Reflections on Choice Words

Reflections on Choice Words

I recently finished reading Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter Johnston. Though the book is ostensibly about reading and literacy education, I found it spoke to much larger issues in education. Indeed, I consider it to be one of the best education books I’ve ever read. This post contains various thoughts about and comments on Choice Words.

Our communication reveals our beliefs about ourselves, our students, and teaching. Johnston writes:

The way we interact with children and arrange for them to interact shows them what kinds of people we think they are and gives them opportunities to practice being those kinds of people.

If we place students in the roles of thinkers, problem solvers, and mathematicians, then they can construct and refine each of those identities. If we value our students’ questions, ideas, and suggestions, then they can develop their curiosity, insight, and creativity. A former colleague once asserted that “if we want students to become responsible, then we need to give them responsibilities and see what happens.” Johnston advocates “creating an intellectual space into which [students’] minds can expand.” This classroom would necessarily encourage discussion, cherish student contributions, foster mutual respect, and cultivate independence and responsibility. Why? Because these conditions define the environment needed to nurture young minds.

But we can also see that it is not simply the names and labels we invoke that affect children, or for that matter the love with which we embrace them, but the ways we unwittingly use language to position them and provide them with the means to name and maim themselves.

Johnston argues that everything we do sends a message to our students. Avoiding a classroom discussion, for example, may suggest that we don’t believe our students can make thoughtful contributions, or that we don’t trust students to engage themselves in meaningful conversation, or that only the teacher has valuable knowledge. When we cling to right-wrong, good-bad, and other dichotomies – especially about what students do and say – we indoctrinate our students to this way of thinking. We shut down the intellectual space that developing minds need.

We cannot persistently ask questions of children without becoming one-who-asks-questions and placing children in the position of the one-who-answers-questions.

When we work on Three-Act Tasks or ask students to Notice and Wonder, we allow them to pose their own questions and to take on the role of mathematician. Language, Johnston says, “creates realities and invites identities.” A teacher who acts as the sole arbiter of right and wrong may preclude students from developing their own evaluative capacities. A teacher who refers to a classroom task as “work” or something students “have to do” may unintentionally set students up to dislike that task, especially in relation to activities they find “fun” or otherwise meaningful. The intended message need not, and often will not, match the received message.

Teachers’ conversations with children help the children build the bridges between action and consequence that develop their sense of agency. They show children how, by acting strategically, they accomplish things, and at the same time, that they are the kind of person who accomplishes things.

Agency involves the power to achieve, the means to bring about desirable results. To me, agency lies at the heart of what we do as teachers. We have all taught the persistent student, the tenacious student, the driven student, the student who relentlessly pursues success. These students have a strong sense of agency, that belief in their own competence and in their capacity for accomplishment. We have also all taught students whose sense of agency remains underdeveloped. It’s not enough to tell students to be tough or to display grit or to believe in themselves or to just give it a try. A student whose narrative involves doubt and failure needs our help in developing agency.

But when a child tries something and does not succeed, we need to turn that event toward a narrative and identity that will be useful for the future. If children are not making errors, they are not putting themselves in learning situations.

Success and failure play important roles in the learning process and in helping students develop their sense of agency. These successes and failures must belong to the student, though. Teachers may support, of course, but students must play the central roles in their own narratives. A passive student becomes a student without agency, a student who relies on others to do the thinking and to solve the problems.

Children with strong belief in their own agency work harder, focus their attention better, are more interested in their studies, and are less likely to give up when they encounter difficulties than children with a weaker sense of agency.

Language matters. How we interact with students matters. The ways learning occurs in our classrooms matter. Most of all, children matter.

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