The Language of Mindfulness
“Can language cause us to be more aware, mindful, and flexible? A long line of research suggests that it can. The amazing thing is that this language is subtle in its presence but powerful in its impact on our thinking. Specifically, language that slows for the possibility of interpretation and that opens the door to even a small bit of ambiguity has the power to keep the mind in an open state, avoiding early closure, pursuing possibilities, and listening to information presented by others…..” (p. 78)
Ritchhart then goes on to give an example of a teacher who uses “conditional” vs. “absolute” vocabulary by choosing terms such as “might” vs “is” in inviting students to consider their work as they look at a picture relevant to a history lesson. Ritchhart continues on with a description of a series of studies on “mindfulness” conducted by Ellen Langer, himself, and others over a ten year period in which the researchers determined that the way a task was presented (as an absolute or a conditional phenomenon) determined how the learner would respond. Learners could think of problems as “right/wrong answer” tasks or as tasks that offered possible solutions. Furthermore, the way problem solvers treated tasks (absolute or conditional) impacted the degree to which the participants “negotiated” solutions with others, thereby inviting others into a/the conversation.
“Now visualize yourself in a classroom, and a fellow student makes a statement with which you disagree. His or her words might have the effect of shutting down conversation. In contrast, when someone expresses an idea in conditional language, it can be much easier to add your thoughts to the conversation.” (p. 80)
Given this perspective, if we want students to become thinkers, it is important to be sensitive not just to the specific words (or phrases or sentences) we use, but the kinds of language—absolute or conditional—that we use. There is a whole literature that addresses this distinction that is well worth our consideration.
The Language of Praise/Feedback
Here, again, Ritchhart talks about the kind of language we, as teachers use, in this case, to provide students with guidance about the work they are doing, have already done, and/or will do. He draws a distinction between praise and feedback (a topic getting a lot of attention lately in the education literature as it focuses on “growth mindset” and “formative and summative feedback.”) “Praise terms such as “perfect,” “good job,” “well done” are characterized as “not informative to the students; consequently, it may have no impact on the child beyond the realization that he or she got the answer right or wrong.” (p. 81) Referring to Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” work, he notes that Dweck (2007) suggests that “praise is intricately connected to how students view their intelligence” (p. 34) and therefore praise of one’s abilities may produce a burst of pride but ultimately be detrimental to learning….” (p. 81)
In contrast ”feedback” is described as being informative, task related, and potentially actionable relative to improving the task performance or guiding future learning. Ritchhart offers suggestions on a research-based “language of feedback” illustrated by reference to Lisa’s (the featured teacher in this text) examples. It is noted that she first points out, specifically, what they did that worked: “tried to find an explanations for what’s going on…used what you already know, things that you’ve already seen…” And then she “directs their attention to the next task, again highlighting the thinking to be done.” (p. 82)
And, again, it is not just the specific words/phrases/sentences that the teacher uses that matter, but the purpose/intention of the language choices that matters. Ideally, we don’t usually use words that don’t match our intentions.
Ritchhart ends the section by noting that there are other “kinds of language” that are relevant to the classroom and learning that we could consider: the language of trust, the language of direction, the language of responsibility, the language of framing, the language of metaphor, and the language of discourse.
And on the last page of this chapter, the author offers 7 ways to “Become proficient users of the languages of the classroom”:
*Become more aware of the language moves you are currently making.
*Listen to your students’ use of conditional and absolute language.
*In planning, list the key thinking moves.
*Practice the language of praise and feedback in writing.
*To become a better listener, try to avoid making assumptions about what others are saying or presuming you understand their intent.
*Check if you are nurturing initiative versus developing dependence…
*Make a list of the various roles you want students to step into in your classroom.