Watch What You Say

What matters in education? What makes a big difference to your students? I’m sure that many things spring to mind: good content knowledge, well-prepared lessons, good learning environment, and so on. But what if the things that made a big difference are individual sentences you speak in front of your class? It’s quite an horrific prospect: bad phrasing might have a big impact on your class. But it’s something that does seem to be true.

This Is Hard

One example comes from Georgia Tech’s successful summer camps in the USA, where it was found that girls were leaving the camps with a greater sense that computing was hard, even after they had been programming successfully during the camp. The reason lay in the phrasing of some of the (female) instructors:

that was happening in workshops where female leaders were saying, “Yeah, this is hard…but it’s really fun!” while male leaders only emphasized how fun it was! Just that slight emphasis on “Yeah, it’s hard” interplayed with issues of self-efficacy and fixed mindset, and girls became more discouraged.

Very troubling: “that slight emphasis” had enough of a difference that it showed up in the workshop questionnaires afterwards! The solution to fixing these problems is to establish a process of iterative observation and feedback. At the summer schools, they were able to do this even on a week-by-week basis. I suspect that the right culture is often not present in schools to use this kind of observation: but it seems that it can happen.

Wow, You’re Clever!

Another example is now quite well known, from the debate about fixed vs malleable intelligence (which almost surfaced last night in the CAS roundup) — this concerns what is praised after a good result:

We praised the children in one group for their intelligence, telling them, “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.” We praised the children in the other group for their effort: “Wow, that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.” That’s all we did, but the results were dramatic.

Again, a change — at first, seemingly small — in focus produced a dramatic change in results. Long story short: praising work (and encouraging a growth mindset: that practice improves ability) had a much better outcome than praising intelligence (and encouraging a fixed mindset: that ability is innate). Mark Guzdial has written a longer and better treatise on the implications of this.

Boy or Girl?

In that same article, Guzdial relates some data from Joshua Aronson about a US high-school calculus test:

If you ask [gender] before [the calculus test], women do much worse than men, as past results have typically shown. If you ask [gender] after [the calculus test], the women do better than the men, but the men also do much worse than before! Reminding men of their gender, and the stereotype, improves their performance. Don’t remind them, and they do worse. Which leaves us in a tough position: When should you ask gender?

So again, a small thing (reminding pupils of their gender) produced big differences. The implication is that a mention of gender in classrooms could have negative impact on the girls in the room (but positive impact on the boys!) — and the same seems to be true of race, too. Favouring equality of effect, the short-term implication is quite clear: do not make mention of gender or race!

Watch What You Say…?

Seeing these results together suggests that is actually quite important exactly what we say. And at first, I think this is quite worrying for teachers: not only do you need to get all the big things right, but you also need to think about each sentence you say to your class! But maybe it’s not what we say, per se, so much as the attitudes that we project. And it seems that, at least for these particular issues, the problems be avoided by conveying the attitude of growth mindset.

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