Thursday, February 6, 2014

From Vagueness to Specificity: The Power of Language to Increase Understanding and Learning


Specific.  Descriptive.  Feedback.  We use these words freely and easily in connection to assessment for learning and formative assessment.  Research reminds us and our own experience tells us that specific and descriptive feedback causes learning.  Evaluative feedback – words like “great job” or “try harder” or “good enough” or “92%” or “4/10” or “3 on a four point rubric scale” can evoke either positive or negative emotion.  For many learners, though, it just isn’t enough to build on what was done well or to adjust what needs to be attempted again. 

Peter Johnston writes in his book Opening Minds:  Using Language to Change Lives that, as educators, the words we choose can either promote a fixed-performance frame or a dynamic-learning frame. For him, small changes in our language to include increased specificity can have broad consequences. This sounds easy and yet as we listen to each other speak, we realize that evaluative and vague phrases are used frequently and effortlessly.  Art Costa and Bob Garmston also recognize that this type of language gets in the way; for them, it “…blurs understanding and hides opportunities” (Cognitive Coaching; A Foundation for Renaissance Schools, 2002).

As leaders of learning, we can help others and ourselves to become more specific and descriptive as we listen to the language that is used around us - “That was a great concert!” or “This has been a particularly difficult week.” or “We probably could come up with a better solution.”  Each of these sentences includes a word or turn of phrase that, because it is inherently evaluative, does not lead to a deeper understanding. 

Recently, I found myself engaged in conversations that promoted vague awareness and appreciation.  At connect2learning, we have been celebrating the completion of three resources that have lately been published – A Fresh Look at Grading and Reporting in High Schools, Établir et utiliser des critères, and Lesson Study:  Powerful Assessment and Professional Practice.  This celebration included some good food, of course, and congratulations all around.  For weeks, we have been saying things like, “It is so good that these books have been published.” and “Isn’t it great what we have accomplished?”  Of course, statements like these at times like these are expected.  But I paused to wonder what they actually meant for the eight people gathered around our staff room.  So, I took out a piece of chart paper and wrote down a couple of the statements that I had been hearing.  And then I asked the question, “What specifically do we mean when we say  ‘It is so good that these books have been published?’  and  ‘Isn’t it great what we have accomplished?’ ”  We can make assumptions that they mean the same to others as they mean to ourselves; yet this type of language, by virtue of it vagueness, can actually lead us to believe that we are all thinking the same thing.

We took only about ten minutes and, in that time, we listed many, many phrases that gave everyone a better understanding of what those words actually meant to their colleagues.  A couple of examples included:
·      “We have been waiting over a decade to have some of our resources translated into French.”
·      “We are introducing new authors to our colleagues across North America.”
·      “We are a Canadian publisher that is publishing more Canadian authors.”
·      “We have published another book solely for the secondary audience.”
As we reflected on the list, we realized that the words “great” and “good” had a depth of meaning that could allow us to examine our publishing schedule.  That is, not only did we make our thinking visible to each other, but we could take this shared understanding and apply it to possible next steps.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not suggesting that we clear our language of evaluative words and phrases.  As one Grade One teacher said to me, “We share ‘feel good’ statements after we have provided feedback for learning.”  However, it is important that we, both educators and adult learners, pause to practice the giving of specific and descriptive feedback; we need to uncover what the vague qualifiers that we use actually mean.  When we practice this, we not only model it for ourselves, but for our students as well.  This means that as leaders, we need to ask others and ourselves what they mean explicitly, because this is a way to bring specificity to our language and, therefore, to learning.  We do this deliberately and consciously in our leadership practice when we ask, “So what might we mean when we say……”

And as Dylan Wiliam said in 2006 while being interviewed, “Evaluative feedback usually causes an emotional reaction – a positive reaction or a negative reaction.  The crucial element of effective feedback is that it should cause the students to engage with that feedback and take their learning forward.”

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