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What you say matters – reclaiming ‘alternative facts’

This is a two-part series, with a focus on how language impacts on both teacher and student efficacy. Students are the central discussion for today’s post. A post focused on teacher belief will be posted at a later date.

Language is important.

Wittgenstein famously wrote “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” It probably stands to reason that if this is the case, then our sub-conscious language is what drives our perception of the world around us. And what is that language? What are the subconscious messages we are constantly telling ourselves?

A student perspective

Students are hearing messages every day. Now more than ever, with the introduction of social media and new technologies, kids are exposed to a range of influence. Navigating this space is difficult, as messages at such a young age act as unregulated, unfiltered ‘truth’ for our teens. We all heard messages from a young age; every time someone called us stupid, worthless, slow, lazy, or worse, our subconscious mind just stored the information away for reference.

We cannot change the fact that kids will receive messages about their potential in life or the limitations they’ll face based on their physical abilities, skin colour, gender, or economic status. Many of the messages students will hear will likely confirm societal biases and pre-existing inequity. We cannot change this. However, if our role as educators is to act for social justice, it follows that the language we choose should be deliberately chosen to fight such inequity. If students are influenced by structures that reinforce their subconscious messaging, then our job has to be breaking down those power structures.

Question: As an educator, do I reinforce the negative messages my students hear or am I telling them ‘alternative facts’?

Yes, I am indeed reclaiming Kellyanne Conway’s famous tag line from the Trump presidency. Here’s my theory: what if the negative messages kids have received from a young age are so ingrained as ‘truth’, that we need to be providing a different reality. One with more promise, more equity, one where our students can achieve anything.

One of my linguistic bugbears is how often we talk about ‘wasted’ potential. Phrases such as this almost seem oxymoronic. Potential is potential. It cannot be wasted because it’s future focused. Everyone is the product of circumstance and they cannot change what has happened in their past. So, when our kids are told their “wasting their potential” what they are really hearing is “ you have no potential”. We have to careful with the language we choose, it frames the reality in our classroom.

As teachers, we say some pretty stupid things. I’ve caught myself falling into this trap. “Well if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to be here”. Phrases like this are loaded with messaging; are we implying that we only have a duty to teach ‘engaged’ kids, what are we teaching kid’s about resilience in such an instance? It’s no surprise that teacher belief has the highest effect size in John Hattie’s research. Teachers’ belief in students help students believe in themselves. If we can reprogram belief, we have a chance a reprogramming reality.

So how do begin deliberately reprogramming the subconscious messages told to our kids?

Well, for such reprogramming to happen, affirmation of our students value must be constant, authentic and come from across the board.

Step 1: Be consistent.

If you decide that you’re going to be a language re-programmer, it’s not a one-day gig. You’ve got to make sure you are reinforcing these messages consistently. If you say one day that the world is your student’s oyster and in the next, tell them they’re going to struggle to get through high school, you are likely doing more harm than damage. Step 2: Choose your language

I’m a fan of being deliberate in most teacher practices. It’s a crucial part of making things happen. Choose the students you want to target in particular. Then tell them authentic truth. Don’t go telling a child they’re the next Mozart, if they’ve never touched a musical instrument. It may seem obvious, but such messaging confuses children and is likely to reinforce an incapability narrative. Step 3: Create an environment

This is about not being the lone voice for students. Look at ways to reshape your classroom environment to support positive messaging. Maybe it’s in the physical layout of your space; commissioned student work on the walls to celebrate their talent. An alternative might be looking at ways to build positive affirmation practices into your activities; students giving positive feedback on one another’s work.

At the end of the day, language is important, both for students and teachers. If Wittgenstein is correct that “the limits of our language mean the limits of our world”, then we must reshape our language in order to reshape our world.


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