Why Language is a Catalyst to Transforming Education

Insights   27 April 2017


Language exerts hidden power, like the moon on the tides.

Rita Mae Brown
Writer & Activist

Have you ever felt like something has been around for so long you can’t imagine a future in which it won’t exist? Televisions are already approaching the century mark. What will we stare at next on a random Tuesday evening? How about the permanence of the wise words of Aristotle, Socrates, and Lao Tzu? The philosophies these men spread seem to have completely defied the aging properties of time—making it easy to assume they will teach us until the sun swallows the earth whole.

Why is it the longer some “thing” or idea sticks around, the longer we expect it to survive? And, what does this mean for the traditional education system as it continues moving along, largely unchanged? That’s the question the Lindy effect seeks to answer.

In general, the Lindy effect looks at ideas—from Stoicism to wireless internet to education—and posits the longer they last, the longer they can expect to last into the future. If an idea has been around for ten years, it’s expected to survive ten more. If it’s been around for 1,000 years, it’s expected to survive 1,000 more. Once the idea finally dies out, its age equates to exactly half of its expected lifespan. And, when that idea has been around for multiple generations, its death causes unpredictable ripple effects across society.

This all illuminates one of the key challenges we face in transforming the traditional education system in the United States.

Each year the traditional system carries on, its robustness determines its likelihood of survival, which makes transformation that much harder. If we say the current system is about 100 years old, the Lindy effect gives it a life expectancy of 100 more years. Can you imagine five more generations of children going through the same age-based, siloed-subject, one-size-fits-all system?

This thought makes our work that much more pressing. What will it take to transform the education system? What if language is one of the keys to making this paradigm shift happen?


What we propose is a Rosetta Stone for learner-centered transformation

Education Reimagined

If you’ve had even the slightest taste of Education Reimagined’s work, you’ll be all too familiar with the certain way we speak. We focus not only on the words we use but, just as importantly, on the words we avoid.

At first glance, it appears this only adds to the malaise of education wordplay. Every “innovator” has a new word that represents “the future” of education—keeping their fingers crossed it will catch on with others. Our intention takes a completely different approach.

We strongly support the unique lexicons—a narrow concentration of language within the education sphere—individual learner-centered communities have created for their local conversations. These sets of unique words or phrases have often been created by the stakeholders in these communities (educators, learners, parents, and administrators) through collaboration and discovery. We would never want to see these efforts go to waste in forced favor of a national model created behind closed doors halfway across the country. That merry-go-round has been running for decades, and we want to hop on a different ride.

What we propose, rather, is a Rosetta Stone for learner-centered transformation—a shared second language all models can find themselves in and that can be used to talk across those models. The ability to cross-connect allows transformational leaders across the country to be in dialogue together.


Replace the old, Industrial Age words with those that signal a transformation and see the possibilities that emerge.

Bea McGarvey
Author & Consultant

Language provides the lenses through which we view the world. And, when those lenses restrict us from seeing beyond the walls we’ve built, we need to put on a brand new pair and discover the possibilities we couldn’t even see before.

One of the easiest ways to capture the importance of language is to ask yourself a few quick questions:

When you hear the word “school,” what images come to mind?

If you attended a traditional school growing up, you might conjure up images of big empty hallways lined with personal lockers, classroom doors shut off to the rest of the world with rigid rows of desks inside, and chalkboards with bullet points of information you need to memorize for the upcoming test.

Now, imagine being asked to wipe clean your canvas of memories and start from scratch. If you were asked what a “school” is, you can’t help but paint a strikingly similar picture. And, even if you can get your mind stretched beyond these traditional notions of school, you’re still in a single building where all learning occurs, aren’t you? The power of language is strong—almost uncanny in its ability to pull us back into old models or norms of thinking, even without our noticing it.

On the other hand, if you were asked to imagine a “learning environment,” you’ll notice the confining walls and traditional assumptions start to slip away. You might think, “Well, our community center is a place of learning and so is the history museum. Oh! And, kids love learning at the library.” It’s invigorating, right?

Let’s try another one.

When you hear the word “teacher” or “student,” what characteristics do these individuals have?

Going back to your primary school days, you might have seen your teacher as the head of the classroom inside that school you just described above—the keeper of information and conveyer of knowledge. You can point to the “good” and the “bad” ones, but they all generally held the same position of authority.

When it comes to the term “student,” you might note one striking feature—you probably don’t call yourself one anymore. A student goes to school. Once school is over, your identity as a student ends with it. You came into education as an empty vessel and, over the years, had information and knowledge poured into your mind, preparing you for the real world that you only encounter once you cross that graduation stage.

Here we go again.

Take a step back, and ask yourself what it means to be an “educator”—or better yet, a “learning facilitator.” Who is a “learning facilitator”? Words like leader, mentor, parent, and coach begin to grab your attention.

What about “learner”? How does that resonate with you? Do you consider yourself a learner even if you’re not in “school”? Is “learner” an identity just about anyone can claim? We sure think so.

These questions only touch the surface of exploring how powerful language can be in influencing our imaginations. Or, more importantly, in limiting what we believe is possible. By changing the way we speak about education, we can start reimagining a future of learning unencumbered by the assumptions of the current system.

As an added challenge, go ask the questions above to your friends and family. Count how many different generations come up with the same responses.

The traditional education system has remained unchanged for so long the where, what, how, and with whom of learning have evolved very little. Even though America has transitioned from the Industrial economy to the Knowledge and Idea economies of the 21st-century, our education system has not transitioned with it.

If your 90-year-old grandmother walked into her old elementary school as it exists today, she’ll conjure up memories from her past she thought were long forgotten. The familiarity of the environment—almost unchanged after all these years—will strike a resounding chord. And, although the memories she shares are great to listen to, it should be concerning that she found little different from when she was in school over seven decades ago. How many society-wide institutions can make such a claim?


We think of our new terms/vocabulary as a shared language, and it’s an important part of getting everyone on the same page and changing the entire community’s mindset. We know that, if we can get everyone on board with this shared language, it will become much easier to create buy-in for what we’re doing.

Sonya Wrisley
Founding Principal of Design39Campus

We assert the time has come for a transformation, not a reformation, of the education system. While we recognize shifting the terms of use won’t shift the system itself—or even fully free us from the underlying assumptions we still hold about education, learning, or learners—we see it as an essential and catalytic first step. Education Reimagined has been publishing profiles of learning environments since the end of 2015, and in each, we have shown the “how” of transformation to be unique in each case. But, we have also employed language—our five elements and terms like “learner,” “learning environment,” and “learner-centered” itself—to show that these leading examples of transformation are part of something much larger than themselves.

As each year passes, the Lindy effect is working harder and harder against our transformational efforts. But, through the intentional and consistent use of this reimagined lexicon within the national community of learner-centered pioneers, we are confident this movement will lead the country and all its children into a bright new future.

Language creates our world. So, to transform our world, we must start with transforming our language.

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