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  • Writer's pictureKevin Graham

Words matter...

“Well, punk…”

“the best of times…”

“… on the beaches…”

“Toto, I’ve got a feeling…”

“Ask not…”

“Parting is…”

“I’ll be right here”

“Just watch me”

“You can’t handle…”

“… nothing to lose but your…”

Words inform. Words deceive. Words inspire. Words discourage. Words calm. Words trigger. As from this small collection, words conjure up images, memories, feelings, and fears.

One of our greatest challenges in life is to understand the purpose of words we use and encounter, their meaning to us, and to others, their context, and perhaps most importantly, intent at the source. Equally challenging is the task of choosing our words to best match our audience. Solitary words, included or excluded, saddled with ambiguity, laden with historical baggage for some but not for others, can lead to unintended consequences.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”


Words, words, and more words. Every survey I develop provides the respondent with an opportunity to add open comments, appearing at the end of the form after completing 100-150 closed-ended questions. I don’t analyse these open comments. My undergrad degree was in English Literature, but you couldn’t pay me enough to do that. Moreover, I strongly advise Heads not to read the open comments until they’ve studied my quantitative analysis. Many ignore my advice, but do so at their own peril. Invariably, they come away thinking that the world has gone to Hell in a handbasket. It hasn’t. They’ve just been caught off guard by one very articulate and very venomous comment coming from one person with a passionately held viewpoint.

Frequently, I hear stories from Heads of School about irate parents, pounding on their desks, staking out a position and declaring that, “everyone feels this way.” There’s no end of joy for me to learn that the Heads respond by saying, “Hold on a minute. We asked that very question in the survey last Spring. Let me have a look… ahh, yes… one person indicated what you describe. That must have been you.” Giving voice to the silent majority serves not only to inform decisions, but also to isolate and neutralize the lone but loud voice. Joy at every turn.

With no small degree of irony, one of my own regular challenges is to design a survey of 100+ measures, comprised of words chosen with care, free from bias, debated through iterative drafts, prioritized and selected, and presented to participants. Each respondent is then asked to read these words, to interpret them to mean exactly what we mean them to mean, and to select a scaled numerical answer for each measure, corresponding to their feelings. Having quantified their feelings (believe it or not, it really is possible), resulting in literally hundreds of thousands of data points, it all has to be translated back into words… plain English words so that anyone on the senior team can read the results, arrive at a common understanding, and operationalize for organizational gain. If that sounds seamless, you haven’t been listening very closely.


Two longstanding friends, both former Heads of School, and I are currently engaged in what we hope to become an important (potentially annual) project that adds significant value to conversations in education management. We’ve developed a student survey called Making a difference: Community and Belonging. Scheduled for launch in November, it’s being offered free-of-charge to close to 2,000 independent schools across the United States and Canada. Comprised of about 40 questions, this survey will yield ratings that shine a light on:

  • sense of community

  • sense of belonging

  • engagement within the community

  • sense of emotional safety

  • and self-appraised preparedness across a list of skills, both academic and non-academic

The fun part (for me, anyway) will be in the tumbling of the numbers (aggregated across all schools), studying how these 40 odd measures all connect and correlate to each other, and how they differ across grade levels (9-12), by gender, by region, by school size… “and so on, and so forth, etcetera, etcetera.”

So… the task is to create combinations of words that accurately measure feelings, translate those feelings into numbers, tumble and interpret the numbers, and then translate them back again into words that add value to the conversation.

Having just announced this project, we already have more than 50 schools signed up, representing more than 20,000 participating students. We’re hoping for hundreds of schools to sign up before the end of this Summer. If you’re interested in having your school participate in this free survey project, pop me an email at: and I’ll send you a generic copy of the survey and a sign-up link.

This is an exciting project, to put it bluntly. I look forward to sharing the aggregated results and what they mean… in plain English.

Stay tuned. “I’ll be back.”


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