1. Work versus Learning
Why bother?Teachers have traditionally talked much more about ‘work’ than they have about ‘learning’. One study carried out in London schools in 2002 compared the frequency of use of these two words, and found that ‘work’ was used 98% of the time, and ‘learning’ only 2%. There’s nothing wrong with the word ‘work’ but it doesn’t entice you to get interested in the activity itself. You will be pleasantly surprised at the effect on your students if you talk less about ‘work’ and more about the process of learning itself. Making this little shift isn’t as easy as it sounds. Some years ago we worked with a teacher who found it really hard to stop using the word ‘work’ and her way to tackle that was to enlist the help of her students. She carried several five pence pieces and a small money box around with her. She placed the money on her desks in various rooms and asked her students to wave at her gently if and when they spotted her using the word ‘work’. This triggered her to put one of her 5 pence pieces into the little money box. This trick worked a treat. By the end of term she had shifted her habit of using ‘work’ to using ‘learning’, she had donated enough money to pay for a couple of new books for the school library and her students were intrigued to know more about learning and how it worked. In another study two groups of volunteers were asked to rewrite the captions to Gary Larson cartoons (The Far Side) so as to change their meaning. For one group this activity was referred to as ‘play’ while for the other it was referred to as ‘work’. Not only did the ‘play’ group find the activity more pleasurable than the ‘work’ group, they also reported being much more locked on to it, their minds wandered much less, they were more imaginative, and they learned more from the activity.
2. Putting meaning into effort
Why bother‘Effort’ is one of those words that has a long association with schools and learning. It used to feature in school reports showing a grade for how much effort you had put in during the term or year. Some years ago I remember my youngest son coming home from school saying “They (his teachers) say I have to put in more effort. What does that mean?” Indeed what does it mean? What do teachers expect students to do other than perhaps put in more time, manage their distractions or just con-cen-trate. How can we make the word ‘effort’ mean more to students? Effort: it’s about focusing and re-focusing the mind on the learning you are doing. Something is, or should be, directing students’ attention. But to be useful effort needs to be targeted, and with effective input from the teacher. Effort needs a direction and a purpose. We could make effort more purposeful and targeted simply by saying things such as “I think you might…” or “I see you have put in more effort by:
- using a different/new/ [specific] strategy
- using the trial and improvement method to deal with that challenge
- using the success criteria to direct what you are doing
- asking for feedback on how you could improve
- putting ideas on bits of paper to free up some space in your working memory.”
‘I often used to just tell students to make more effort, and got blank stares back. But when I started using Building Learning Power language I realised I could be much more specific about “making more effort.” I could turn my prompts and nudges into really useful statements. So now I watch students carefully through the Building Learning Power lens and say things like “how could you use your imagination to…?”, Or, “what questions might be helpful to take you further with this?”. I’ve started defining the sort of effort I want them to make’
3. Pessimistic to optimistic student talk
Why bother?As teachers of learning power you will be on the look out for how students perceive learning and help them to re-frame their ideas. Some words can be especially challenging. Words like ‘never’ and ‘always’ can give learners a damaging view of themselves. If a student says “I never understand what my teacher is going on about”, or “Maths is always too hard for me”, they suggest a pessimistic view of learning, one that is unlikely to cultivate the kind of persistence that more optimistic accounts might bring. Constant use of ‘never’ and ‘always’ suggests a lack of resilience, and, for the learner, can become something that seems permanent and unalterable. They have learned how to feel helpless. If you come across this sort of negativity in your classroom(s) try suggesting small practical ways students can build up their resilience. For example:
- If students freeze and assume helplessness, offer supportive questions NOT answers.
- Ask “What do you do next?”
- and “Then what do you do after that?”
- and so on.
- Ask ‘you questions’ to help students identify with the subject matter.
- What do you know about this?
- What do you want to know?
- Have you ever been to…?
- Have you ever heard of…?
- What do you think is feels/felt like…?