The student is the most important subject in our sentences

Students are at the center of our designs—and our sentences. Illustration by May-Li Khoe.

I want to introduce you to a weird grammatical trick that has really helped us orient ourselves properly when designing for students. Ready?

We don’t “teach students a skill”: we help students build a skill.

We don’t “explain to students”: we offer explanations.

We don’t “build student understanding”: we support students in developing their understanding.

The grammatical trick is: we make students the most important subjects in our sentences. We avoid action verbs which emphasize us as the subject and the students as mere verb objects. So instead of “teaching students a skill,” we “help students develop a skill”. That change emphasizes the student, now the subject of a dependent clause, as the important actor. Our “help” merely sets up the primary action.

This shift makes sure we remember two important ideas: first, how learning happens; and second, students’ agency.

We believe learning happens through student as subject, doing as verb, and ideas as object. This is the principle behind “constructivism”, which claims it’s not possible to simply transmit ideas to a student — as if we’re opening up their head like an “empty vessel” and pouring in knowledge. Instead, when a student learns something, it’s because they’ve actively assimilated new ideas by connecting them to their own uniquely-shaped internal representations. We reflect that in our sentences: learning isn’t something we can “do” to a student; they have to do it for themselves.

Even if we didn’t think effective learning demands active engagement on the student’s part, we would still want to make the student our primary subject because that position emphasizes their agency. School environments are coercive; it’s too easy to fall into a mindset in which “doing things to” students is the default. It’s dehumanizing. We don’t have to be extreme unschooling advocates to prefer leaving students with as much agency as possible. That’s the more humane route, yes, but we suspect it’s also the more effective route in the long run. If we treat students respectfully as individuals—as the central actors in their own narratives—they’re much more likely to love learning. If we treat students as passive participants in their own story, that’s likely to become their (non-)approach to learning and problem solving later in life.

Sometimes speaking in this way feels awfully contorted, as if it’s a different dialect of English. I treat those moments as interesting learning opportunities. It reminds me of E-Prime, a variant of English which aggressively clarifies the true actors in a given sentence by excluding all forms of “to be.” In E-Prime, we can’t say “the sink is dirty” (because we can’t say “is”); we have to say “someone has left dishes in the sink.” Now who’s that someone?

If some approach really resists being phrased with the student as the central actor, we may need to rethink the approach—not the sentence.