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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

School Websites and Why Our Words Often Don’t Matter

Martin Amis once famously wrote that “all writing is a campaign against cliché.”

However, anyone who has recently tried to write text for their school website will know that moving beyond these “fossilized expressions” and “stale formulations” (terms used in a great article I read recently by Joseph Suglia) is much easier said than done.

And if you are not yet convinced, simply take any two school homepages and count the number of times you see the same well-worn catchphrases about state-of-the-art facilities, high-quality faculty, and learning beyond the classroom.

Now, if you were the one who authored one of those pages, don’t beat yourself up. Trust me, we’ve all served up these lines in the course of trying to accomplish the enormous task of publishing a new school site.

The problem, though, is that these kinds of words don’t matter. They are the prosaic equivalent of elevator music that mostly goes unnoticed and are eminently forgettable.

No wonder we sometimes find it hard to stand out in the crowd.

So how do we articulate the direction in which we should go to change the experience of our schools online? Take a look at the table below, which tries to capture where we might just push towards something different.

A graph showing how words have varying degrees of usefulness and the ability to transform

The problem with cliché, as I have tried to depict in this simple graph, is that it is hollow prose: it is neither useful nor contains any ability to transform our understanding. So, at the very least, we should be focusing our efforts either on providing direct access to clear and relevant information (seeing things as they are) or finding words that engage the reader by sparking the imagination (seeing things as they might be).

There is, however, a form of poetic writing that is ambidextrous in its ability to be in the here and now and embrace what is emerging at the edge of our awareness. These are words that are both useful and transformational and it is these words that we must reach towards as best we can.

So where do we start?

Attaining the level of the poetic may not be immediately in our grasp, given where most of us currently find ourselves. In the article referenced above, however, Joseph Suglia encourages us to take the bold first step of transforming the cliché into the unfamiliar. “Rescramble”, he says, “and defamiliarize the cliché”!

So start with one. Rewrite one phrase or sentence in words that are both useful and have the capacity to transform our understanding of the experience of school for our students and their families.

In the end, of course, words do matter. But isn’t it time for us all to commit to the campaign, fighting one cliché at a time.

Cover photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash.


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