What's in a word?

11th November 2011 at 00:00
Could using slightly different language in your lessons make a difference to how pupils respond? The impact is surprising, say Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas

Imagine you and a colleague are set the same task - but for you it is described as "a game", while for her it is called "an assignment". Would you expect this simple change of word to make much difference?

Harvard psychologists Ellen Langer and Sophia Snow have shown that it really does. In their study, two groups of volunteers were asked to rewrite the captions to some Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson in order to change their meaning. For one group this activity was referred to as "play", while for the other it was described as "work". Not only did the "play" group find the activity more pleasurable than the "work" group, they also reported being much more engaged and motivated. Their minds wandered less, they were more imaginative and they learned more from the activity.

In education, as elsewhere, words really do matter. With the words teachers choose to express themselves, they create a potent linguistic milieu that directly influences young people's attitudes towards the things they are asked to do. Our words convey to them our beliefs about the kinds of learning that are valued "round here", which aspects of learning are worth paying attention to and what students' role is with respect to knowledge.

'Could-be' language

Dr Langer has demonstrated a range of ways in which small shifts in language can induce big changes in students' learning habits. For example, we can indicate through the way we talk whether what we are saying definitely is the case or whether it might be more open to question.

What we might call "is" language is cut and dried. It sets clear boundaries and it looks as though it is complete and definitive. "Could-be" language, on the other hand, is more tentative and provisional: it leaves open the possibility that things might not be clear-cut, and that the reader or listener might be able to spot a flaw or an improvement.

When Dr Langer presented these different versions of the same information to matched groups of students, she found no difference in their factual comprehension. "Could-be" language had not interfered with their grasp of the material. But when she probed their understanding with more creative or open-ended questions, she found that the "could-be" students far out- performed their peers in the "is" group.

It seems that "is" language positions students as knowledge-consumers and limits their role as learners to trying to understand and remember what they have been told; whereas if you say that the same thing "could be" the case, they become more critically engaged, more thoughtful and more imaginative. They will question and solve problems more readily if knowledge is presented to them in a more open-ended way.

Which version teachers choose depends, ultimately, on what their aim is. If all you want is performance on the factual tests, then it does not matter. But if your aim is to develop students' powers of imagination, questioning and critical enquiry, then it matters a great deal. And there are many initiatives around the world - such as Whole Education and the Expansive Education Network in the UK - that believe 21st-century education has to do just that: build students' learning power, not just boost their test scores.

Never and always

Martin Seligman, founder of "positive psychology", has shown that words like "never" and "always" can be toxic to learners in certain circumstances. If a student says "I can never understand what my teacher is going on about" or "Maths is always too hard for me", they betray a view of learning that is pessimistic and unlikely to cultivate the kind of persistence that more optimistic accounts of events might bring.

Their "explanatory style" - Professor Seligman's phrase for the way they account for things that happen to them - lacks resilience, so something that may be a one-off occurrence assumes the status of an event that is permanent and unalterable.

"Always" or "never" can breed a kind of learned helplessness, so it is teachers' role to help students develop more productive explanatory styles. A teacher determined to expand their student's capabilities might want to help a learner shift to making more accurate and specific statements like "I am finding it really hard to understand this today; maybe I should look back at what I did last time" and "I know I can get stressed when I have to calculate angles, so I'll look at my checklist to remind me how I get started".

Another interesting way in which teachers can betray their attitudes very easily is through their choice of vocabulary when they are talking about learning itself. Teachers have traditionally talked much more about "work" than they have about "learning". Indeed, "traditional" classrooms may ring to the sound of phrases such as "Get on with your work", "Have you finished your work?", "How's your work coming on?" and so on.

Learning versus work

One study carried out in London schools in 2002 compared the frequency of use of these two words in a range of classrooms, and found that "work" was used 98 per cent of the time and "learning" only 2 per cent.

While establishing a work ethic is a very good idea, defining all learning as "work" is a less than inviting proposition for many students. Indeed, teachers who have changed their language tell us that one result of a move away from "work" and towards "learning" is a useful focus on the process of learning itself. You only need to take the quickest of glances at Visible Learning, Professor John Hattie of Auckland University's overview of the impact on attainment of the things that we can do in the classroom, to see this. It shows that students with teachers who focus on the processes of learning, and make them more "visible", develop more advanced conceptions of themselves as learners and achieve more.

Indeed, there is an increasing body of research showing, paradoxically, that pupils do better on tests when they and their teachers do not focus directly on performance or achievement, but on the learning process itself.

From skills to dispositions

Many "expansive" educators - the US educationalists David Perkins and Art Costa, for example, and those involved in our Building Learning Power project in the UK (see panel, opposite) - have begun to notice that the word "skill" isn't quite good enough to describe what is going on as students develop as learners. Professor Perkins has shown that people often appear less capable than they are because, while they may technically have a skill, they don't realise when to make use of it.

A learner who has been taught "thinking skills" may technically be able to check their reasoning and consider counter-arguments, for example, but they may still not have developed the disposition to draw on these skills when they are relevant in new contexts. So there is no point in training students in such mental skills if they don't come to mind when they are needed. Similarly, there is little point in drilling students in the knowledge and skill of grammar if - as often happens - this ability has no impact on the actual quality of their writing in differing contexts.

Teachers who think in terms of "skills", therefore, are less likely to do the extra work that it takes to help their students turn skills into dispositions and habits. That's why "expansive" educators now talk about "cultivating learning dispositions" or getting students, over time, to exercise and strengthen their "learning muscles". Here again, the language matters.

Choosing the right metaphor

Language is saturated with metaphors that guide our thinking, and nowhere is this more important than in education. If we think and talk about learning as if it were like building, then we are led to think of levels or storeys of understanding that must be built upon strong foundations. If minds are like computers, then learning is like adding programs and databases, and teachers are the programmers. If we talk as if learning were like growing, then we are led to a more organic view of development and to a concern with nurturing and cultivating growth.

One of the most promising metaphors, springing from cognitive science research, is of the mind as a collection of muscles that can be strengthened through exercise. Of course, the brain is not a muscle, but the idea that minds can be stretched, exercised and strengthened in a variety of ways - and are not just fixed-sized pots to be filled with knowledge - is both scientifically valid and educationally productive: it leads to new thinking.

What happens when we think of the classroom as a "mind gym", and of each lesson as a 60-minute workout of some particular muscle group? How do maths or history look different if we think of them not as "subjects" but as specialised exercise-machines, with each designed to stretch some aspect of children's brains, and adding up - across the curriculum and across time - to a thoroughgoing mental exercise regime that systematically builds all-round fit, learning minds, capable of responding to the varied challenges of the 21st century?

"Expansive" education - an approach that takes a broader view of what schools should do - is built on this new metaphor for learning (see panel, right). The two familiar dimensions of content and assessment remain important, but now there is a third dimension: an awareness that constantly prompts teachers to ask, "Which learning muscles will the students be stretching if I set up their learning of this topic in this particular way?"

Can we teach the Tudors in a way that will build students' capacity for empathy and imagination rather than, for example, their capacity for credulity, transcription and regurgitation? Can we use simultaneous equations as a stimulus to develop good habits of collaborative enquiry rather than merely habits of passive, accurate computation?

To bring in another metaphor, we need to start thinking about "split-screen lessons". In these, an emphasis on mastery of content is balanced by an equally important emphasis on the development of some specific aspect of the supple, learning mind. It is through approaches like this that we help young people do well in life, as well as in exams.


Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas are co-directors of the Centre for Real-World Learning at Winchester University. Their latest book, The Learning Powered School: pioneering 21st-century education, is published by The Learning Organisation


- Grow your pupils' inquisitiveness

Put up a "Wonder Wall" in your classroom and get the children, on a Monday morning, to add the new questions they thought of over the weekend.

- Grow their ability to reflect on the learning process

Give all pupils a Learning Logbook to record the ups and downs of their learning adventures, and their developing ability to critique their own "work".

- Grow their ability to be resourceful and resilient

Start a "Stuck Poster" on the classroom wall, where pupils can record things they could do to help themselves when they are stuck.

- Grow their ability to see the world through other people's eyes

Ask them to write about the same historical event from the perspective of three different people - then do the same with contemporary situations in Greece or Palestine.

- Grow their ability to combine imagination, persistence, and self and peer-evaluation

Set up a period of studio learning, in which pupils craft products (such as a newspaper or a performance) in small groups that stop regularly to give and receive supportive feedback.


Expansive education is about expanding the range of valued outcomes of education to include genuinely useful habits of mind, as well as bodies of knowledge, skill and understanding. It is about raising standards in a way that also helps young people learn how to deal with genuine real-world complexity and uncertainty.

It focuses directly on expanding the "life skills" or "character capabilities" of young people, not through "add-on" activities such as team sports or outdoor pursuits, but through the whole school curriculum.

The Centre for Real-World Learning and its partners have launched a networking and professional development initiative called The Expansive Education Network. Visit www.expansiveeducation.net


Professor Guy Claxton has developed Building Learning Power, an approach to education with a vocabulary for talking about the rich variety of learning habits that teachers can seek to strengthen.

There is the "muscle group" of resilience, which gives learners patience, persistence, concentration and inquisitiveness.

Resourcefulness unpacks into learning habits like "making links", "imagination" and, of course, our old friend "reasoning".

Then there is the side of learning that is to do with social reciprocity and effective relationships: learning to collaborate, to give and take feedback and to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

Finally, there is the group of habits that enables youngsters to be reflective and manage their own learning: being able to stand back, take stock and check your approach, and to be your own coach and critic.

We have found that naming each of these specific qualities of mind can be very powerful. They show students what goes into effective learning and encourage them to see themselves as developing learners, not just as people who are either good or bad at learning and that's it.

Even young children, we have found, like having special words to name and comment on their growing learning habits, and they use them proudly. It is very encouraging for a child to be able to look back and see how their capacity to "manage distractions" or "listen empathically" has grown over that period.

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