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Book Reading: Choice Words

This post is about my reaction to the book “Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning” by Peter H. Jonston. I was lent the book by Amie and I am very grateful to her because it really is a good book (though it was tough to read with the forest of sticky notes marking her favourite pages ūüėČ ).

This thin little book is about how words have power to help children learn about reading, writing, learning, themselves and their place in the world. The majority of the book is a list of sentences spoken by teachers followed by an analysis of what those words mean for children’s learning. The focus is mostly on helping children learn to read and write successfully, but don’t let the “children” or the “read and write” fool you — I have so many thoughts swirling in my head about how this might possibly apply to my own teaching, and indeed my life.

Unfortunately, “swirling” is the appropriate word for my thoughts right now. The fact that the book is structured around analysing specific utterances by teachers made it all very concrete, but on the other hand it is making really hard for me to process the information coherently. At the moment it’s just a big cloud of things to think more about, a lot of which overlaps. I’m finding it hard to tease things apart to find something I can apply first, or a way for me to consistently apply it so it’s useful for my students. I’ve decided the best thing to do is to write this post so I can attempt to process it all.

The chapter titles might be a good place to start. Here they are:

  1. The Language of Influence in Teaching
  2. Noticing and Naming
  3. Identity
  4. Agency and Becoming Strategic
  5. Flexibility and Transfer (or Generalizing)
  6. Knowing
  7. An Evolutionary, Democratic Learning Community
  8. Who Do You Think You’re Talking To?

Even just listing those titles is helping me focus a bit more. While I was reading it, it might have helped me to keep a bookmark in the chapter heading so I could look back and remind myself what the big idea of the chapter was. Instead I found that I got a bit bogged down in some of the details as I went along and lost the focus. Now that I can look back from a higher vantage point, I reckon I might be able to pull out some bigger ideas…

Chapter 1 is about how much our language has power to¬†create¬†reality, in particular the reality of the listener’s identity. If I were to hold on to just one thing from the whole book then maybe this message would be it: I can make the world different for another person by choosing the words I use.

Chapter 2 is about how in order to learn and know what you have learned, you need to notice things. You need to notice how things are similar or different, how they are related or not. And then, things need to be named, so that it is possible to talk about them. This is remarkably similar to the Notice and Wonder idea from the Math Forum people, and to Chris Danielson’s way of getting to geometry ideas via Which One Doesn’t Belong. But here,¬†Peter goes deeper than this. He suggests that you can notice and name not just content, but also your processes as you work as a group, your thoughts about yourself as a learner, the things you have learned so far, and your behaviour. It is a fascinating idea to me that you can apply the same noticing and naming to mental and social processes as you can to the properties of quadrilaterals.¬†Something to hold onto from this chapter is that my words can draw attention to features worth noticing, and the act of noticing itself.

Chapter 3 is specifically about identity. Peter talks about how we construct a narrative with ourselves as one of the characters and the words we use to tell this story shape the sort of person we see ourselves as. We as teachers can make a difference to identity by the words we choose. Something that struck me most strongly was using words that don’t give people a choice to opt out of the identity. For example, the question “What problems did you have?” assumes that there must have been problems, and asking someone what choices they made assumes they made a choice. This is what I want to hold onto from this chapter, that I can give someone courage to be a writer or mathematician by using words that put them into that character.

Chapter 4 is about agency, and in a way is an extension of the previous chapter on identity. The identity in question here is that of a person who has power over their own choices. This chapter spoke to me most strongly as a maths teacher, since maths is a subject where so many students feel they have no choice and that choice isn’t even a thing that people ought to have (as evidenced by the constant request to tell them what to do). Peter advocates talking to students as if they did make a choice, and analysing the choices they could have made. This is one of the biggest ideas in the whole book to me, and I want most to hold onto this one as I go forwards.

Chapter 5 is about transfer, that holy grail of teaching where students are able to apply what they learn in one area to another. Peter pulls together the agency and the noticing/naming from the earlier chapters as the main mechanism for this. More explicitly, the questions listed here focus on noticing¬†explicit connections between things and also exploring the “what if” questions. He ends with a comment about the importance of play, which of course resonates strongly with me. The thing I want to hold from this chapter is the focus on connections, over and above answers.

Chapter 6 is about knowing, and in particular about who holds knowledge and who decides when we know something. In many teacher-student interactions, the assumption is that it’s the teacher who knows and the teacher who decides what is true and when we are correct. Yet really one day when they leave our care, our learners will need to know how to be sure of things for themselves. The thing I want to hold onto here is that I can give my students the power over knowledge. This is especially important in maths, which is set up so that you actually can be sure of things through your own arguments, rather than having to rely on the authority of others.

Chapter 7, while it has a very long title, is really about how our words can help people learn to work together. Peter has a lot of examples where teacher words encourage learners to consider the feelings and ideas of others, and to choose shared goals. He reuses the noticing and naming power of words to help learners notice their own group processes, and the identity-forming power of words to help learners put on the mantle of people who care about others. The thing I can hold onto from this chapter is that words can make group social and cognitive processes explicit in a way that makes them learnable.

Chapter 8 is about the interplay between your beliefs and your words. As a teacher, if you believe your students are not capable of learning something, your words (and your silences) will reflect this. However — and this is the big thing I want to hold on to here — if you choose to change your words, then some of your beliefs might follow. I see this in using SQWIGLES with myself and my staff where choosing to ask open-ended questions changes the ways that students respond to you and therefore ways that you respond to them. Your beliefs about what students have to say can change through this change in your words.

I think I’ve achieved my goal in writing about this book, in that I have a much clearer idea about how I want to respond to it in my work. I have clarified how much of an impact my words can have on learners’ realities, which I knew, but not to the level of specific detail I did before. In particular I think I want to hold on most strongly to the idea that I can help learners to see themselves as having choice and capable of making that choice, changing both their view of mathematics and of their place in it.

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5 Responses

  1. Simon says:

    Well, that makes me want to read it – thanks for taking the time to review it David.

  2. Nic Petty says:

    Thanks for this David. I am really interested in how this fits with the ideas on helping people to think more positively about mathematics and to think of themselves as mathematicians. Language empowers or disempowers people, and we really want the former.
    I have just bought the book. (Thanks to one-click on Amazon, I can have instant gratification.)

  3. Mark Pettyjohn says:

    It sounds like you are at the beginning of a tremendous journey. My book probably looks a lot like Annie’s. This thin book spawned so many thoughts.

    I see Nic commented above about identity. It looks like he teaches stats, which probably means high school students. That puts you two in a basket teaching students whose identities in mathematics have already been forged for a good portion of their academic careers. So while the end goals may be the same as someone like me working down elementary, I think you two have a much tougher go of it.

    Not that you shouldn’t! Last year I worked with a professor who was teaching a university course of mathematics for college students studying to be elementary teachers was enlightening. There were some serious challenges to developing a positive mathematical mindset, but I also saw some good progress.

    I know you will be keeping us updated, and I am looking forward to following along in the coming months and years.

    • David Butler says:

      Thanks for the comments Mark. It was motivating to think that my words might be enough to help people *change* their identities, as opposed to *form* them. I felt a lot of these things already, but the book helped me know them.

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