The Power of Language in Innovation

Author: Holly Parker
I am a recovering high school English teacher. I spent 15 years helping young people understand and interact with the world and each other through the purposeful analysis and employment of language.
While I haven’t been in the classroom for five years, my fascination with language and its power to divide and connect is proving useful in my current role in higher education.
A vital part of my work as Coordinator of Academic Innovation at the University of New England is to build institutional capacity for student-centered innovation through curating collaborative relationships with internal and external stakeholders. The range of stakeholders is wide—from students to employers, workforce development agencies to faculty—but they all share a passion for student success.
I took for granted that that shared passion would make for quick collaboration and speedy success. Then language got in the way.
Navigating Subtle Nuances with Stakeholders
I have learned that language is often particular to a stakeholder group; language used by another group, even to denote a familiar idea, could be met with confusion or even mistrust. “Competency” is a great example. Employers often use “competency” to denote a measurable demonstration of a skill. When educators hear the word, they often limit it to a job training paradigm, while alternatively using “learning outcomes” to denote the same idea. If I use competency in a setting with educators, I can be met with skepticism. Unintentionally, I am challenging their role in defining skills and content mastery and suggesting that job training is the route to student success.
Conversely, using learning outcomes with employers can connote images of the ivory tower and a disconnect between academia and the workplace. Understanding how words are used and having the empathy to understand how they may be heard is vital to creating a foundational language for student-centered innovation.
Building an Environment for Lifelong Learners
I recently participated in a meeting of stakeholders from across Maine to discuss how higher education can serve the state’s workforce development needs. Representatives from public and private higher education, state government, and workforce development programs began an enthusiastic discussion of opportunities and challenges. Maine faces unique challenges as its economy evolves from what was a manufacturing-based economy to one that must be driven by entrepreneurial investment and supported by an agile, 21st century workforce.
As we spoke about the challenges and opportunities, I could imagine faculty members cringing at the repeated use of “competency.” I could hear their responses: “What about the liberal arts? What about learning outcomes?”
Then a representative from one of the state’s largest construction firms offered the philosophical bridge between workforce relevant education and traditional higher education.
“We need and want lifelong learners.”
My kingdom for a humanities faculty member at that moment!
High quality CBE and other new models programs are not threats to the liberal arts, but an opportunity to reframe what we do best in traditional higher education to help our students transition smoothly into the workplace and achieve greater levels of success. Well-designed CBE programs demand the best of teaching and learning practices long held sacred in more traditional models. They demand students think critically, work in teams, communicate effectively and develop the empathy and agility needed in the 21st century workplace. And they demand that students understand how they best learn so that they can to continue learning beyond the classroom. These “competencies” are all “learning outcomes” of a quality, liberal arts education.
Bridging the Academia/Employment Divide
In building purposeful relationships between internal and external stakeholders in the service of student-centered innovation, universities and colleges must first demystify the perceived gaps between employers and educators. Language is often the first barrier to overcome.
I am excited to begin facilitating a series of roundtable discussions with innovation champions within our university and employers from our region to start building these collaborative relationships.
Our first task will be building a common language: a shared literacy around student-centered innovation. I am convinced that the passion for student success is shared by all our stakeholders and that once we begin using the power of language to connect rather than allowing it to divide, we will build strong allegiances that bring impactful, sustainable change in the service of all UNE learners. We hope to create a feedback model that could easily be replicated by other institutions, bridging the divide between academia and the world of work.

Holly Parker serves as Coordinator of Academic Innovation at the University of New England.

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