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.
Similarly, in the classroom, a student may ask the question, “Are we there yet?” in the form of “Do we need to do all of this? Just give me the answer. Is it on the test?” During the past few years, the most important aspect of a student’s educational experiences has focused on end-of-year testing, partially due to pressure for students to perform effectively according to Race to the Top. Conversations by legislators, school boards, communities, teachers, parents, and students have centered on the standards and raising the bar in education through “the test.” Tests are a part of the process in evaluating student growth and achievement. Consider that learning along the way is much more meaningful when engaging and inspiring students while reflecting upon each educational experience.
Why should students be engaged in their learning experiences? Engaging students in the learning process strengthens their attention and focus, motivates them to develop and practice higher-level thinking skills, and promotes a culture of collaboration and communication within the classroom and the school community. Educators establish a student-centered environment where class time is used for inquiry and application through real-world problem solving. Teachers cultivate relationships with students, in which students feel safe, take risks, and a culture of curiosity and excitement prevails. The teacher serves as a facilitator who guides each student through multiple learning opportunities by integrating technology, real-world problem solving experiences, collaboration and communication skills, and academic growth. As educators, engaging students may mean stepping out of the classroom and exploring the world around us. John Dewey once said, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”
Why should students be inspired to achieve? When I think of inspiration, there are four ladies that come to mind. My sixth grade teachers, Mrs. McNabb and Mrs. Pickelsimer, my Calculus teacher, Mrs. Benita Albert, and my piano teacher, Mrs. Rothermel, believed I could succeed. My teachers encouraged me to “stay the course” and that through productive struggle, I would succeed. Carol Dweck, a well-known psychologist, explains that a growth mindset can be developed by students when a teacher intentionally praises students’ efforts and perseverance. As educators, it is our responsibility to encourage students to try again if they don’t experience success the first time. As a matter of fact, students may have to try multiple times to reach their goals. Many students may not come to class with an eagerness to be challenged. However, teachers, parents, schools, and the community must work together to find multiple methods to develop challenging learning environments for the students and also allow the students to create learning environments in which they set standards to challenge themselves. Teach students to have courage. They might have to step out of their comfort zone but will grow leadership skills and self-confidence.
Why should students reflect upon their learning experiences? In a modern, global society information is available and changing quickly prompting users to constantly rethink, change directions, and examine many different types of problem solving strategies. Therefore, educators emphasize the importance of reflective thinking during learning to help students create strategies to apply new knowledge with prior understanding to complex situations and develop higher-order critical thinking skills. Allowing time for students to reflect when responding to questions, taking the time to review the learning situation on what is known, what is not known, and what has been learned is important in the learning process. When provided with a less structured learning environment, students are able to explore what they find to be important and work within a social-learning environment that allows students to see and hear other points of view. Reflective thinking centers on the process of making judgements through justification of solutions about what has occurred. Reflective thinking is essential for prompting learning during real-world problem solving in achieving goals and standards.
Are we there yet? I hope not. I want to continue to be a lifelong learner. John Dewey stated, “The most important attitude that can be formed is that of a desire to go on learning.” One’s lifelong journey is not about finally coming to the end. Instead, it is how the journey occurs along the way, and when examining the steps, goals, and outcomes that happen throughout the learning process, life becomes all the better.
Dr. Elaine Vaughan is a mathematics instructor at Oak Ridge High School for 20 years. She is a National Board Certified teacher, Professional Learning Communities Coach, and member of the Response to Intervention district and school board. Elaine is also a member of Delta Kappa Gamma and serves on the XI State Vision Board. Through this organization, she received both state and international scholarships. Elaine was a state mathematics textbook reviewer during the 2013-2014 school year. Elaine received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Mathematics Education from the University of Tennessee and her doctorate from Walden University. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.