Earlier this year a group of teachers I work with explored the ‘Eight Cultural Forces’ identified by Ron Ritchhart of Harvard’s Project Zero. In doing so we decided to focus on our use of the term learning instead of the word work. Our goal was to bring our language choices into the spotlight and explore how a more deliberate focus on learning might alter the culture of our classrooms. Two terms later this focus persists and it is worth reflecting on the effect that this has had.
Within ‘Cultures of Thinking’ the things we name and value play an important role in shaping the culture in which our students engage. Language is one of the eight cultural forces and it is one which teachers can have very direct control over. The choices we make around language frame what is valued and both consciously and subconsciously influence the dispositions of our learners. The Language of learning powerfully permeates each of the other cultural forces, giving them power and acting as one of the tools we have to shape them. Language also plays an important role in communicating the expectations we have for our students and this is very clear when the goal is to focus students on the learning vs the work as was ours.
We began by becoming aware of the frequency with which we used the word ‘work’ and shared words that could replace this. We moved from telling the students to ‘start working’ to ‘start learning’, we made conscious choices about the way we framed tasks and identified the ‘learning’ that was expected rather than focusing on the finished product. We embraced the ideal that our goal was learning and that this would mean mistakes, errors and failures. We saw these not as something to be avoided but as steps towards learning. We asked our students questions like 'what are you learning now?’ instead of ‘what are you doing?’ and in these ways we shifted the way that we understood what was occurring in our rooms. For both teachers and students a subtle shift was occurring.
We now started to notice how pervasive the term ‘work’ was. We saw it in assessments, reports, letters home, in praise of students and in reprimands. We saw it in the way we described what we did as teachers and recognised that how we talked about what we do shaped our attitudes. We started to replace ‘work’ with ‘learning’ in our conversations around the challenges we faced as teachers and in doing so subtly shifted how we valued what we do in these circumstances.
As our language shifted so too did our practice. We have long been a team of teachers who feel safe with not knowing the answer to every question our students ask. We are happy to search for the answers with them rather than handing them out like candy, but our embrace of ‘learning’ allowed us to take this further. By referring to every member of the community as a learner we ascribed them with permission to be a learner. We as teachers transformed into learning partners with our students and this allowed us all to happily embrace a collaborative learning journey. Our interactions with students focused on our learning. We became models of learning habits and attitudes. We shared opportunities to learn as we took on projects that required us all to learn. We openly accepted the chaos that comes with exploring the unknown in ways only possible when the pressure that comes from the role of the all knowing seer is removed and replaced with a valuing of our skills as learners. Our students saw this and understood that what their teachers had some heightened skill in was learning, not knowing. Importantly our students also came to see that learning is a powerful tool and a tool they can master.
What was initially considered a subtle change has had a significant impact. It is an ongoing journey and it requires ongoing attention to detail. Slip ups are easy and old patterns of language easily return. Our experience with this change has revealed how a deliberate effort to shift our expectations for students and to shape the cultural forces which give voice to the culture of our classrooms can bring valuable results.
by Nigel Coutts