The Language We Choose to Use with Students and Its Impact

Last week, as part of our parent speaker series, my school hosted Dr. McCurry. A clinical child psychologist, his talk was titled: The Anxiety Dance: A Parent’s Guide.  He spoke mainly about how we can either react or respond to behavior regardless of whether you were a parent or teacher. His talk provided us with several examples and strategies of how to help children who have anxiety whether or not it is clinically diagnosable.

A week before that, I attended part of Evergreen School’s speaker series’ presentation by Allison Master: Mindsets Revisited: Exploring the power of growth mindset and word choice in motivating children.

Every once in a while a book comes along that can be transformative. In terms of teaching, Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset was one of those for me. Master who has co-authored a few articles with Dweck, began with a quick introduction defining the two kinds of mindsets that have been researched, fixed and growth. The word “mindsets” is becoming overused and can describe a lot of things not related to Dweck’s theory, so if you’re unfamiliar with her work, search using the terms “fixed,” “growth,” and “mindset” and that should get you going in the right direction.

One of the most important things I’ve learned abo about helping students manage anxiety or fostering growth mindsets is the language we use with them. What we say as parents and educators can be so influential. The feedback we give can impact a child for years to come.

There’s a huge difference between saying to a child, “You’re a good drawer!” and “You put a lot of effort into that drawing.” The first places value on the ability. The latter places the value on the effort or process. Which one do you think privileges actual learning? The language we choose to use with our students influence mindsets profoundly. A healthy dose of anxiety is normal, but it too places value on the process rather than the event. You acknowledge the event and feelings with a timestamp, like, “I can right now that you’re frustrated…” Then give the child agency to make a decision to move away from a fixed idea of their frustration to one that will pass.

A great book our faculty is reading is called, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Minds by Peter Johnston. It cites Dweck’s work and goes on to show how powerful the language we use can affect the way children perceive themselves. He uses the terms “fixed” and “dynamic” to describe the way we think about ourselves. Basically, learning is something that we can change and knowing that our brains are plastic and adaptable is  important. When a child is having an, “I’m stupid,” moment, it’s imperative to help the child recognize that it’s just a moment, not a fixed idea. A child with a growth mindset is going to have less anxiety, learn throughout life, and develop resilience. As adults, it’s natural to want to rescue a child, but as an adult you have to know the difference between pushing a child out of the way of a speeding car and doing their homework for them.

Furthermore, both Master and Johnston show the evidence of how language influences social and moral agency. If we put a fixed label on ourselves, it becomes very different to find the value in others and develop the empathy needed to work with those with differing views.

This works for adults too. I can learn from my colleagues and they can learn from me, but only if we are willing to see that. The next time you’re giving feedback to a child (or a peer), instead of a simple, “Great Job!” be specific.  For example, “I really like the choice of words in this paragraph.” If you can’t think of anything specific right away, at least praise the effort. “Wow! I can see you put a lot of work into that!”

I haven’t read McCurry’s book yet, but I highly recommend the other two. They might just change a life.


Two Experts Disagree

I like dissent (assuming there are good arguments made on both sides) because it helps in the way I think about things. What I don’t like is dissent with no reasonable argument or logic behind it. “I disagree because I have a gut feeling about it” isn’t good enough. Describe that feeling and tell me why. I may change my viewpoint. Even someone who tends to be skeptical about a lot of things, I can easily be swayed by the voices I already have a bias toward. That’s why I found an article over the Thanksgiving break rather interesting.

The article titled “Willpower, It’s in Your Head” was co-written by Carol Dweck. She wrote this article disagreeing with social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and the New York Times science writer John Tierney who conclude in their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, that willpower is biologically limited and relies on a replenishment of glucose. Dweck argues that you can develop willpower. Hmmm…I like both Dweck and Tierney’s writing, so who is correct? Both cite the marshmallow test in their research.

Perhaps both are right and that even though we may have genetic predispositions, there are many things we can become better at, including willpower. One neurologist I heard a few years ago said sometimes we have to develop new neural pathways. Old habits, impulses, and temptations will remain, but those new pathways will make it easier for us to resist those impulses. For now, here’s what I think: It is biology, but we have the capacity to change it.

Start With Simple Purposeful Tech Tools

One problem of web-based or other tech resources for teachers or students isn’t really how to use them, but that there are often too many tools. There is no way to really keep up with them, nor should one. If you subscribe to a few websites or twitter feeds, the lists resources can be overwhelming. Some of the tools are amazing, but may be start-ups that will be gone just when you get comfortable using them. Still, it’s great to know so many people are thinking of innovative ways to make the web more kid friendly. Two of the three tools below I got from Tech & Learning. Warning: most will be overwhelmed with that site.

Take youtube for example. There are amazing, short videos that are great for launching units, independent study, and other kinds of learning. Unfortunately, for every great video posted, there are hundreds of terrible ones. If a child simply uses the youtube search window, there’s no guarantee what they’re going to get (teaching kids how to search better is also a key).

If you have a specific youtube video in mind that you want a young student to visit, try It allows you to enter the youtube URL, and then gets rid of all the unwanted ads, and additional clutter.

There are also some great websites out there, but they are just too cluttered with ads that get in the way of the real content you want your students to view. Thankfully, most browsers have settings you can turn on to block banner adds and content that may be too irresistible for a second grader. “Click Here to Win an iPod,” for example. Yes, you want to teach kids how to avoid ads, but especially when they are working independently, a little help goes a long way. Along with the browser settings, there are some third party tools such as which is a website where you can enter a url and have it come back ad free. There is also the software you can download, like AdBlock which is also a browser ad-on to help eliminate those ads. I know many websites rely on ads to survive, and I know most adults can live with them. For very young kids, though, sometimes, it’s just nice to remove clutter.

It’s often because the web is so overwhelming that many don’t even want to think about it. But, as much I overuse this word, it’s a mindset. Think of your goal or purpose, find a tool, and start.

Autonomy vs. Collaboration: Are they Exclusive of Each Other?

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know that I’m a huge fan of Daniel Pink, and his book Drive. If you haven’t read it yet, I repost a great animated summary at the end of this post. Using a lot of current research, Pink makes a case for autonomy being an integral part of motivation. The other two parts: mastery, and purpose.

I’m also a big fan of collaboration, and in todays world of sharing everything openly, its also really important. The summer issue of the Harvard Business Review is all about collaboration. In the book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Stephen Johnson, he makes a very clear point that great individual a-ha moments are rare and that it’s often the confluence of two or more ideas that lead to game changing innovations. There’s a great quick animation of this as well (posted below).

My personal answer to the question posed in the title of this post is, NO!

A large percentage of our faculty just finished a summer institute at our school that was organized by our school leaders. I can truly say, that I left feeling more excited, motivated, and inspired of the potential that our school has to continue growing. If the aim was to begin cultivating a community of professional learners with growth mindsets who are both autonomous AND collaborative, the institute was an incredible success. Another underlying principle is that everything we do promotes the same kind of purpose, relevance, and collaboration for students.

How was this done? By finding the strengths within each individual, yet creating a safe, trusting environment to share these. By making the purpose a clear and shared one. And by promoting mastery. It was hard work, but work everyone was so eager to do because it had meaning. It wasn’t busy work. Aside from that, the institute was run using a variety of effective models of instruction. That kind of modeling is key for inspiration and the transfer of effective teaching practices into the classroom.

If you’ve read the book Switch: How to Change Things When Things are Hard by the Heath Brothers, the way to do this is to find a way to motivate both our emotional and rational minds, and set a clear path for how this will be done. I sense the beginning of purposeful changes happening at our school this year, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Persistance to Mastery (Using Skateboarding as an Analogy for Learning)

I attended an incredible event at TEDxEastsidePrep today. The topic was: Evolution of Instruction: Inquiry, Innovation, Identity and it exceeded my expectations.  I tweeted a couple of nuggets I got from each presenter and I wonder if that will encourage teachers to take a risk with twitter as a learning tool.

There’s an overwhelming amount of great things to share, and perhaps I’ll write about all of it.  One speaker, Dr. Tae was off the charts. A physics professor and avid skateboarder, he talked about what has been a common theme at our school: Learning by making mistakes. He walked through a trick he wanted to learn by showing us a shortened video of his progression. He got it on his 58th try. That meant he FAILED 57 times. There was no physical incentive for this trick other than the accomplishment of the act itself. There were no letter grades (an F for his first attempt, maybe a C+ near the middle). He only had a clear goal, persistance, practice and hard work. How are our children learning? Are their learning tasks as relavent, engaging, and clear to them? Do they persist or do they give up easily? All extremely good questions to ask oneself and their students.

Here’s a video on Dr. Tae’s blog that gives you an idea of what he means when he says we need to build a new culture of teaching and learning. The end of the school year is upon us and it’s a fairly busy time, but I hope to share one nugget from all the speakers.

Motivation, Practice, and Brain Science

I just returned from a talk author Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown, gave at another elementary school nearby. He spent the day with the students and faculty,  shared time with them at their faculty meeting, and then gave his talk to parents and others who were interested.

I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my list. Wanting to always grow and be a better teacher, are of interest to me.

He talked about female Russian tennis players who seemed to enter the world stage from nowhere, just like female Korean golfers have done recently. Amazingly successful singers in Dallas and Brazilian soccer players were also mentioned. What was it that made these people so talented? It wasn’t that there was something inherent about their nationalities.

Coyle told a story of Simon Clifford, an elementary school soccer coach from Leeds, who didn’t believe that it was a region, climate, or genetics alone that produced very talented soccer players, so he headed to Brazil and noticed that almost all the kids played soccer, but a variation of it involving a very small, bounceless ball in a small court. Well Clifford went back to Leeds and gave these children those same balls to play with and it wasn’t long before he started producing some key talent in soccer.

Coyle related that it wasn’t just the practice, but the kind of practice that mattered. The kind of stuff that made you work, even for a millisecond was much more useful than practicing something you took for granted and just glossed over. And when you practice in a way where you make mistakes, slow down to fix those mistakes, and continue the cycle of failing and reaching, this is where you grow. Not just in what you’re learning, but you grow myelin. The stuff that covers your neurons. The more myelin you grow, the more efficient you become at what you’re learning, and the better you become at what you do, be it teaching, golf, or playing the clarinet.

Another factor in growing talent was motivation and Coyle noted that it could be a number of things, but it was usually people – he called it a windshield. Younger siblings have older siblings they want to become and therefore are intrinsically motivated to practice and keep at it. These windshields can be very subtle too. One school, Kipp takes their students to college campuses for a day. They just go, look around, and explore, but at some point, that becomes their motivation. The students want to be that college student and as a result, work at it.

On his blog, Coyle mentions Doug Lemov’s book about effective teaching and when he asked effective teachers to show them their lesson plans, they didn’t have any. They start over, rip their old ones up, try new things, or re-invent the wheel. They look at the minute errors and try to fix them through practice.

He cited Carol Dwek’s work on Mindsets, and mentioned two important things for teachers and parents. 1) Pay attention to what your child is staring at. Staring is learning. 2) Praise effort, not skill. He commented on the school he was visiting as one with a growth mindset.

Coyle is another strong believer of collaboration, as he believes it helps us all hone our talents. Coyle mentioned that it’s a wonderful time to be learning more about the brain and how it learns, but we are only scratching the surface. As a friend of mine put it, just think of Galileo looking through a telescope for the first time and discovering things about our solar system. That’s where we are with brain science. We know quite a bit, but there is much more to learn. Who thought myelin had anything to do with it?

As for taking things for granted, something that both Dan Coyle and Sir Ken Robinson says we need to avoid in order to find our passion, Coyle closed with this joke: Two young fish swam by an older fish going the other way. “The water’s great. Isn’t it?” said the old fish to the two younger ones. After they passed one of the younger fish said to the other one, “What’s water?”

It’s often the small, seemingly insignificant things that parents and teachers miss. Let’s find ways to avoid missing those things and get those neurons firing and that myelin growing. Coyle, like Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers does not dismiss genetics and talent, but says we pay way too much attention to the notion of  ‘natural talent.’

Here’s a 4 min. video of Coyle speaking about his book.


Challenge is Part of the Process

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.

All kidding aside, Carol S. Dweck, author of the best selling book, Mindsets believes that there are those people who tackle all kinds of challenges with rigor and enjoy the challenges. They take risks, and are engaged in the process of learning new things everyday. These are the people with growth mindsets. The others, who avoid difficult things, or who believe they just cannot do something well. She calls people who think this, those with fixed mindsets. What she also says is that growth mindsets can be taught.

Her research has been used in several of my favorite books I have read this past year: Drive (Daniel Pink), Nurtureshock (Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman), and Switch (the Heath Brothers).

Dweck has an article in this month’s Ed. Leadership titled: Even Geniuses Work Hard. It’s one of the few articles you can read online without a subscription. Just click the link above. She summarizes her work and discusses how to praise children: not in the product, but in the challenge and process of the work itself. Dweck says that her research “has shown that praising students for the process they have engaged in—the effort they applied, the strategies they used, the choices they made, the persistence they displayed, and so on—yields more long-term benefits than telling them they are “smart” when they succeed.

The article focuses on these areas to help build a growth mindset.

  • Emphasize Challenge, Not “Success”
  • Give a Sense of Progress
  • Grade for Growth

How we grow as individuals, how our students grow, and how our school grows as an organization will depend on relishing and identifying the challenges, taking risks, and working hard.