The Language of Identity

Ritchhart raises the question of roles students take, depending on how we, as teachers, introduce a lesson/topic.  Do we tell them what they will learn about or should teachers introduce a lesson by saying: “Today as scientists we are going to be investigating how chemicals react under various circumstances.”  In the first example, students are likely to take a passive role as receiver of information, rather than taking on a new role.  “This [new role] includes not only discipline-based roles (scientists, artists, historians, and so on) but also process-based roles (thinkers, researchers, data collectors, analysts, commentators, advocates, inventors, and the like). (p. 75)(bolding mine)

Ritchhart says that the field of literacy instruction has already identified learners as readers or writers. “For decades, those involved in literacy education have embraced the language of identity and have come to refer easily to students as readers writers, authors, poets, and so on as a matter of course.” (p. 74)

Clearly, students have the ability, even at a young age, to identify themselves as active learners in a specific domain  and to use the language of learning:

I have heard a 4 year old distinguish between “teached” and “learned” in a conversation about learning.

I have heard Kindergarten children refer to themselves as “readers’ and “writers.”

And I have heard a middle school student refer to herself as a learner after having a “coach” say, “You’re learning.”

I can’t help but wonder at what age children come to see themselves as “learners” and have the vocabulary to talk about their learning.  What role do parents and teachers play in providing the vocabulary of learning?  One road to seeing oneself as a learner is the “initiative” that children are able to take in their learning.

The Language of Initiative

There is so much in this section that it will be difficult to do it justice.  But here are a few examples of what Ritchhart offers.

“Contemplating the skills and dispositions required for success in the twenty-first century, we saw the need for flexible, independent learners able to demonstrate initiative and innovation emerge as a common demand across multiple constituencies.”… (p. 75)

“If we accept that initiative is indeed an important goal for education in the twenty-first century, then we need to know what actually develops when we foster initiative.  A key aspect of initiative, or what researchers in sociology and psychology sometimes refer to as “agency,” is the ability to make choices and direct activity based on one’s own resourcefulness and enterprise….” (p. 76)

To help students develop this initiative,

^Teachers can use language to direct a student’s attention to the strategies they employ:

*”Tell me what you just did.”

*“What is your plan for tackling this?”

In contexts where students are given the opportunity to use initiative, students’ language reflects that:

^Students’ use of “agent” language includes:

*Use of hypotheticals:  If we do this…” or “let’s imagine…”

*Use of modals (would, could, should) as ways to identify option for consideration.

In describing such contexts, Heath (1999) “notice that both leaders and older members of the group regularly used the language of initiative, thus providing new members the opportunity to internalize it.” (p. 78)

Ritchhart ends this section by saying:

“Our goal as educators, parents and mentors is to encourage those whom we are trying to nurture to be the thinkers and see themselves as thinkers, planners, and doers.” (p. 78)

The language we use can encourage or discourage students to/from being “agents” and “thinkers.”