Whats in language?

During the last week the issue of how simple changes in the words we use can have a large impact on perceived meaning has arisen on repeated occasions.


The first instance of this was in reading Drive by Daniel Pink in which he mentioned the long established practice of issuing students home work.    Daniels book discusses the impact of motivation on the things we do and on the point of home work he raises the issue that generally the term work doesn’t inspire a large amount of intrinsic motivation.    The task is “work” and therefore is perceived to involve no pleasure or enjoyment.   As such the term home work turns students off the activity even before we have begun.   He suggests that we might rename it as home learning as our urge to explore and to learn brings with it intrinsic motivation which is not associated with work tasks.   A simple change.

Later in the week in a meeting discussing appraisal or performance management depending on which term you prefer, the issue of the use of the terms, reviewer and reviewee was raised.   A focus on looking forward and improvement was indicated within the policy and by the appropriate senior managers however the terms reviewer and reviewee seemed to indicate a post event reflection as opposed to looking forwards.   One suggestion as to a possible change in relation to the language was to use facilitator, rather than reviewer; so the facilitator of performance management or appraisal.

As an EdTech advocate I am often aware of the use of “enhance” as a term using in relation to technology use in the classroom.    Again this week I saw the term used.    To me the term implies a bolt on, a bit like tomato sauce enhancing chips; it isn’t required by the chips but adds to it.   At its basic level, and as indicated in the first level of the SAMR model, EdTech is a bolt on however its potential doesn’t lie here.    Its potential lies in its potential to redefine how we learn as well as what we learn.   Again another example of a simple change in language betraying a massive difference in meaning.

Recent news has had a lot of discussion on the SATs or Standard Assessment Tests, with the term tests or testing being used almost on every occasion.   This has led to lots of discussion with regards the pressure being put on students as a result of such testing.    Those teachers who are trying to make the best of this prescribed activity however refer to the SATs as an assessment.   They refer to them as just another tool they use in the day to day act of teaching and learning, and of assessing students to check that they are understanding, making progress and are engaged, etc.

How often do we stop and consider the words we use regularly?   As I type this I notice my use of “We” as opposed to “I”.    What difference does this slight change in language convey and what difference in perception of me does it encourage?

Maybe we need to find the time to stop and look at the big picture but in doing so look at the little things like the language we use as it rhough language which we communicate and are understood and it is through language that a significant part of how others perception of us is developed.



Percolating on thinking!


Peculation is the term used by Benedict Carey when discussing how ideas form for writers.    He suggests that big projects or more extensive assignments are best dealt with through having the bigger task in mind throughout, but with smaller related build up tasks contained within the lead up to the main task.   The idea here is that this makes use of Zeigarnick effect where mental goals, such as completing the main assignment, leads to greater awareness of ideas, concepts or objects related to the goal even when we are doing a separate or even unrelated task.   As a result of this effect we may pick up and even learn things while about our main goal while undertaking and intermediary task.

He also suggests that, linked to this, we should start with a bigger task rather than smaller tasks.    My normal approach has always been to start with smaller easier tasks such as reading a variety of literature during my Masters study from a few years ago.    I always felt this helped my confidence and eased me into the bigger task in hand.   All my reading and note taking then led to tackling the actual writing part towards the end of the time window I had allocated for completing my Masters study.      The reality of the matter is that when it came to the writing part I struggled long and hard to get everything done and often not quite to the standards I would prefer.   Carey suggested that I should have started with a larger writing task as this would have focused me and made me more perceptive of linked or inconsistent ideas or observations within the literature as I read through it.  As such new ideas related to the topic in hand would be more visible to me plus would prove to be easier for me to link to existing knowledge.    This is turn may have made it easier for me to build my final dissertation.   So maybe I could have read only a couple of journals before writing a more lengthy summary document or analysis, then going on to read further as opposed to trying to do all the reading up front and leaving the writing until the end.

Carey’s comments focus very much on the subconscious side of things in that we don’t actually perceive our increased perceptiveness relating to the goal or outcome in mind.   I also believe there is a part to play for the conscious mind.    I think this is best summed up by Coveys comment, “start with the end in mind.”    Students need to know where they are going with their learning.   Linked to this they also need to know where they have been, their previous knowledge and how this links together and how this might link to the new learning at hand.    Only then can students truly understand the route taken in their learning journey.    I am particularly fond of Microsoft OneNote as an app for keeping a live mind map of learning although I will discuss that further in a separate posting in the coming weeks.

The more I think about how we learn, and the more I think about thinking, the more possibilities arise for how learning might be modified or changed to hopefully bring about improvements in the quality of learning.



Carey, B. (2014) How We Learn, MacMillan Publishing

Covey, S. (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press

Body and mind

We think with both our body and our mind.   Daniel Kahneman outlines the experiment where individuals are made to smile or frown through putting a pencil in their mouth.   They are asked to either put a pencil length ways in their mouth or pointing forward from their mouth, however not explanation is given for this.  They are then asked about how they feel.   Those with the pencil length ways indicate a greater tendency towards happiness whereas those with the pencil pointing outwards tend towards unhappiness.   No explanation is given to participants as to the reasoning for pencil.  The actual reasoning for the pencil is to cause participants to either smile, as a pencil lengthwise in your mouth will cause, or frown as a pencil pointing outwards and therefore held in place by pursed lips will cause.    This suggests that physical attributes or events can result in mental changes, in this case changes in emotional state.    If we take this idea and consider how we might make use of it in education it seems to suggest that the physical position, etc of students could have an impact on their learning.    This could have implications for students being seated for periods of time. or for classroom movement.   It seems to link to the use of brain gym in class which although evidence suggests it doesn’t have a direct impact on learning, it does energize students and in my experience puts them in a better frame of mind ahead of or during learning.   Basically the physical activity changes the mental conditions which impact on learning including emotional state.

Linked to this is cognitive loading and its impact on simple activities such as movement.   We might make students move round a classroom doing group activities however where cognitive load is high, such as where students are having to engage in critical thinking on a topic, they will find the simple activity such as movement difficult.    Kahneman discussed how, if you ask someone a complex maths question while walking, there is a high likelihood the person will stop at least momentarily in order to think through the problem prior to answering.    This raises some questions with regards higher order thinking activities combined with movement.

Cognitive loading very much relies on what Kahneman described as Agent 2 or the analytical part of the mind as opposed to Agent 1 which is the intuitive part of the mind.    This again could have interesting implications within education especially with regards to examinations as the mind will often present what appear to be intuitively correct answers in an effort to avoid the effort of having to analyse the problem in hand.   In some cases these intuitive answers will be correct however they can also be misleading.    As teachers we therefore have a duty to prepare students to deal with these intuitive answers such that the avoid being mislead.

As teachers we also need to look at how we can use mental priming to best effect.   Priming is where a visual, auditory or other cue has a direct mental of physical effect.   As I mentioned earlier a smile can result in feelings of happiness.    We could use images in our classroom to try to encourage students to smile.  Maybe a picture of a smile or a picture of a class of students working together will all participants smiling.   This second example might also serve to set the tone and have an impact on the ability to get students to work collaboratively within class.

Students are human beings and as human beings they think as other human beings do.   As we strive to make better education systems I think a key step is to encourage teachers to dive into the rich texts that exist with regards how humans think and behave.   The more I read from different authors on the brain, thinking, creativity, etc the more I realize how much I don’t know about learning and the more I want to know.   Through such reading we can generate ideas, test them in class and draw conclusions as to the potential for such ideas to impact on the quality of learning;  We can become better teachers of the small thinking human beings which join us every day in our classrooms.

Regressing to the mean

The below post was written around a year and a half ago as I returned to the UK from the UAE to interview for the post I now hold.   I dont know why, however I never got around to posting my thoughts however as we head towards the end of 2016 it may be an appropriate time to share my them:


etihadIt was almost 7 years ago that, following accepting an educational consultancy post in the UAE, that I flew from Manchester in the UK to the UAE for the first time.   As an inexperienced flyer I was racked by nerves regarding the flight, regarding my new job, regarding relocating myself and my family from the UK to the UAE, regarding how I would adapt to a foreign culture and regarding a multitude of other things.    It hasn’t been until today some 7 years later that I have came to reflect on how I felt back then.

So why do I find myself reflecting you may be asking.   The answer is that I find myself once again sat on board a longhaul aeroplane this time travelling from the UAE back to the UK, a distance of 5500 Kilometers according to the display screen in front of me. The purpose of the flight is to attend an interview for a school in the UK. Again I find myself wondering about the interview, the school, the task of potentially relocating, the need to adapt back into UK culture and a multiple of other issues.

Now I think if you asked my colleagues 7 years ago as to what they thought regarding me taking up post in the UAE they would have all at least described a sense of surprise and some possibly a sense of shock.    I suspect my current colleagues and friends in the UAE may also express the same should I raise my current thoughts regarding returning to the UK.

So why do it, if I am so nervous and my friends and colleagues so surprised?    I think the answer relates to diversity. I am a creature of habit so in my day to day operations am happy with the status quo, with the same routines, the same people and the same locale. That said, I also believe that a constant reliance on the status quo will result in atrophy. To use a statistical analogy, when looking at performance of a skills based task, over time, performance of an individual or a group will regress to the mean. In other words the result will tend towards the average or each persons average ability over time, with freak lucky or unlucky results smoothed over.   In my life I am happy with the average and over time I appear to get into a pattern, or to “regress to the mean” if you will.   This is where I believe I am now, in that comfortable place settled with “average” or familiar patterns and events.   It is this that leads me to be on the plane on which I now sit for every so often I feel the need to mix things up a little and try and push for an extreme result away from average, to both unsettle and challenge myself and to disrupt the average or status quo.  It would appear the time period for this for me is around the 7 or 8 year mark.

I hope that this current endevour meets with an extreme positive result however only time will tell.   If you yourself have been happy with the average then good for you, however consider this: shaking things up could make you happier as it has done for me over the last 7 years during my adventures living and working in the UAE.   Sat on this plane I believe it may be possible that this chapter is closing.     This is a positive thing, as the closing of the current chapter means the beginning of new chapter, new challenges, risk, change, excitement, frustration and many other emotions and experiences (at least for a while until I regress to the mean once again!!!)

Image by Richard Vandervord licensed under creative commons attribution-share alike license.