The Expert’s classroom - Why language matters

With the launch of another year of SCITT and ECF training, we have been talking a lot lately about how to set and maintain the high standards and expectations, that will ensure that our children flourish.

Here at Redhill, we talk a lot about our teachers seeing themselves as experts: experts not just in subject knowledge but also in the art and craft of teaching. One of our trainees asked us last week whether teaching should be considered an art or a science?  I thought this was an interesting question. Having studied English and Languages and having taught Languages for over 30 years, I think it's fair to say I probably sit firmly in the art camp.

My immediate reaction was to think of course teaching is an art; it requires freedom of expression and creativity, flexibility of response, imagination, and the best teaching elicits an emotional response.  However, on further consideration, it is undeniable that expert teaching also demands clear, practical application, forensic analysis, and dissection of content.  The best teachers and students will employ methods of observation and experimentation to reach logical and systematic conclusions.


What is ART?

‘The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’

What is SCIENCE?

‘The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment’


In truth, expert teaching is both and art and a science.  The best teachers manage to combine these two elements seamlessly and one of the key ways they do this is through the language they use.  Language is so very important in teaching and, as a recent blog from Durrington Research School states,the words we choose really matter. They have the capacity to either raise or lower the bar we expect our pupils to reach’.

Whether delivering training or teaching, walking around corridors or attending meetings, the language we use in our schools is vitally important when it comes to setting and maintaining standards and expectations.  Taking pride in the way we express ourselves, using key terminology in the right way and modelling and reinforcing excellence, and care in communication, reaps results. Especially if there is a collective and shared commitment across the school to a consistent approach and a shared vocabulary around high expectations and standards.


The Pygmalion Effect

Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) described the Pygmalion effect as ‘the phenomenon whereby done person’s behaviour comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy’ and demonstrated through their research that the expectations a teacher holds of a student or students have a dynamic and sustained influence on the performance of the student(s). ‘Individuals who expect more, get more’. However, expectation works the other way too, so where optimistic expectations can have a hugely positive impact on performance, pessimistic expectations can have equally negative impacts. 

Our beliefs about our students and their abilities subtly affect our actions and have a consequence on the beliefs that students have of themselves.  Ultimately, this will affect the way students interact with their teacher and with each other and will have a tangible and marked effect on outcomes.

Rosenthal and Jacobsen’s experimentation around the Pygmalion Effect is worth a read and involves identifying a group of randomly selected students as having ‘uncommon talent for intellectual growth’.  Over a period of eight months, these children began to record considerably higher outcomes than their peers despite the claims about their potential being completely unfounded. 


The 'halo effect'

Many years ago, I was involved in a CLIL project in Leicestershire.  A class chosen ‘at random’ learnt French through immersion in 2 subjects (ITT and geography).  As the project continued (alongside a control group), an unexpected consequence of the project began to emerge; the students in the CLIL group began to achieve extraordinary results across the whole curriculum, not just French. The ‘halo effect’ formed around the perception that the students involved were chosen or special or particularly capable, saw a dramatic increase in all round expectations.

Outside the classroom, we need to be careful about the way we discuss our students and their capacity to succeed. For leaders, this is especially important, as they quite literally provide the lead on this.  If we talk about ‘problematic year groups’ or ‘lazy boys’ or ‘weak bottom sets’ etc., then, as Chris Runeckles from Durrington says:

That sort of discourse seeps into the fabric of our thinking and will chip away at high expectations. This makes subsequent attempts to set and maintain high expectations more of a veneer than a lived reality


In the classroom, we can use language to establish and maintain our expectations by:

  • Setting clear and well expressed learning objectives – is language well-used to support students to understand of what they are about to be taught and what they are expected to take away from the lesson?
  • Making the main thing the main thing – does the language used in the lesson support the students to understand the knowledge and skills that are being communicated.  Is the language used in instruction, explanation, questioning, discussion and feedback secure comprehension?
  • Refusing to cut corners – do the students have space and time to express themselves with precision without the teacher filling the gaps and are they made fully aware of any errors they are making, no matter how small?
  • Giving clear and well expressed feedback – does the language used in feedback enable the students to understand what they need to do next to improve and is it focussed on the task rather than the person as recommended by the EEF in their excellent Guidance Report on Teacher Feedback?
  • Encouraging self-belief – does the language used give the students reason to believe that they are capable and considered? 

If the language we use in and out of the classroom reflects both the art and science of teaching, if it motivates and inspires and encourages a forensic, observational approach then we will not go far wrong.


Further Reading:

The Power of Expectations

Setting High Academic Expectations

Teacher Feedback to Improve Pupil Learning - Guidance report


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