What about our language? How we can use words to give our classrooms the nudge.

In teaching, we have all been talking about Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset. The education endowment foundation found that students received training on growth mindset made an extra two months progress compared to control groups in English and Maths lessons.  Many schools are trying in helping students develop from a fixed to a growth mindset through simple changes to the language they use. In our school we have been doing this through displays, assemblies and during deliberate one to one interaction with students. Some examples of the language we’ve tried to get students to use are below:

Mindset

But what about our language?

This week I have been thinking about student engagement in our classrooms. While observing some lessons I picked up on the subtle effect of the teachers’ language choice of words on students’ engagement with the task at hand. I was surprised by how much of an emotional impact I felt as a result of the words spoken by the class teacher, particularly when they seemed more in line with the fixed mind-set examples above. To give you an idea of what I am talking about:

Teacher A: “What I am going to get you to do now is…”

The problem with this one is that we are suggesting the activity is going to be onerous before they even get started. As a result of this instruction, I saw students become more apathetic, and even I found that I wasn’t too interested in getting involved in the task.

Teacher B: “In case you are interested…”

Again, we are suggesting here that students probably aren’t interested, or even worse that they shouldn’t be!

Using positive language to increase engagement

As teachers, part of our role is encouraging students to see the value in our subjects and in the subject matter we are covering in that particular lesson. I think one of the easiest ways we can start to do this is in careful selection of the language we use. Moving away from the negative and passive language seen above, and instead using positive active language that will help carry students along with us. I have found that I can make students believe that even doing an extended bit of writing is exciting when I introduce it as such.

For example, this Friday afternoon I was teaching concentration calculations to a Year 10 group that are yet to realise how amazing science is and sometimes (dare I admit it) lack engagement. Through deliberate selection of the language I used to introduce tasks I managed to have every student in the room complete at least 10 calculations quite happily.

This idea is supported by “Nudge Theory” which is discussed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their (non-teaching) book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”. The theory goes that indirect suggestion and positive reinforcing can help us achieve non-forced compliance.

I thought about the language the teachers above had used and how they could have changed it (see below). These small changes in our behaviour will help to nudge students towards making the right choices and increase their willingness to engage with us and our subjects.
Nudge

So, next time you are finding engagement waning in your classroom, think about the language you use to deliver your instructions. Changing teacher habits like this does take deliberate practice, so maybe try to come up with a few phrases you can rely on and see if you can’t give your class the nudge!

Emily Clements

References:

Changing Mindsets, a project by the education endowment foundation (2015).

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2009)

Nudge Theory, find out more on Wikipedia

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