It has come to my attention that this blog, and accordingly, teaching, is largely about languaging. What we are trying to achieve in education is perspective expansion – a flexibility of the creative mind to step into the shoes of other people, entities, or processes and walk for a day, resulting in a better understanding of the world and the ability to revise previously held beliefs that may no longer be relevant or useful. The ability to put on these shoes, to overcome biases, and to see the world through different shades of meaning turns out to be greatly aided by the language that we use and the way we phrase things.
It turns out, too, that language is far from being neutral in the process of perceiving, as well as in the process of evaluating perceptions. We have been accustomed to thinking that language ‘expresses’ thought and that it ‘reflects’ what we see. We now know that this belief is naive and simplistic, that our languaging process is fully implicated in any and all of our attempts to assess reality. As studies in perception indicate, we do not ‘get’ meaning from things, we assign meaning. But beyond this, there is a growing understanding that the meaning we assign is a function of the pattern or system of symbols through which we order and relate whatever it is we are dealing with. […] out of a virtually infinite universe of possible things to pay attention to, we abstract only certain portions, and those portions turn out to be the ones for which we have verbal labels or categories.
Below are a few examples of the languaging process as used in educative experiences. For ease of access, they are not ‘categorized,’ into each of the ‘types of semantic awareness’ that we can be on the lookout for; however, if the topic interests you, there is much more information available in the resources section below.
1) On our End-of-Year Trip, students do a ‘Senior Roast,’ which turns out to be an anti-roast of sorts. Students say really nice things about each senior, one at a time, in front of the whole community. The purpose is to highlight all of the positive aspects of that senior as a person within the community, and to display certain amounts of vulnerability as to who we are as a community.
During the roast, students began using foul language to describe some of the strong feelings they were trying to express. After it happened three times, I spoke up.
“The depth and elegance of ideas being conveyed tonight deserve to be expressed through the use of complex language and tone, and not naughty words.”
This statement had both a characteristic flare that was uniquely me (I am a bit known for being a wordy philosopher at times), and had a different message than students expected to hear – one that related to them and the ideas being expressed, which were valuable to them. It had a different impact than saying “No bad words allowed – this is still school.”
2) My colleague Eric had a group of students doing a seminar with him on a reading they had done. As he looked around the circle of 9th grade students, he noticed that every learner who he knew had a reading level well below the expected level for 9th grade was slouched, with a body language that said “I don’t care about this seminar.” Of course a learner who knows they are not good at reading and therefore feels vulnerable in seminar is going to put up a shield against that vulnerability! The shield all of these students (all male) were using was ‘If I don’t care about this subject, then I can blame my lack of ideas or poor grades on not caring rather than on a deficiency I have…’
The next day, Eric ran seminar a bit differently. He invited the students that he had identified to read with him before seminar started, exclaiming “I want you guys to read with me for a bit because I have a technique that I think you will really like.” He went on to read out loud for a bit with them, stopping after each sentence or part of a sentence to digest. He discussed that there was no need to actually finish the reading, they would just get through what they get through, and call it there. There is a new song out, which of course has innuendo with a very different meaning, but that says “we’ll get there when we get there, every inch is a mile, doing 15 in a 30, I ain’t in no hurry, I’m a take it slow just as fast as I can.” This praising of slowness is a very different take on the American ideals of work until you drop and get things done quickly, and it had an impact on the students. If we can develop this type of an attitude, with reverence for slowness and quality, over all of the developmental years of our learners, students may become adults that read and write for pleasure and entertainment as well as when they are forced to by a job.
3) When I taught at Compass Montessori School in Golden, CO, we had students do a project called AWOL – ‘Authentic World of Learning.’ The idea with AWOL was that students would volunteer for some organization every week of the school year, and that hopefully this experience would lead students to a final, week-long volunteering/service project at the end of the year. Sometimes, students bounced around from service organization to service organization, and thus did not have a strong proposal for their week-long service project at the end of the year. This, of course, is where guides would step in and have those students do some sort of a project that we created for them, rather than having students do the project on their own – I decided that my group of students would be working at a community garden.
The challenge, then, was of course getting students to buy into this work. I had the fortune of having many days of prep time, and I am sure all of it contributed to helping students own the project, but one conversation stands out in my mind. The first was with a student who eventually became the ‘ringleader,’ so to speak, of the group. I relayed a message from a friend of mine, Brendan Leonard, who wrote “after all these years, I still refuse to believe that joy costs something.” From this seemingly unrelated quote, we began a deep discussion on how our culture convinces us to believe certain things that are not necessarily true, like that we need to be consuming to be happy. We discussed how, in reality, most of the happiest people on earth were this way because they had created their own reality by being in touch with themselves, the earth, and by finding ways to make whatever task fell before them into an enjoyable one. This greatly helped this particular student to have a reason to make the project enjoyable – it was fighting against a overbearing society. And don’t we all know that sounds juicy to an angsty teen.
4) In 1968, Postman wrote about how our language so typically creates ‘closed systems’ in our minds:
“A closed system is one in which the knowables are fixed. Examples of this kind of system would include any in which most of its answers are either yes or no, right or wrong clearly and without any other possibility. Since most of our formal training consists of learning to make decisions (yes-no answers in closed systems), we tend to assume that this approach is applicable to all situations. Even when we are trying to be open-minded, we are likely to say, “Let’s look at both sides of the question.” Of course, if we do this with most questions, what we do in effect is make closed systems of largely open ones. If we are not aware of whether we are working in a closed system or an open one, we can consistently arrive at answers that are at best frustrating and at worst tragic.
As educators, this phenomenon exists at a hypersensitive level. Of course a math teacher (for example) is going to pose a problem that has a right or wrong answer at some point during the year! However, it is really important for us to step outside of our closed systems often, and to have mathematical seminars, or design-based projects with no one-answer. The implications are tremendous:
The same situation is found in politics. “My country right or wrong” may have been adequate as a guiding principle in a simpler world. But the Nuremberg Trials changed that. Eichmann’s decision to do what his government asked him to do was universally condemned, and now the rest of us are faced with complex choices. What are the ‘best’ meanings of patriotism, loyalty, national interest, etc.? Do we require a new language of citizenship? Apparently, yes, because citizenship is no longer a closed system of clear obligations. We most certainly require a new language of war. In an earlier time, a nation either won or lost. There was only one question to ask: how can we win? Today, it is not so simple. It goes without saying that the relentless series of disastrous decisions in Vietnam have been made by men who are accustomed to using a language that is no longer adequate to represent the reality they must deal with.
People make themselves, or are made, “closed” systems for many reasons, most frequently because they are unaware of the extent to which they are languaging systems, and being unaware, they lock themselves into predetermined decisions by limiting their language resources. A person who is prejudiced against Negroes, for example, cannot ‘see’ a Negro; he can only see “n-words” and decide that they are whatever his closed system predetermines them to be. He acts toward them as if they are what his system makes them. The same process is operating on a man who has predetermined with the aid of a limited, unconsciously used vocabulary what “America” is, or a poem, or a communist, or history, or mathematics. If we “see things” one way, we act accordingly. If we see them in another, we act differently. The ability to learn turns out to be a function of the extent to which one is capable of perception change.”
The question for educators becomes: Can we become the people we are hoping to teach our students to be – people with the flexibility of mind to not only expand perspective, but to recognize when our language is limiting it? When we live that truth first, we will find ourselves on the right path.
5) My friend Eric noted to our students that “Education is not something you receive, it’s something you claim. Something you engage and create.” We live in an era of ‘Customer Service-ing.’ Students as well as parents are used to consuming, and consuming involves being able to post a poor review of a company on Yelp if they don’t help you figure out how to use your new technology (even if you haven’t read the instructions manual), or if you have to wait too long for your food. You probably have parents who, even though they have full access to online report cards at any instant, will ask you for their student’s grades. Students probably expect you to ‘give’ them an education. It’s important to use languaging to change that mindset – we teachers don’t ‘give’ education – education is a process, and a student engages it.
6) A friend likes to say “I’m not in the business of changing behavior. I’m in the business of changing mindset.” This transitions teachers from ‘seeing’ less to seeing the broader picture (behavior, which you can change through compliance without a person changing fundamentally, is a small component of what we are hoping to see change. Behavior will change as a result of mindset change, but behavior may also change without a true metaphysical change). This short phrase has often reminded me to adjust my approach with students – to move away from the time-saving compliance-based approaches to the more energy-intensive, but progressive approaches students actually need to change as people.
7) In his book Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax tells the story of a mother who wanted to get her son away from his ever-more permanent location in front of the video game console. The son loved playing Madden football games, so she decided to sign him up for a real football team, which the son vehemently did not want to do. She took him, kicking and screaming, to the first day of practice and dropped him off.
When the son got back in the car after practice, the mother asked “what activities did you do at practice?” and not “did you enjoy yourself?” After all, for the son to say ‘yes’ to the second question was to admit that he was wrong and his mother was right, which is something that no kid will do at that age!
This slight change of language changed the son’s outlook on the sport without him knowing it – the process of responding to what actually happened at practice rather than how he felt about it caused him to delay actually feeling how he knew he was supposed to feel, if he were to be correct, and this caused him to ultimately experience the world without his hopes and fears overlaid on top of reality.
As we go forth in our educational endeavors, try to notice when and how the language that we use limits or expands our students perceptions and mindsets. Obviously, this could take a lifetime of practice for us to master our languaging processes, but being consciously aware of the fact that language plays a role in our perceptions is the first step in this lifetime of learning. Because every learner is unique, often times when we are attempting to language we are innovating rather than working from a script. Here are some of the ideals I have outlined for myself when languaging. My langugage:
1) Has to be relevant to the learner’s life and self-embetterment.
2) Has to hold the positive bias.
3) Has to avoid areas of vulnerability that will create ‘shields.’
4) Has to show vulnerability on the part of the guide.
5) Often has to re-spin a common cultural misconception.
6) Has to show that I care.
So long as I am working towards these ideals, I should be on the right track. Of course, every situation is different, so I have to be listening to all of the cues around me as well.
What examples of languaging can you add? What ideals do you follow?
Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969). Teaching as a subversive activity. New York: Delacorte Press.
Sax, L. (2007). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. New York: Basic Books.