Last summer I bought the book, Opening Minds, by Peter Johnston. As what seems to always happen, I carried it around with me all summer long, with the very best of intentions, and I did not read a word. Finally, in September, during a rare moment after school when I did not have a meeting or commitment, I picked it up and started reading. Before I knew it, I found myself at the end of chapter four.
It was a good reminder that our language matters. I know this. In fact, I know this well. It is hard to grow up mixed race in America without knowing the damage language can do. After being asked “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” more times that I could count I began to see myself as something different – I was the “Other” box I had to check on every form that asked about race. This negative view of myself continued all the way through graduate school until a friend called me a woman of color. In that moment, with those three words, I was able to take ownership of my identify again. So yes, I know that language matters and I am very careful about the language I use.
But, this idea of praise being more harmful than I imagined, knocked me over. As many in education I am a believer in Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset. I try to use the word “yet” and show my students that we are always learning and can always learn more. Before starting, Opening Minds, I never deeply examined what giving praise to a student does to their growth mindset and self-efficacy. If you are told “good job” enough in reading, than you begin to internalize that you are good at reading. If you are told “good job” less often in math, you internalize that you are just better at reading than math.
What was even more eye opening for me is that the language I use daily in the classroom goes against what I am trying to produce in my students – independent learners who are learning how to learn. If I say “I like how you…” enough times, than I am promoting students doing work for me, not for themselves. If I want to promote self-efficacy in my students, I need to become more aware of my language.
I realized that while it is important to continue to focus on the idea of yet and teach how our brains are continually growing and learning, I also had to change the way I gave feedback. This has not been easy. Everyday I catch myself saying something in the “good job” repertoire.
There are small ways I can do this. Instead of “I like…” I can comment on processes. Naming for a student what they did to get to the result.
- “Look how you figured that out together. You made a plan, you listened to each other, you made a diagram . . . I don’t think you would have figured it out without doing that.” (p. 31)
- “When you… I understood…”
- “Look at how you…”
- “When you… I understood…”
- “You did… if you tried… it may have this effect…”
Instead of saying “You did a good job.” I can switch to:
- “How did you do that?”
- “How do you know that?”
- “What are you thinking?”
- “Look how you did ____” (then go through steps)
I need a cheat sheet. This isn’t going to be easy. But I think if I can pay more attention to my language and shift the way I speak to my students it will have a big impact.