The use of language in our schools: Do we take it for granted?
Cultures of Thinking is an educational framework that emerged from the work of Ron Ritchhart and the Project Zero team at Harvard University.
This article belongs to an 8 part series, based on discussions on The Learning Capacity Podcast where I delve into each of the 8 cultural forces that, according to Ron Ritchhart, we must master in order to truly transform our schools.
My guest in the series is Simon Brooks, who spent years implementing cultures of thinking into his classrooms, and now helps teachers introduce the framework in their schools.
In this series, we take a closer look at practical ways to implement the theory behind it all. This is part 2, where we discuss the cultural force of language.
This is Part 2 of the 8 part series with Simon Brooks about implementing cultures of thinking in our schools.
Listen to the podcast.
- The power of language
- Cultures of thinking
- The "Reflective Toss"
- The "Last Protocol"
- Lifeworthy Learning
People & organisations mentioned
- Dr Marvin Marshall
- Project Zero at Harvard University
- Dr Ron Ritchhart
- Harvard Graduate School of Education
- Dr Reed Larson
- Dr David Perkins
- Dr Carol Dweck
- Dr Steve Miller
- Mark Church
Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 67 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
Cultures of Thinking in our Schools: Simon Brooks on the Cultural Force of 'Language’
Colin Klupiec: Language is the hidden power that we live with every day. Its ability to subtly convey messages that shape our thinking, sense of self and group affinity truly is, it's a powerful force. Now Simon, I once told a student who himself had a very broad Australian accent, I'll put it that way, I said to him that I like to speak the Queen's English. Being an Englishman, that would appeal to you.
Simon Brooks: Yes.
Colin: Needless to say that his reaction to the Queen, was rather intense as he expressed his dislike for both her and the way she speaks. However, in the spirit of Buckingham Palace Guard, I stood my ground on the issue and I said, "Well, you're well entitled to have that view, but I prefer the Queen's English." Now, in the context of language, do you think we underestimate language? Do we take this for granted?
Simon: Well, I'll answer that question and before that I'll just comment on what you were saying there. It's interesting, I've been on Australia now for 10 years. When we came our children were very young and they were from England. And in those days they used to say, "No."
But now after 10 years on Australia something seems have happened. And where "No" used to be is now a some sort of strange vowel contortion that goes along the lines of "Noree". I'm not sure whether that, it doesn't seem Australian or English. It's in some sort of hybrid state that I don't fully understand.
Colin: Well, that's an interesting result because I would have expected something more like, "Nah."
Simon: That's right. Well, maybe that's where it's going.
Colin: Well, do we underestimate it? Do we actually take the sounds and the words that come out of our mouth for granted?
Simon: I think we, it's easy to fall in to a habit of doing that. Language is something we use all of the time. And so it's very easy to slip in to particular patterns of how we use it. And in those terms I'm speaking both about the words that we employ, but also the body language that we have. One of the routines that I talk a lot about with teachers and I've spoken about with you before, Colin, is the routine, "What makes you say that?"
Simon: As a really powerful routine for prompting justification, for requiring students to justify themselves, but also, through that language, sending a really powerful message to the learners that we care about what you have to say. And that's that power behind, "What makes you say that?"
When I have worked with teachers on this routine, "What makes you say that?" some of them over the years have reported something really interesting which is not only does that question, "What makes you say that?" create a whole different culture for them in their classrooms? But it also has had significant impact on their own social and familial interactions.
Colin: Is that right?
Simon: It's helped them actually with their relationships with others, with adults in the world.
Colin: No way. Really?
Simon: Because, against the same reason, it sends this really powerful message, "I care about you." I'm not just waiting for you to finish speaking so I can jump in with my bit. I actually want to hear more from you.
Colin: You're not suggesting that something that was learned about in school by an adult actually had wider application to broader life?
Simon: It seems outrageous, Colin, I know. I think I might be suggesting that.
Colin: Oh my goodness.
Simon: And if I think back to your original question, do we underestimate language? Do we take it for granted? Well, maybe looking at the evidence helps us answer that question because if just choosing one question like, "What makes you say that?" and applying that to your classroom experiences and also to your life with others, if one question can create such a difference, then maybe we do underestimate the power that language has in our lives.
Colin: Do you think that language is a reflection of how we're thinking? Or do we think how we speak?
Simon: What comes first? The chicken or the egg?
Colin: Well, it's a tough question and people have been trying to get the answer to that one for a long time.
The cultural force of language
Simon: Absolutely. The question is, does language determine thinking or my thinking determine the language that we use? I think probably a good way of getting in to this one is in terms of cultures of thinking pedagogy. Language is a cultural force and with all cultural forces we know that we can't choose whether or not those forces are at play. They are at play. They're existing all the time around us.
But what we can choose is the way in which we leverage that cultural force. So, in terms of language if we pay attention to the language we use, if we become attentive to how we do it and alert to opportunities where we might change it and bump it up, then I believe that, that can then influence the thinking that happens in our classrooms and with the students with whom we work.
So, my answer to that question, yeah, well, I suspect language does determine thinking and we can make choices around that to make the thinking even richer in consequence of the language we use.
Colin: The cultures of thinking framework brings our attention to the use of pronouns like we and us. Why is the effective use of pronouns significant?
Simon: This can seem sometimes when I worked with teachers like a very minor and insignificant point, I think. That's something I've reflected on over the years. And the point is this, that when use inclusive pronouns like we and our, as opposed to excluding pronouns like your, then the effect can be quite powerful.
In other words, in front of our classes we might be saying things like, "Okay, students what we'll be exploring today is," and, "By the end of today's lesson our understanding will have shifted in so and so way." Rather than adopting language like, "What you'll be doing today", and, "These are the task in which you'll be engaged," the first one, the inclusive pronouns position the teachers as part of the learning experience, as sharing that experience with the learners. As learning alongside them.
The distancing pronouns like, "you" suggest that the teacher is aloof, that they are separate from the experience. I've sometimes reflected as I say, and think, this seems like a minor point. But I think the answer to that is this, if it's just about switching the pronouns, yes it is a minor point. But underneath the pronouns is actually an attitude and it's the attitude that's the important thing.
I think the pronouns are an expression of the attitude and the attitude is this, am I a learner alongside the students in my class? If that's how teachers think of themselves then that whole approach to learning oozes out of the pores of everything that they do. And one of those avenues is through pronouns. Teachers who really believes that they're learners alongside their learners, they use those inclusive pronouns and that's a part to why they're important.
Colin: I guess that helps to break down the, "us and them" barrier which is often so pervasive in classrooms. And that relates to something I wanted to ask you about with language and the context of dealing with behavior problems.
And of course, this might sound obvious that language is a part of dealing with behavior problems, but something that I've found effective often and I've experimented a little bit with this is to just to say to a student, "You're not in trouble, we're just talking," because often the language is perceived as, "Am I good? Am I bad? Am I in this camp, or am I in that camp?" And I know that interactions is also a cultural force. We'll come to that later.
But to what extent do you think that language has let us down when handling children presenting with difficult behavior?
Discipline without Punishment or Reward
Simon: There's a thinker called Dr. Marvin Marshall, and he's not actually attached to the Project Zero team. He wrote a book called, "Discipline Without Stress, Punishment or Reward" which in itself is an interesting title. And I've often seen a lot connection between the ideas that he explores and cultures of thinking pedagogy. His central premise is that when discipline is accomplished without punishment or reward that it's most powerful.
Punishment coerces children in to behaving as does reward even if it's just giving children a sticker after they do something that they should've done. It's about coercing. Marshall talks about how can we create situations where children choose to behave appropriately? And nagging? Well, that would be another coercion strategy.
In Marshall's framework, he tries to build opportunities whereby children can reflect on their own behavior and make a choice for themselves that that's not the way that they want to behave. I think that's entirely in keeping with cultures of thinking pedagogy. How can the language that we use make children active in their own choices rather than passive recipients of the world and its expectations?
Colin: In other words, helping them to choose good alternatives.
Colin: Something that someone once said to me is that it's very hard to always make the right decision. It's often much easier and perhaps better to make a good decision. And so, to make the right decision usually infers, this is I either going to be right or wrong. This is either going to work, or it's not. But making a good decision could lead to some good outcomes. And I think this is where you're getting at. Is that what I'm hearing?
Simon: Yeah, and maybe a mindset of right and wrong. Although, there are some things, of course, in life that are right and wrong. Having that type of polarised thinking, that sense of absolutism rather than being conditional, maybe that's not a particularly fruitful direction to go in. But perhaps it's better just to get children to think about different options and their impact they might have on others.
Colin: I like the way that that might actually segue in to developing conversation skills with students in terms of how they learn to interact and how that might actually influence their learning. I had a TAFE teacher once, who used to comment on two students who used to come to our evening metal work class which was quite an eclectic bunch of people.
And there were two ladies there who were incredibly gifted metal artists, but they also used to spend quite a lot of their time talking. And he always used to say, "Well, never let work get in the way of a good conversation." But the cultures of thinking framework embraces conversation. How do you think we might actually use conversation then to impact how we deal with behavior problems?
The “Reflective Toss”
Simon: Ron Ritchhart has a really effective tool that he applies. It's something called the"Reflective Toss."." The idea of the Reflective Toss is that when we're engaged in any form of conversation there are two parts. The first part of the conversation is to catch the meaning of the person that we're having the conversation with.
So, to make sure that we've actually understood what it is that they're saying. We might even use phrasing like, "Now let me just make sure I've heard you right," and then repeat back at them what they've said. Just make sure we've got them right first.
Colin: Like a paraphrase?
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. And then having done that, having engaged in the paraphrase then to move beyond that to the probing and the pressing for more. So, "Why is that idea important to you? What make you ask that question?" Those type of presses to see where we can take it further. The Reflective Toss, I think, can be a really powerful model for any type of conversation that happens in school.
It might be about learning or it might be about behavior. It may be even more important with behavior because if we're going to help children amend behavior, the first thing we need to do is understand why the behavior happened in the first place, and that's the core of the Reflective Toss strategy.
Seven frameworks for language
Colin: Ritchhart mentions seven specific frameworks for language and I'd like to focus on three of them in this conversation, and that is the language of thinking, the language of initiative, and the language of praise and feedback. So, thinking, this is something that I guess most people would probably think that you do largely in your head.
So, how do we describe the language of thinking? How do we openly talk about the language of something that is essentially quiet, but then related to somehow talking? How do you do that?
The “Last Protocol”
Simon: There's a protocol that's emerges from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It's called, "The Last Protocol," and that stands for looking at student's thinking. And it's a protocol that's, in my work with schools, I help teachers acquire the skills to facilitate that protocol, to structure meetings that they have at school. And really underpinning that protocol is the desire to help all of the teachers working together in the meeting to look at some student work and try to identify where in that work is the thinking taking place?
To actually actively create a context where thinking is talked about. Where teachers identify what type of thinking is happening. I think teachers and everybody need help in doing that. It's not something that automatically we can do. But the more we do it, the more opportunities we have to engage in protocols like the Last Protocol, the stronger we as teachers become at identifying thinking, and then once we've identified that thinking we're more likely to be able to push for it in the context of our own classrooms.
Colin: Ritchhart also in this context talks about noticing and naming. What's going on with that?
Simon: Really important to notice and name. It's one of the top strategies from Ron about how to build a culture of thinking of the classroom. The idea behind it is this, when we see thinking happening in our class, first thing to do is notice it and the second thing is to flag it up for the whole of the class to see, to celebrate it.
And in doing that we're sending a message to our learners that this thinking that's happening right now, that's what it's valued in this place. And there's so many different ways of doing that and I guess the choices that we make as teachers around how to do it depend on our class and depend what we know about our students.
So, Colin, if you were one of my students I know that you've got pretty broad shoulders and so you'd be happy.
Colin: Oh, thank you very much.
Simon: Well, that's okay. So that I know that if you were one of my students, you're in my class and I suddenly, I saw you doing some thinking, you'd be able to cope with it. If I just quite playfully went, "Okay, class, stop the press. Stop everything you're doing. Right now Colin is evaluating. Evaluation is happening over there at Colin's desk. Colin, can you just tell the class what the evaluation is that you're doing right now and then why you're about it, could you remind us what evaluation is?"
Colin: Wow, I'd probably really have to call for my broad shoulders for that one.
Simon: Absolutely, but then other students, they might not want to be singled out like that. So then it can just be on the other comments that we make. We might be talking with a group and that we might just say to a student, "That was a pretty powerful inference that you just made." And that's all we need to do. We're flagging up that inference is valued in this space. "I really like the way you've used what you know here to work out what you don't know." That could be said in the context of any bit of learning done, specifically I'm thinking mathematics and algebra and so much of mathematics is underpinned by that idea.
Colin: So, subtle is okay, but direct is okay as well?
Simon: Many different pathways in to everything, I think, as all great teachers know. And I guess we have to judge the context of the class we're with, the relationship that we have with them individually and collectively.
Colin: There's a flip-side though to this and I'll take a quote from the book, "The important thing is to be aware that whatever we are noticing and naming, we are reinforcing as well. Our actions are sending messages about what we value." What are some of examples of how this can go wrong? What are the things that we perhaps shouldn't notice and name?
Simon: Well, we can speak back to the earlier part of our conversation and the previous interview. If what we notice the name is students getting on with work, then they'll receive the message that in this space getting on with work is what's important. So, if we say something like, "I really like that you got through questions one to three here."
Then we're sending the message that it's the completion of the work that matters. Whereas if we say, "What have you learned by completing questions one to three?" then, we're focusing on the learning that is behind that work, and that would be the flip-side of the coin that you're mentioning. That's why we want to notice and name of the thinking that's happening.
Colin: Let's talk about the language of initiative, and I really like this one. I want to give you two little scenarios there and then I'll get your reaction to it.
Colin: I once heard and economist whose name now unfortunately escapes me, suggest that one of the reasons why we have trouble getting young people to demonstrate initiative is because the world around them seems to be largely in order. Okay, so the world has some trouble spots, there's war and trouble happening, and then there's climate change, but by and large, the life of a young person in a Western country could be classed as being relatively okay.
So, what I mean to say is I need a bridge to get from here today. Well, that's okay, we've already got engineers who've taken care of that. Or I've woken up and I've got a sore throat. It doesn't matter, I'll just go and see a doctor. Now, clearly, that's not available to everyone in the world. So I'm speaking in by and large terms here.
So there are plenty of all of those people, so I don't have to be one of those people. I can just cruise and relax. Yet, Ritchhart quotes Reed Larson suggesting, "Individuals will need the capacity to exert cumulative effort over time to reinvent themselves, reshape their environments, and engage in other planful undertakings.
A generation of bored and challenge-avoidant young adults is not going to be prepared to deal with the mounting complexity of life and take on the emerging challenges of the 21st century." How do we balance these to seemingly truth that are held in tension?
Simon: Yeah, I guess a way of summarizing that would be if it's not broke, don't fix it. But if the world seems to be functioning perfectly well as it is at the moment, then why should I show the initiative in trying to change that world around me? I think part of the answer to this question is what David Perkins terms Lifeworthy Learning.
That all of the learning that we need to engage with students with, that we need to connect them with, needs to have some relevance to the real world. Whether that's a content relevance, whether they can see the connection between the content and the world around them or whether it's a process relevance.
Know that right now they're learning how to be logical thinkers and that they'll be able to apply that in many different contexts is important too. I guess where I'd come back to with this is even though the world around us might seemed to be functioning okay, is okay good enough? We could always make it better and it's through the processes of our thinking that we make sense of the world around us, and have an impact upon it.
Colin: I guess as a very simple question using language to ask a student is to say or is to ask, "Is okay, okay? Is it enough?" Here's another powerful quote that comes from Ritchhart and this relates specifically I think to exactly what sort of words we use. It goes like this, "As a person develops initiative, she comes to see the world as responsive to her actions," and I really quite like that. So what language do we use? When we're talking with students, surely, it's going to be more than just, "Come on, you can do it," or, "Must try harder."
Simon: Yeah, and what you're talking about there is self-efficacy. The belief that we have the capacity to influence the world around us and that's not something necessarily that were born with, but it is something that we learn through many of the interactions we have with our teachers and the language they use. If I may be a little bit focused on my own personal experiences here, can I tell a story about one of my daughters'?
Colin: Oh, please, do.
Simon: This is a different daughter than I've told you a story about before. Recently, my younger daughter in year seven came home with a science project. And she showed me the piece of paper that outlines the science project, and it was about friction. The task was to build some type of a ramp over which an object could travel and it would need to travel over different types of surfaces, so as to measure the difference in friction between the object and those different surfaces.
And it certainly looked like a good task and I picked up, and she said, "Dad, can I have some help with this?" So I said, "Certainly, of course," then I had look at the task with her. And before I knew it, I found myself saying these type of things. So I was going, "Okay. Now, what we need to do here is, the important thing for us to do is to make sure that we control the variable of height. We've got to make sure that the ramp is the same height every time because that's the variable we need to control. Otherwise, it's going to mess up all of our figures.
So let's make sure it's the same height every time. Oh, and also, we need to control the variable of the timing of the ball from the top to the bottom. So we would need to have a lip at the top so that we know we're releasing the ball at the same point, and a lip at the bottom so we can hit the stop watch when the ball hits the lip at the bottom.
And then we know we controlled all the variables. So it's only the independent variables of the surfaces that we're measuring and..." and then I found myself doing this, and stopped myself.
Colin: Yeah, because you realize that you just completely dissolved the need for any sort of initiative.
Simon: Completely. I was the one doing the thinking and that's the question around this idea of initiative that I think is the most powerful. And when I speak with parents about this and teachers about this, then it's exactly the same question. A question for us all to ask ourselves all of the time, "Who's doing the thinking here?"
And if it's we as the parent or the teacher who's doing the thinking, then we're doing our child a disservice where we're not helping them to find pathways through whatever that puzzle is. And your question was, "What might we say?" Is it enough to say, "Come on," or, "Must try harder?" I would suggest other questions that push the ownness back on to the child.
So, questions like, "What's your plan here?" "What do you need to know before you can move forward with this?" "What might be a good place to start with your learning?" That sends a message that it's personal agency that matters, that we as teachers are not in the business of rescuing, but we are in the business of empowering them to find pathways through their own learning.
The Growth Mindset
Colin: Thinking about the language of praise and feedback, we generally always hear about the benefits of positive reinforcement. I mean you hear that all the time in schools. But Carol Dweck of The Growth Mindset suggests that we can actually misdirect praise comments. In a way they can actually be detrimental to learning. My question to you is, is praise feedback?
Simon: I don't know if you've noticed this, Colin, but I'm English originally. Now, I'm happily in Australian as well.
Colin: That's okay.
Simon: And there's a word that we English love, particularly, teachers in England. You could go and visit classrooms in England and you'd see this word a lot. And I'm not mocking or belittling. I think it's a lovely word. And it's the word "brilliant". We love that word and I find myself using it all of the time. We might be teaching in a class and a child folds a bit of paper correctly, we go, "Brilliant!" A child performs well on a task, "Brilliant!" And actually, of course, rarely is it brilliant in the true sense of what the word brilliant means.
Colin: So we're watering down the word.
Simon: Very much so. And I know there are Australian equivalents to that. I've asked teachers actually over the years, "What is the Australian equivalent?" Some of them say it's, "Awesome," but I wonder whether that might be an American equivalent that has arrived in Australia.
Colin: That sounds a bit more American to me.
Simon: What do you think? Colin, what's the Australian equivalent to brilliant?
Simon: Okay, there you go. Excellent. And you know, when we use this type of language, this type of generic praise, I'm not sure how valuable that is. Carol Dweck would talk about the fact that in the praise that we offer, that we should be focusing on effort rather than ability.
So if the praise that we offer is always, "Brilliant," or, "Oh, wow, aren't you clever? That's a fantastic mark that you've got," then we're coercing children in to a mindset that it's ultimately achievement that matters the most. But when we focus our praise on efforts, on things like, "I really appreciate the way that you've put so much hard work in to studying for this test," or, "You seemed really committed to your learning here," then the message that we're sending is it's about the process and the growth that matters, rather than the eventual outcome.
Colin: I quite like that. It reminds me of something that Dr. Steve Miller, a neuroscientist from the United States who we've had on the show previously, was talking to me about in the context of attention and maintaining attention on a particular task. And he talked about creating this image of the spotlight of your brain, as if focusing on something. As if your brain was like a giant spotlight or a lighthouse. Just focused on wanting something or just blocking out everything else.
And he said, coupled with that, you can use language, something like, "Gee, that's really good. You must have worked really hard on that," or something like, "Gee, I can really see that you showed or demonstrated some real persistence with that." So, we're actually trying to put the attention squarely or the spotlight squarely on to the process and the effort as opposed to the result.
Simon: Yeah. Otherwise, you can have a child that might be in the second set from mathematics, but they're at the top of the second set and so it would probably be help for them, and they just be stretched more to move up to the top group. And so we ask that child and we say that, "I think it would be a very good idea if you're going to move up," and the child might say if they're in a fixed mindset, "You know what? I don't want to move up because I'm top of the class at the moment. And if I move up then I may no longer be top of that class, so I don't want to take that risk.
For me, it's more about the achievement than it is about anything else. So I'm going to stay where I am. Thank you very much." That's the child that has developed a fixed mindset rather than the growth mindset.
Colin: Let me finish with something that's potentially quite controversial, are you okay with that?
Simon: Yeah, absolutely. Let's do it.
Colin: In order to leverage the power of language and the fact that it is so ubiquitous, should we or could we more openly pick each other up as teachers on its more effective use, as in when we're interacting with each other in the staff room, in the lunch room, or when we see teachers interacting with students? Can we perhaps take the risk of picking each other up on that? Do you think that would fly?
Simon: I think it could be deeply dangerous, Colin.
Colin: I'm a dangerous kind of guy.
Simon: Well, there we go. I think the answer to that question is it would depend on whether the teacher has asked for that feedback or not. One of the wonderful I thinkers out at Harvard is Mark Church. And over the years he's been a great influence on me, and my thinking. One time I was in my previous role as Director of Teaching and Learning, I was thinking about should we as a school asks students to complete questionnaires about all of their teachers with commentary on how effective they think that teacher is?
Simon: This was a few years ago and I ran this idea pass Mark Church. And I think Mark said something wise to me. He said, "The problem is, the teachers, they're going to just feel like that's a bit of a, 'Gotcha.' It's almost like, 'We knew you were rubbish and now we've got the evidence to prove it.'" There's a big difference between coercing people in to situations where feedback is offered and building a culture where people request feedback for themselves.
In that situation I'm describing, wouldn't to be more powerful if a bunch of teachers came to their Director of Teaching and Learning and said, "You know what? We'd really like to get some feedback from our learners about ourselves as teachers. Can you help us build a system that enables us to do that?" That feedback is going to be received completely differently because it's being requested.
And I suspect that then speaks back to your question, could we as teachers be more open to picking each other up on bad or ineffective language? Probably not if we're just walking down the corridor and we say, "Oh, by the way, that a bit of language that I had to use the other day, that was dreadful."
I don't think that's going to be we received. But can we build a culture in a school where teachers ask for feedback? Where they might have a puzzle that they're exploring, they want feedback on that. Or they've taken a project up to a particular point, and they want some warm and cool feedback on this project. What looks like it's good here?
What might I have missed that it could be really helpful for me to put my attention to? There's actually a protocol that I teach that supports that. It's called "the tuning protocol." So I think the answer to your question is, really what's most important is, can we build a space where teachers want feedback and where they're constantly reflecting on how they can become the best that they can be? That's what awesome teachers do all of the time already and that's what a culture thinking looks like.
Colin: It's been great to speak with you, Simon. Thanks so much for your time.
Simon: Thanks, Colin.