This is the first in a four-part series dedicated to the effects of the words and phrases teachers and education officials use and how they shape the culture of schools and student learning.
Part 1: The Language of Deflation and Motivation
There is an estimated 40 percent high school students who are chronically disengaged, according to a 2003 National Research Council report on motivation. Motivating students, particularly struggling learners, is often one of the most challenging jobs for a teacher. Once a student is hooked, a supreme accomplishment has taken place. The quest to maintain that motivation begins at this point. It can be very tempting for a teacher to want to encourage a student to attempt a problem by reassuring him or her that it can be accomplished.
“I know you can do it; just try, it’s an easy problem.”
The teacher who makes this statement is very often making every effort to hold on to the progress that has been achieved. The intentions can be positive, but the result is not. Two possible outcomes will occur from this exchange and both are negative. First, if the there was any desire to attempt the problem before, the student certainly is not going to waste his time with something you have determined to be simple. But what if that student was engaged and worked diligently to arrive at the right answer? What if the student applied those skills the teacher taught, was incredibly proud, and finally connected the dots between hard work and their achievement? The teacher walks by and follows with the comment from above. “See, it was easy.” It was not easy for the student. In fact, it was difficult, but the student solved the problem correctly. The teacher has just destroyed the progress the student has made academically as well as ruined the self-esteem that was built from solving a complex problem. Who cares that the student got it correct; it was easy.
Motivating our students becomes increasingly difficult each year, but so does determining which students are actually motivated and engaged. The very last thing any of us ever wants to do is deflate the efforts or progress that a hard working student is making. Using the word “easy” loosely in the classroom is one way that can happen quickly. Refer back to the previous scenario. A student is sitting in a desk and might or might not be disengaged from the day’s assignment. The teacher, looking to use level of difficulty as a bargaining tool to coax what appears to be an inactive learner, reassures the student in the hope of getting some work out of the student.
“Come on, this is an easy one. Just give it a try.”
The only problem is, it is not easy, and the student is not inactive, he is struggling. That phrase now permeates in the mind of the child as he continues to sit there, gazing pointlessly at a problem that may be too abstract or use vocabulary he does not recognize. Learning is difficult enough. Learning things that are supposed to be easy? That is deflating to any person, adult or child. The teacher, regardless of his or her best intentions, makes the student feel stupid.
Commit to your Kids
Students know every concept they learn is challenging, so there is value in every target that is achieved. I never have to address the topic of relevancy with my classes because the relevance lies in learning something of great difficulty. So reflect on the way you provide formative feedback to your students. Have you diminished any accomplishments lately? Changing the language by removing a small word makes such an impact in improving the daily learning climate of a classroom.
Marc Walls has taught science at Northeast High School for two years. He has served as a leader in STEM integration, facilitating in services during the summer and serving as a mentor to elementary and middle school teachers. Marc worked with a team of colleagues to rewrite the physical science curriculum used in his school system. He is a graduate of his district’s Leadership Development course and was accepted into the Aspiring Administrator’s Academy. Marc was selected for the Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute as an advocate for Autism awareness and active volunteer in his community. He is a graduate of Austin Peay State University and hold’s a Master of School Administration from Bethel University. He also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging his colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.