Vignette #5 – A group of teachers gathers to reflect and discuss how the “choice words” they use with students and families can impact student accomplishment, identity, and agency. By shifting to language and learning opportunities that help students attribute their success to the effort they put into their work, the teachers hope to give students more control over their learning.
Initially charged with the task of exploring if a wide range of assessment tools were being used in the classroom, a group of elementary teachers takes this multi-week discussion to thoughtful levels that ultimately address the effect of feedback on student progress. While analyzing how well students are responding to various assessments (from end of class “check-ins” to written feedback on journals), the teachers keep returning to an ongoing theme: that the words they use while assessing and discussing feedback with students and families matter, and appear to impact student motivation and progress. With this realization, many of the teachers in the room share the challenge of not always being fully aware of their language choices with students and admit that they have developed habits of responding to students (particularly with praise) that may not always help students improve their work.
A lead teacher introduces a powerful article called “Choice Words” and asks her colleagues to take some time to reflect upon how they think their words (especially around discussing assessment with students) can impact the accomplishment, identity, and agency of their students. A lively discussion follows, as the teachers grapple with the meanings of these words (accomplishment, identity, and agency) and what a greater awareness of them could mean for student progress. In this safe community talking space, a few teachers raise the challenge of constantly having to think about what words they are using with their students. They worry about the natural flow of the classroom being compromised by such heightened self-editing. Many agree that it could be helpful to observe one another’s classes with the goal of providing specific feedback on language choices. “Choice Words” provides three guiding questions that the teachers agree to focus on while observing teacher-student conversations around assessment: Is this interaction attributing success to students? Is this interaction building student identity and agency? Is this interaction fostering a growth-mind set? With the understanding that the observing teachers do not necessarily have all of the answers, the questions serve as guides to help highlight “teaching moments” worthy of reflection. Another teacher brings in a chapter on “Expectations” from The Skillful Teacher and the group further discusses what it means to teach effective effort and help students “change their attributions of success and failure away from factors over which they have little immediate control (luck, task difficulty, and innate ability) to the factor over which they have the greatest control: effort.”* Together the teachers reflect upon the language and timing of their feedback and how well they are managing to attribute student success to effort. In addition to shifting language choices from statements like “good luck” to effort-oriented statements such as “Give it everything you’ve got,”* the teachers further consider the language and strategies they use for written student self-assessment opportunities. Based on the shared chapter, a teacher commits to creating a “Student Effort Checklist” as part of her writing workshop self-evaluation materials. She realizes that “choice words” reach far beyond the verbal interactions, and that she can impact her students’ approach to work by helping them recognize how their own efforts play out in such things as the strategies they use and their willingness to stick with something, even when it is hard.
A teacher who was nervous that all of this talk about “too much praise leading to low motivation” would impact her positive/upbeat style of interacting with students is pleased to learn small language shifts that will better help attribute the success and power to the student learner. Another teacher admits to the hard work he faces as a teacher who was raised in authoritarian classrooms for much of his life. Inspired by Fisher and Frey’s suggestion that “motivation is not about manipulating or bribing students to complete tasks, but rather it requires that students see the relevance of the task and bring to the task a belief that their efforts will bear fruit,” he considers language that he can use to better help students invest in their work and realize the power of their own efforts. He recalls an exceptionally gifted student who often “shut down” when faced with a new and challenging task. While he thought that the student was bored or being difficult, the discussions with his colleagues help him realize that this behavior could be the result of a fixed mindset and fear of failure. By focusing on praising the efforts of his students in conjunction with descriptive feedback on their work, this fourth grade teacher starts to see some of his more reluctant students taking more risks and having increased success in the classroom.
- In “Choice Words,” Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey discuss growth mindset and the significance of the words that we use when providing feedback to students. They insist that our choice of words can impact students’ sense of accomplishment, identity, and agency. Embedded in the article is an eleven-minute video in which high school students discuss their experience with “Choice Words” as part of a mentoring program and fabric of their school.
- In “The Perils and Promises of Praise,” Carol Dweck discusses how educators may be inadvertently holding back their students by praising intelligence over effort. She shares how “fixed and growth mind-sets” can impact student effort, sense of self, and achievement. She also offers examples of language that educators can use to help students develop growth mind-sets and greater motivation to learn.
- In “The Praise Paradox,” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman share the danger of praising intelligence and how this can impact children’s motivation and willingness to take risks.
Carol Dweck on Performance Assessment – In this five-minute video clip, Carol Dweck discusses her findings about growth mindset and how we can use this shift of thinking to help all students find purpose, place, and motivation in school.
- See Chapter 12 “Expectations” in Saphier, Jon, Haley-Speca Mary Ann, Gower, Robert and Platt, Alexander D.. The Skillful Teacher: Building Your Teaching Skills. Research for Better Teaching, Incorporated. 2008. ISBN: 1886822107 – This informative and thought provoking chapter on “Expectations” insists that “we need to behave as if we believe that almost all students can learn rigorous material at high standards.” The chapter clearly outlines how we can “liberate” vs. “limit” how students think about themselves and their learning by specifically teaching them about what effective effort means and how to employ its six attributes: time, focus, resourcefulness, strategies, use of feedback, and commitment. The chapter is filled with useful examples and exhibits, such as a “Student Effort Checklist” and a helpful (hands-on) list of suggestions for teaching and reinforcing the value of effective effort.