, their words impact culture. Over the last several years of the “reform” movement, words like “accountability” “data driven” “student achievement” “rigorous curriculum” and “college and career ready” are used frequently in many districts. By themselves these words and phrases may not be particularly offensive but over time, combined with countless new initiatives send a sometime subtle and sometimes overt message to teachers and students.

Working in districts where these terms are embedded into the culture, I’ve often had leaders defend these terms by saying they aren’t meant to oppress anyone but can be seen as empowering. I don’t usually buy that. Here’s why.


Accountability is what’s used when relationships and trust haven’t been fostered. I realize in many large organizations, this is challenging and being accountable to someone isn’t necessarily negative but it’s a word that’s very authoritarian and suggests there’s a problem. As Sahlsberg suggests, we should replace “accountability” with “responsibility”. It makes a big difference. You can read more about my thoughts on accountability if you wish.

Data Driven

My issue here is that “data” is usually synonymous with numbers and the collection of these numbers becomes the priority. Being able to show growth on a spreadsheet or fancy graph takes precedence over the complexities and nuances of deep learning. “Data” often breeds lowest common denominator thinking.

Student Achievement

Similar to data, this term is often about numbers. When districts say, “we want to improve student achievement” I want to ask, “what do you mean by student achievement?” It’s most often code for tests and scores. Again, we’re afraid to acknowledge the messiness and complexity of learning and crave measurable outcomes. I suggest we just call it learning and acknowledge the multi-faceted ways we measure and showcase it.

Rigorous Curriculum

Don’t get me started on rigor. But part of what these phrase infers is that learning is serious business and we don’t have room for anything that is hard and demanding. I’d encourage anyone to read The Book of Learning and Forgetting to challenge some of our conventional beliefs about learning. Good and deep learning need not be hard or challenging. Good and lasting learning often comes naturally. Rigorous Curriculum suggests we force and contrive learning.

College and Career Ready

Seems like a reasonable goal and theme for a district. My problem with it is that I’m not convinced this is school’s primary purpose. I’ve seen districts use this on their Kindergarten students. I don’t think 6 year olds should be preparing for a career. I think they should be playing in mud puddles and smelling markers. When you have a vision like this, it suggests that schools should be focused on training for the work force instead of a broader perspective of just preparing for a life of learning. A subtle difference perhaps but it does impact the way we think about school.

These are just a few examples of how language impacts culture. Again, you might argue these terms are fine and even useful. What I’m suggesting is that you may not realize the impact of the language you use. When a leader like Chris Kennedy calls his blog “Culture of Yes” it immediately sends a message to his district. When a teacher like Michelle Baldwin calls her classroom “Architects of Wonder” it sends a strong message to her students.

I’ve always wanted to do a session called, “And what do you mean by….” and explore some of the common terms we use in education. Often you’ll find people don’t agree on what some words mean or are intended to convey. I suggest our leaders consider the words and language they use and consider whether they are empowering, encouraging words or perhaps demeaning and oppressive. Maybe they fit somewhere in the middle but I think it’s worth some conversations.

cross-posted at

Dean Shareski is a Digital Learning Consultant with the Prairie South School Division in Moose Jaw, SK, Canada, specializing in the use of technology in the classroom. He lectures for the University of Regina and is the Community Manager of the Canadian DEN or Discovery Educators Network. Read more at