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March 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 6
The Learning Zone

How Language Helps or Hinders Thinking

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Used well, words free up educators' thinking and understanding. Used carelessly, they inhibit both.

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"We tried to talk it over, but the words got in the way."
—Leon Russell, from "This Masquerade"
In Walker Percy's novel The Second Coming, one of the two main characters, Allie, struggles to reconstruct her world after she loses her memory. As she is rebuilding her life, Allie also decides to rebuild a stove in her new home. But she can't start until she learns the words she needs to fix the stove, so she asks the book's other main character, Will, for help. "'Give me the words' [Allie said]. She took out pad and pencil. He wrote: Creeper. Ten-inch crescent wrench. WD-40. 'Good . . . I know it . . . but not the word.'"
Armed with the words she needs, Allie is ready to begin rebuilding the stove—and her life, as it turns out. Such is the power of language.

The Power of a Shared Vocabulary

A few years ago, I wrote about the importance of a shared vocabulary, noting that words not only let us talk about topics we otherwise would have no way to communicate about, but also help us realize things we wouldn't otherwise be able to see. Several years ago, I wrote in a post for the International Literacy Association's blog, "Words might be humanity's greatest invention. A word is a candle held up in the darkness to help us move forward."

Better conversations, made possible by a shared vocabulary, should lead to better experiences for students.

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In schools, a shared vocabulary can help us think, plan, and act in ways that benefit children. When teachers have a shared understanding of different meanings for the word engagement, for example, they're able to explore strategies that might increase emotional, cognitive, or behavioral engagement. Better conversations, made possible by a shared vocabulary, should lead to better experiences for students.

What Can Go Wrong with Word Power

Recently, I've been noticing something else about words; they can also inhibit thought and inquiry. We see this most obviously in political discourse. To use just one example, according to Merriam Webster, the word woke was originally used in political conversations to describe anyone who is "aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)." Now the word is more often used pejoratively to silence or stereotype the ideas of anyone who might be considered politically liberal. When someone is labeled "woke," many people begin to automatically judge, dismiss, and even silence that person's ideas. Although words can open up conversation and thinking, certain loaded words also shut those conversations down.
Words can also be used in ways that inhibit thinking in schools. Take, for example, the phrases research-validated or research says. Of course, understanding the evidence in support of an intervention or teaching strategy is very important. But injecting the word research can simply end a fruitful dialogue about what's best for kids. In my experience, "research says," limits thinking more often than it enhances thinking because when people hear those words, they often feel silenced, even though researchers themselves frequently debate findings.
Other words can inhibit thought too, particularly when they are used to stereotype people. Teachers who are exhausted from innovation overload can be labeled "resistant" if they don't embrace a new teaching strategy. Administrators are sometimes given names that diminish or even dehumanize them. I worked with one district where the administrative offices were referred to as "the head shed," and the term wasn't meant to call attention to the good thinking that took place "downtown."

Language that stereotypes, dehumanizes, moralistically judges, or silences others always stops inquiry dead in its tracks.

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Terms such as learning disabled can help us better understand students' unique needs and secure help for them in school. But such a term can also focus attention on the student as a problem—and distract people from considering whether the school is providing adequate instruction and support. Language that stereotypes, dehumanizes, moralistically judges, or silences others always stops inquiry dead in its tracks.

What We Can Do

Fortunately, there is something we can do to counteract this phenomenon. We can ask questions that move a conversation away from the stifling effects of certain words and toward curiosity and more helpful information, especially in schools. When someone says a teaching strategy is evidence-based or research-based, we can ask about the evidence. What kind of studies were done and when? Do any other studies contradict the findings? Were the studies that support this strategy's effectiveness done with students like those in our school? How confident can we be that the findings will apply in our setting with our unique students?
Ultimately, what matters most is whether a strategy is likely to have an unmistakably positive impact on student learning or well-being. That should be the final deciding factor when choosing strategies.
When we hear labels used that simplistically categorize students, let's ask more about the unique learning needs of the students under discussion. What has worked for a particular student? What does she say she needs? Is the label this student has been given possibly interfering with our ability to truly see the student?

Let's stop and consider, Am I using words to identify the best solution for children—or to be 'right' and win an argument?

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We should also pay attention to our own thinking. We're all human—and for some reason, it sometimes feels good to judge another person or simplify our thinking through stereotypes. We should ask ourselves whether we might be turning to stereotypes in a situation. It's normal to want to use words, including powerful terms or jargon, in ways that persuade others to share our viewpoint. So when we prepare to voice our opinion or offer feedback to a colleague, let's stop and consider, Am I using words to identify the best solution for children—or to be "right" and win an argument?
The problems we face today, in our schools, our lives, and even in the world, are so complex that they can only be solved by better thinking. Words can promote or disrupt thinking. So let's use words for better thinking—our lives, our schools, and our children need it.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching

Jim Knight offers instructional coaches detailed strategies for honing conversation skills that are substantive, reflective, and teacher-centered.

The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching
End Notes

1 Percy, W. (1999/1980). The second coming. Picador.

Jim Knight is a founding senior partner of the Instructional Coaching Group (ICG) and a research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning. He has spent more than two decades studying professional learning, effective teaching, and instructional coaching.

Knight has written several books and his articles on instructional coaching have been included in publications such as The Journal of Staff Development, Principal Leadership, The School Administrator, and Teachers Teaching Teachers.

He directs Pathways to Success, a comprehensive, district-wide school reform project in the Topeka, Kansas, School District and leads the Intensive Instructional Coaching Institutes and the Teaching Learning Coaching annual conference.

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