Language: The Ultimate Influencer
“‘…I asked you to draw the drapes,’ said Mrs. Rogers.
‘I did! I did! See,’ said Ameila Bedelia. She held up her picture” (page 48).*
First published in 1963, many of us have had the pleasure of reading at least one book in Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia series. We giggled at the constant mix-ups and waited to see the look on Mrs. Rogers’ face when she discovered them. (My personal favorite was the dressing of the chicken. You have to hand it to Amelia; those overalls looked posh).
As I grew older, I realized there was something sophisticated about the humor in the series. Parish had the ability to find the silliness in the English language and bring it to life through Amelia’s shenanigans — And the moment you began to understand it as a child, you felt just a little bit more grown up. Oh, this is why everyone is laughing, you would think. I get it!
Language holds power.
The Original “Influencer”
If you Google the word, “influencer”, you are inundated with pictures of famous athletes, reality t.v. stars, personal trainers, etc. who seemingly hold the superpower of persuasion. It’s a term that developed alongside social media and comes with some sort of credibility, along with millions of followers. While (some of) these people may have earned their title fair and square, I’m here to argue that language is actually the original “influencer”.
Let’s pretend for a moment that the language you use on a daily basis has its own YouTube channel. (I know it’s a little out there, but bear with me). If I were to subscribe to and watch this channel regularly, how would I feel? How would this channel affect my mindset? What role would it play in determining my personal choices and my relationships with others? I could think about this in terms of each individual video, or I could think about it as a brand. Just as the influencers we see online, the language you use has a “brand” and plays an important role in your life, and especially in the lives of those you teach. So what does this mean for you as an educator?
The Effect of Praise on Mindsets: Carol Dweck
Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, has been researching mindsets for many years. When thinking of the power of language, I’m always reminded of a study that Dweck did on the effect of praise on mindsets. Seen in this video, 5th grade students solved a series of puzzles, beginning with an easier set. As they solved the puzzles successfully, they were praised in two different ways — either for their intelligence, “Wow you did really well; you must be really smart at these”, or for their effort, “Wow you did really well; you must have tried really hard.”
Once the students completed the easier set of puzzles, they were then given the option to try a more challenging set. As it turns out, the students who were praised for their intelligence not only felt discouraged with the more challenging puzzles, but they opted to continue with the easier set. On the other hand, those who were praised for their effort preserved through the challenging set and opted to continue with the increased difficulty. The language used by the teacher in this scenario played an essential role in shaping the students’ mindsets and their personal choices.
Developing Your Brand
This particular study was one instance with one small group of students. Now take this scenario and multiply it by however many students you see on a daily basis. If my calculations are correct, your language just became an influencer and you may as well start your own YouTube channel.
Before you go clicking the create button, let’s take a moment to develop your brand. Here are some tips to ensure that your language is positively influencing your students in and out of the classroom.
1. Do rather than don’t.
Establishing “rules” for the beginning of the year? Rather than enforcing a moral code in your classroom through a bunch of don’ts, create a class contract that establishes a community of respectful learners. i.e. Instead of “Don’t speak while others are speaking,” try, “I promise to actively listen to my classmates.” You’d be surprised the buy-in you get from your students just by making this small shift.
2. Provide detailed feedback.
It’s really easy to accept that drawing and hang it by your desk with a, “Wow, what a pretty drawing. Good job.” However, this generic praise doesn’t really do much in terms of providing feedback that students can learn from. Make an effort to praise something specific (in all of their work), “Wow, I really love the detail on that bird. How did you draw the wings so they looked like they were moving?” This type of detailed feedback is tangible and easily replicated by the student.
3. Promote a growth mindset.
Many students come to us with a fixed mindset, the idea that they are not good at something (and never will be). As their teacher, you can shift their thinking and increase their motivation by using phrases that promote perseverance. This is one of my favorite illustrations and can serve as a great reminder for you and your students. After all, language and mindsets go hand in hand.
4. Generalizing about “these kids”.
Using phrases like “these kids” is patronizing and is a result of making generalizations about students based on gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, etc. It stands in the way of best practice and providing equitable learning experiences for all students. This also tends to show up in the way one refers to “your parents”, as opposed to “your grown-ups/guardians/adults” when speaking with a student. These generalizations develop based on the personal biases harbored by teachers, so take some time to reflect on your own beliefs and how they manifest in the classroom. This self-assessment by Teaching Tolerance is a great place to start.
5. “They can’t handle it,” or can they?
We also tend to make this assumption based on our personal biases, so be careful you’re not falling into that trap. As an instructional coach, I have heard teachers use this phrase when responding to a challenging learning activity or change in classroom structure. What I have found is that it usually is a knee-jerk reaction if the teacher doesn’t feel prepared to make the change her/himself. Rather than defaulting to this phrase, ask yourself, “What can I do to support my students in facing this challenge?” Never lower your expectations, simply raise your scaffolds.
Interested in learning more about how biases show up in the classroom? Try Let’s Talk! a guide by Teaching Tolerance. The reflection activities on pages 4, and 18–19 are great for identifying your own biases.
*Quoted from Peggy Parrish’s, first book in the Amelia Bedelia series, copyright 1963 by Harper and Row.