What We Say and How We Say It Matter
by Mike Anderson
Taken from Chapter 1 of Mike Anderson’s book
We all end up in language patterns that don't match our best intentions. We may even fall into habits that run in direct opposition to what we know is best for our students. Let me illustrate with a story.
At the end of my first year of teaching, I wanted some feedback from my 4th graders, so I created a report card for students to fill out for me and encouraged them to give me honest feedback. It was roughly modeled after the report card our district used for students, though the categories were obviously different. There was a section for comments at the end, and for the most part, the comments were very positive. One, though, caught me off guard. Jenna was a thoughtful and spunky student with whom I thought I shared great rapport. But in her comments, she said something about how I had hurt her feelings sometimes during the year. I was crushed. Jenna? I thought. How could that be? We're always joking around and teasing! I thanked Jenna for her feedback and asked her to help me understand, apologizing and letting her know I never meant to hurt her feelings. "I know you didn't, Mr. A.," Jenna sighed. "I just couldn't always tell when you were joking and when you were serious." It was a powerful lesson for me—one that I felt like I should have known already. My playful nuanced teasing and joking with 9- and 10-year-olds wasn't always received as intended. I started to pay more careful attention to how I talked with my students, though as you'll see, it took a while for me to shift this habit.
A couple years later, I had the opportunity to work with Paula Denton, who would later author The Power of Our Words. She was facilitating a professional development workshop at my school, and she posed a compelling question: "What is a behavior in your class that you find infuriating?" My initial thought was students' overdependence on me. It drove me crazy when students were constantly seeking my approval. "Mr. Anderson, here's my newest poem. Do you like it?" "Mr. A., I just made this new illustration. Do you like it?" "Here's my poster for my project—is it good enough?" During work periods, I sometimes had a line of students waiting to get my approval or waiting to ask me questions that they should have been able to answer on their own.
I found this so infuriating because I wanted my students to be independent. I wanted them to learn to accurately self-assess their work and behavior and feel proud of themselves. I didn't want my students to rely on my opinion but to learn to think for themselves. I also wanted my students to be self-motivated and find inherent satisfaction in their work—not to only feel good about their work if I praised them for it.
Paula pushed us to consider how shifting our language might help alleviate some of the challenging behaviors we saw in our students. I realized that my habit of praising kids using phrases such as "I like the way you …" might be a problem. When I wanted to give students positive feedback about their work or behavior, I began with some version of it:
- "Jeremy, I like the way you're working so hard on that math challenge!"
- "Hey, everyone! I loved the way you just walked down the hall so quietly!"
- "Mariceles, I appreciate how much energy you have for this science project!"
- "Ahmad, thank you so much for pushing in your chair after lunch!"
I was, unintentionally, training my students to be teacher-pleasers—to rely on me for their feelings of self-worth or reassurance that they were on the right track. Once I started paying attention to the way I gave students positive feedback, I realized that although I said I believed in a student-centered classroom, my language was awfully teacher-centric. It was out of sync with my beliefs and goals.
I think most of us end up in a place like this with at least some of our language habits. We have the best of intentions. We want our students to feel safe, collaborate well with others, feel ownership for their learning, be joyfully engaged in work, and do the right things for the right reasons. Yet we end up using language patterns that undermine these positive goals. Figure 1.1 illustrates just a few common examples.
Conflicting Language Habits
We want students to have ownership of their learning, yet we use language that implies teacher ownership.
We want students to feel safe in school and we want to build positive relationships with students, yet we use sarcasm when we get frustrated.
We want students to view learning as enjoyable, yet we use language that suggests that work stinks.
We want students to exhibit good behavior because it's the right thing to do, yet we rely on threats and bribes, implying that they don't want to be good.
So, even more specifically, this is a book about the intersection of our positive intentions and our language habits—and working to better align the two.
Shifting Language to Match New Goals for Students
Where did our bad habits come from, and why is this such a particularly good time to shift them? Many of the most common language habits and patterns have been handed down from teacher to teacher over many years. As new teachers, we look to professional mentors and colleagues for how to speak to children. In teacher preparation programs and internships, we may have been given lots of advice about how to speak with children. We may (consciously or unconsciously) echo our own teachers and parents. What we need to be mindful of, though, is that language patterns that might have worked at one point may not be as effective as they once were. This is the case for a couple of reasons. First, children today are different than children were years ago. I grew up in the tumultuous 1970s and materialistic 1980s—quite a different scene from my parents' experience growing up in the post-World War II 1950s. How could I not have been different from my parents? My two children, who have grown up in the information age, are different from me. Children 20 years from now will be different from children in schools right now. As society, cultural norms, and daily experiences shift, our children change as well. This means that some of our language needs to shift with them.
Perhaps more importantly, especially for educators, our goals for children may change to help them be ready for an ever-changing world. During the industrial age, when public schools came of age, the vast majority of people graduating from schools went on to fairly linear jobs—where they showed up at 9:00, did straightforward work, were managed and motivated by someone else, and then punched out at 5:00. Emphasizing compliance and obedience in schools might have made sense once. This is no longer the case. Skills of creativity, self-motivation, empathy, and collaboration are all more important now than they once were.
Schools also require students to learn higher-level skills than were once expected. When it comes to the social and emotional climate of schools, students no longer spend most of the day working alone doing quiet seatwork. Instead, they need to work together and engage in collaborative tasks with a diverse community of learners. When it comes to academic engagement, it is no longer appropriate for students to be passive recipients of content developed by teachers, textbook publishers, or curricular program companies. Instead, students must assume more power and control of their learning, cocreating rich learning experiences with their teachers. And when it comes to discipline, being obedient rule-followers is no longer enough. Students need to learn to think and act in ethical and responsible ways so they are ready to be independent and deep thinkers, not simply compliant workers.
As I travel the country working with schools in all kinds of settings, I see evidence that these sorts of shifts are happening. Many schools are working at creating more choice-based and project-based learning experiences that emphasize collaboration over competition. Many schools are moving away from traditional grading practices that aim to motivate students through rewards and punishments. And many of these same schools are working at having students play a more active role in discipline by having students create working norms and using restorative justice practices.
However, our teacher talk isn't keeping pace with these new practices, and this sends confusing and counterproductive messages to students. For example, even though teachers may want their students to take more ownership for their work, when they say, "I'm looking for you to turn in a high-quality piece of work," they actually send the message that students are working for teachers. A simple shift such as "Think about what you'll look for in high-quality work" sends a very different message.
Additionally, when you look at the highest-impact practices in education—the ones touted by the top education researchers as having the biggest effect on achievement—language is central to their effectiveness. Consider some of the factors that Marzano (2003) highlights as keys to school and classroom effectiveness and think about the critical role that teacher language plays in each:
- Effective feedback
- Safe and orderly environment
- Collegiality and professionalism
- Classroom management
- Student motivation
Similarly, John Hattie's meta-analysis work (2009), often considered the gold standard in education research, highlights many key practices that yield higher student achievement. The following list is a small sampling of these practices. Again, consider how the language that teachers use will be central to the effectiveness of these practices, all of which rate in the top 26 of the factors Hattie explored. The parenthetical numbers beside each show the effect size on student achievement of the practice. In Hattie's work, an effective size greater than .40 is in the zone of desired effects—practices that yield an above-average impact on achievement.
- Teacher clarity (0.75)
- Feedback (0.73)
- Teacher-student relationships (0.72)
- Metacognitive strategies (0.69)
- Not labeling students (0.61)
- Teaching strategies (0.60)
- Direct instruction (0.59)
Do Changes in Language Really Matter?
Before we begin investing time and energy in reworking our language habits (which is no easy task, trust me), we should first answer a question: Is it worth it? Do changes in language, even small and subtle ones, really make a difference for students? Indeed, there is some compelling evidence that it can make a huge difference.
One of the most famous language shifts studied involves Carol Dweck's research into what she calls mindsets. Dweck shows that when people have a growth mindset, they understand that hard work and effort are the keys to success. Subsequently, they work harder, persist longer, take on more challenging tasks, and achieve at higher levels. When people have a fixed mindset and believe that natural gifts or talents are the basis for success, they tend to shy away from challenges, give up more quickly, and achieve at lower levels. Importantly, in some of the experiments that Dweck and colleagues conducted, very small and subtle language shifts were enough to put children into a fixed or growth mindset. For example, the difference between saying, "Wow, you got [say] eight right. That's a really good score. You must have worked really hard," (after students did well on a nonverbal IQ test) and "Wow, you got [say] eight right. That's a really good score. You must be smart at this," was enough of a difference to put some children (the first example) into a growth mindset and others (the second example) into a fixed one (Dweck, 2006, pp. 71–73). Not only did effort-praised students show more enjoyment of and persistence with harder problems in the next round of tests, but they also outscored their ability-praised peers. Shockingly, when given the chance to share about their scores, 40 percent of ability-praised students said that they got higher scores than they actually received. It may be hard to believe, but one simple language tweak in how students received feedback put students in a completely different emotional state about their learning.
This reminds me of the work of many behavioral economists who highlight how small changes can lead to huge differences in behavior. Want children to make healthier choices in the cafeteria? Place the healthiest foods within easy reach and at eye level. Want more people to save for retirement? Make automatic saving, where money is deducted directly from people's checks, the default so that they have to opt out if they don't want it. Small changes can yield huge results. (If you're interested in exploring this subject in more detail, I highly recommend the work of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, including their book Nudge. You might also look to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics fame.)
Again, consider the effect of small changes in language. If the subtle shift from "you must be so smart" to "you must have worked hard" can have such a profound influence on students' learning, consider other potential changes and their benefits. If we want students to be independent and self-motivated, we might replace "I love the way you're solving that problem so creatively" (emphasizing teacher approval) with "You're working to solve that problem with such creativity" (emphasizing student work). If we want students to grow into more ethical and moral thinkers, we might replace "Walk quietly in the halls and we'll get a sticker on our sticker chart" with "Walking quietly in the halls helps us take care of learners in other classrooms."
It's Not Just What We Say, It's How We Say It
We're Always Modeling
Allow Yourself to Be Uncomfortable
The remainder of Mr Anderson’s book digs into various language habits and patterns, and the goal with each is to bring our language closer to our best intentions and the positive goals we have for students.
ASCD, February 2019