Sunday, January 2, 2011

Underlying Messages

Last month, at our monthly instructional coach meeting, we had a fascinating discussion revolving around Peter Johnston’s book “Choice Words” and the implications not only for our interactions with students, but also with other teachers.

Johnston argues that how we speak has as much impact as what we say. For instance, saying to a student, “How did you go about solving that?” implies an underlying assumption that, “You’re the kind of person who solves things, and I’m interested in hearing how you did it. I value your ideas.” Or simply using wait time sends the message that we believe that the child is capable of coming up with the answer, and we won’t give up.

On the other hand, when we jump in too quickly to prompt a student when they make an error, the underlying message is that we believe they need support and are incapable of solving the problem on their own. Over time, this creates the kind of passive child who puts for little effort because she knows the teacher will do most of the work for her.

As coaches, we discussed this language, and the underlying messages in what we say, as it regarded students. But then we took it a step further and looked back at what we’d read as it relates to our work with teachers. What do our underlying messages say to teachers, and do they match our actual words? Do our words imply a partnership approach with teachers, or do we send the message that we are the experts, the ones who know best? For instance, saying, “I’m so proud of you!” instantly puts the two people talking on unequal footing. Or by saying, “We have to do running records every two weeks” places this assessment in a negative, mandated context. How often do we use wait time with teachers instead of jumping in quickly to provide support? What messages might that send about our confidence in their opinions?

My favorite quote of Johnston’s comes near the end of this fascinating book:

The way we interact with children [and adults!] and arrange for them to interact shows them what kinds of people we think they are and gives them opportunities to practice being those kinds of people.”

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