Two Nice Language Moves to Promote a Culture of Learning – and One Overwhelmingly Average Move

As someone who’s been to more than a few international job fairs, I’ve learned to pay close attention to the pronouns used by the interviewer. When principals use the term “my teachers,” a little red flag goes up, and I can’t help but think, “Well, jeez, I don’t want to work for any boss who thinks I belong to them.”
How different does it sound to hear principals use the term “we?” All of a sudden, the context shifts to one of a shared community. Just one little pronoun has the potential to communicate a set of values held by the speaker. The same can be said by the pronouns we use in our classroom. By paying close attention to the language we use with children, we have the opportunity to share our beliefs about learning with the students we serve.
Move  #1 – Pay Attention to Pronouns
Whenever possible, take “I” out of the equation

  • I like how you worked to be so precise”

Translation: Your job as a student is to earn my admiration.

  • I notice how you worked to be so precise.”

Translation: Your work is for my eyes.

  • You’re the type of student who attends to precision”

Translation: I am making the positive presupposition that you’ve made decisions about your learning and have cultivated the disposition to put those decisions into action.
* Note: Sometimes we really do like things; it’s nice to say we like things if they truly delight us. It’s less nice to use this language to manipulate behavior.
When it makes sense, change “you” to “we” and “your” to “our.”

  • You are going to work to revise your writing today.

Translation: You are working on your own to do this learning.

  •  We are going to work to revise our writing today.

Translation: You belong to a learning community where we work collectively -me included -towards similar goals.
Move #2: The Prompting Funnel
 Author and literacy expert, Kim Yaris, conceptualizes scaffolding prompts as a funnel. The first and most abundant types of prompts provide the least amount of scaffolding. Her prompting funnel bookmark is designed for reading, but it is not difficult to imagine how it could easily be translated to art, math, design, language learning, etc.

Use these prompts:

(prompts that encourage the child to rely on herself)

What can you try?

What do you know?

How do you know?

How did you do that?

What else can you try?

How else can you check?


Before these prompts:

(prompts that encourage the child to rely on the environment):

Where is the tricky part?

Where can you look for help?

What charts/tools/documents can support you in figuring this out?


Before these prompts:

(prompts that encourage the child to rely on the teacher):

 Sound it out.

Where can you add more shading?

Draw a model to help you.

Use what we learned about cognates.

How many of us find ourselves working harder than the child we are teaching? By mindfully attending to our prompts, we support children in carrying a heavier cognitive load.
Move #3- “Beats Me”  (the overwhelmingly average move)
This move sure isn’t going to earn me any Teacher-of-the-Year Awards, but it has served me well on more than one occasion. Occasionally a child asks me a question, and I really have no idea. Looking at them with wide eyes, a shrug of the shoulders and a very sincere, “Beats me,” lets them know that I am not keeper of all knowledge.
True, this feedback doesn’t offer them even an ounce of support in figuring out their puzzle, so I don’t use it often. Still, every once in a while, it’s just the thing to support them in developing the habit of asking themselves before looking for a quick fix from the teacher.

“The brain that does the work is the brain that does the learning.”

– David Sousa (consultant in educational neuroscience)

Ultimately our classroom culture is developed by a million large, small, and sometimes hidden messages imparted through our words, our environment, and our routines. Switching an “I” to a “we” will not a culture of learning make. At the same time, these tiny shifts can serve to reinforce powerful ideas around thinking and learning.

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