Strength in Small Words


Over the years I’ve discovered that there’s power in small words. Small words can make such a difference in ethos and class climate, but it’s hard to see this until you deliberately try changing a few you use and become conscious of how these subtle tweaks in language can have far reaching effects .

For example, I now often use the word ‘might’ in questions rather than  ‘is’ or ‘does’ because then children feel more inclined to make suggestions. For example, ‘why might Charlie be scared to open the chocolate bar this time?’ as opposed to ‘Why is Charlie scared …’  You  seem to open up the landscape and children feel more inclined to offer up their ideas because you have implicitly signalled to them that you may not have the right answer (even if you have). That’s the trouble with teaching sometimes, the old ‘guess what I’m thinking’ routine…doesn’t help learning really.

At the same time, teachers also need an open minded attitude to pupil’s answers; they need to be prepared to follow pupils down seemingly dead ends, discuss half-formed ideas and even mull over completely wrong ideas. You learn a lot about misconceptions when you do this, and that can allow pupils to think themselves forward and also help you to get inside what they’re thinking. You have to be prepared to say, ‘Mmm that’s interesting, tell me more…’  For example, ‘Ah interesting,  oh I see, Charlie wants to keep the chocolate wrapper paper nice, he doesn’t want to tear the nice paper.’ You think to yourself, oh no, this child has missed the inferred sense of anticipation and fear of the bar not having a golden ticket. Nevertheless, you probe a bit more. ‘So tell me more about Charlie and the paper then?     …Oh, I see, if there’s a ticket inside he won’t want to tear it – now that’s an interesting idea. Does he know there’s a ticket in there I wonder? No he doesn’t? I see, but there might be. How might that make him feel I wonder? Oh, really scared? What might he be scared of then? Oh I see, scared that it hasn’t got a ticket inside. So is it really about tearing the nice chocolate wrapper paper I wonder or something else? Oh I see, you think it’s more about not getting the ticket… ‘  And so on. Using the words ‘I wonder’ also makes a big difference too;  you’re telling them you’re thinking too, you’re not certain. When there’s too much certainty in a classroom it’s a terrible thing, no room for thinking through uncertainty because someone already knows it all!

Anyway, I find this approach works. It’s only a small tweak, but I’ve seen that it’s changed the way children react to questioning. Which brings me to my next little word that has a big effect. A while ago, I started putting the word ‘yet‘ on the end of some of the things I said to the children and now I hear them saying it too. Where once I might have said, ‘Is that right?’ I now say ‘is that right yet?’ This carries a powerful sense of progress and movement. Even asking a child if they understand it yet seems to change the dynamic a great deal. Or asking them who hasn’t got it yet tells them you’re confident they will soon, you’re saying you see their success ahead. You’re loosening up any ideas of being fixed. It’s even good for behaviour, ‘oh dear, you’re not listening yet’ – give them a chance to look forward.

But there are also plenty more  little words with big effects and these are the ‘goods’ and the ‘well dones’ and even the ‘excellents’ that we might say to children without any real reference to any specific learning. How many times have you walked around the classroom, looked over a piece of work and said ‘good, well done’?  It’s part of our nature to want to praise children, to boost their confidence and make them feel good about themselves, but we need to take care. Too much ‘loose praise,’ as I call it, without reference to exactly what you’re pleased with, means that gradually children get far too involved in ego feelings than acknowledging effective learning. To add to this, most teachers, if they check up, will see that they are praising the same children, in the same way over and over again, while certain children receive very little, in fact maybe they get more frowns than anything else. If you could get someone else to count your ‘praises’ and to whom in a day, I think it would surprise you. So, with those small words of praise, I’ve found it’s important to be clear about what you’re praising and why. ‘Well done, I like the way you’re now remembering the full stops, see?’ If you don’t follow that ‘well done’ with the explanation, it’s likely the child will sit there and just feel good about themselves but not make any reference to the learning task at hand. Again, it’s a subtle point, but some care here  actually helps children invest themselves in their learning in the right way. We spend a lot of time talking about the comments we write in children’s books and how to ask all those higher order questions etc, but it’s also important to think about the day to day more informal ways we talk to children too.

So, something to think about over the summer. We need a break!

Well done to us…for getting through this year of uncertainly and change.

Post-mortem or medical? Quality v quantity?

In thinking about feedback I really like Douglas Reeves idea that authentic feedback should be like a medical rather than a post-mortem. Like this, feedback shouldn’t be about what went wrong, but about how to get better. Focusing on what went wrong is the traditional transmission method of feedback where the teacher is centre stage, passing judgement on the pupil’s demonstration of knowledge acquisition. We know now this only widens the achievement gap, it makes low ability pupils shrink back and the more able ping forward – so for a while now we’ve known we need to turn around in the road and face the other way.

This is why ‘next steps feedback’ should really drive the new curriculum and any new assessment systems put in place. It is this kind of system that should govern summative assessment too, indeed even school tracking systems. In this way, the ‘where are they now’ snap shot is a moment in time that is looked in on, ‘snapped’ and then used to understand the field of play, and by this I mean children who are not locking into and benefiting from the next steps pathway.

Like this, a school tracking system should work for (not with) the next steps assessment system to create a strategic overview that can then drill down to groups or individuals who need more attention within the context of the whole school. In this way, a tracking system will support in-class assessment and support a teacher’s ‘aerial view’ of what’s going on. This is important because we’re really close up and personal in class aren’t we? Yet really, any teacher worth anything should know which individuals are not moving and making those next steps.

Systems like new Learning Ladders and Classroom Monitor seem to be on the right track here, but my one worry is the old quality v quantity problem. Some systems seem to try to provide next steps assessment pathways for anything and everything, which will mean stressed out teachers who get squeezed into a corner where they have to tick things they’re not really sure of because of time. This is what was wrong with the last system, overkill! Really, if we’re taking on a mastery curriculum we should take on a mastery assessment system too where less is more and we cut out what we can do without and focus on the vitals.

So, next steps: good; each and every next step: bad.  We need to be careful the accountability shadow doesn’t needlessly spoil it all and make us ‘panic assess.’

Anyway… just some quick thoughts on how it might just all fit together. You never know…it might just work!