We all know about SMART goals and explicit feedback and feed-forward and the proven benefits such usage can give to both teachers and students in the vast educational environment of today. Yet despite having what I consider a pretty diverse command of the English language, I notice more and more the exponential power of two sentences that when delivered, (in Google-speak) effectively have a power of 10 outcome. Neither sentence is particularly complicated or revolutionary but the effects observed on the recipients makes me wonder whether such key simplicity is often overlooked in the quest for evidenced-based communication.
The first phrase I find myself increasingly using is: "I believe you can."
But what is it about these four words that are so transformational, what is it about these words that can and do make such a difference. Well first of all, I believe it's in part due to the fact that I've reduced the conversation in play to the most individualised context possible, just the recipient and I. No-one matters in this communication, no-one else is present. Often the recipient initially often seeks to deflect the praise, but after a brief period of time in most cases I think the delayed reaction is one of "Hey, Sir didn't have to have say that. Well if he believes in me, maybe I can do this, maybe I need to believe in myself." In all honesty being a realist, the initial awkward reaction suggests that my comment hasn't had the greatest of resonations, if any. BUT the next time I make the same comment to the same individual, watch out, it's game time! I figure the fact that I have bothered to make this comment a second time means the first one is realised as actually being genuine and that to say it again, means I really do believe in him or her.
I also feel the delayed power of this affirming statement has much to do with the self-esteem of our current student population, one that has been battered and diminished by a toxic mix of social media and a wider on-line, television and radio presentation of celebrity success and excess, much of it let's just say "rather fabricated" at best.
The second phrase that has just as much power of 10 effect is actually a question that I believe should be appropriately asked as much as possible and one that genuinely makes students feel valued as learners, contributors and individuals.
This question is: "What do YOU think?"
Now just to qualify the context of my questioning, I am fortunate to be an English teacher and as such, my learning area pretty much provides me unlimited scope to ask for a student's opinion, perception and/or belief. Never-the-less, this question when first asked of a student, often generates nothing more than a blank stare suggesting to me "What on earth is Sir doing? Why is he asking my opinion? Doesn't he know the answer?! After all, he is the teacher." Often it takes a a number of repeats of this question before the student answers as best they can, no doubt in some part to get rid of this interrogator as soon as possible. Once again, the asking of this question reduces the learning space to its most micro level, a level maybe that is unknown to many students through-out their schooling and one once found in, is exceedingly uncomfortable and in some way, no doubt quite frightening.
I believe what students also find very hard about this question yet eventually empowering and inspiring, is that the answer cannot be obtained from anywhere, anyone else in the world. The student being asked is the only one who can answer the question, whether they like it or not. I have often wondered what it is about this question that makes it so challenging, so confronting. No doubt in part, it's because the answer can't be Googled but more likely, it's because teachers so rarely ask this question of their students. I also think that the difficulty of this question is because students have been often cast as "vessels to be filled" and as a result, do not see themselves as capable or worthy contributors to the classroom discourse.
Is it just possible we've taught the ability and confidence of students to articulate their thinking out of our students, whether intentionally or otherwise? Or maybe just maybe, teachers have been so focused on getting students accessing the desired course content that we have forgotten or simply not had the time to stop and think and ask "What do you think" of our students. Over time, however, the students come out of their shells and in more cases than not, then become prepared and highly capable of sharing their thinking on everything in our English lessons from appropriate texts to study or assessment constructs (completely valid) to my dress sense and my latest haircut (maybe slightly less valid).
Students need to be receive course content and subject-specific skills in school but I firmly believe they increasingly need to re-learn 1)how to be believe in themselves and 2)that their opinions are valid, and most certainly need to heard and heard often (well most of them anyway). The only way either of these two things can happen is through the teacher providing the necessary scope, time and space for such growth in lessons consistently and appropriately.
Who-ever would have thought these two sentences could have such an impact on student learning, student empowerment, and indeed the students themselves. Now, what would be a killer third sentence that would also be so transformational, so beneficial? Now, let me think!