What we say when we talk about learning and learners

When we speak, there are at least two audiences listening. The first is the external audience, those whom we have dialog about learning. The second audience is the internal audience, the self.

It’s important to understand the role of the internal audience because the congruence between our intentions and actions begins with thoughts. Our thinking leads to our words, and our words lead to action.

What are our assumptions?

It is an interesting TOK-like investigation to see the patterns by which our language influences our thinking and vice versa, and how our thinking becomes a source of what we use to create what’s real to us. For example, if we gravitate to external factors for why students are not learning, and say things like, “These kids don’t know how to inquire,” the story we tell ourselves becomes the gatekeeper of our reality. Our brains have a mechanism called the reticular activation system or RAS, which serves as a gatekeeper for what we notice (Sylwester, 2015). With the millions of bytes of stimuli we encounter on a moment-by-moment basis, our brains can only process about 40 bytes of information at a given time, so the presence of the RAS protects us by limiting what we notice, and preventing overload.

If we are thinking, “These kids don’t know how to inquire,” we predispose the RAS to notice those instances in our environment which support that assumption – and BAM! — we’ve succeeded in limiting our perspective on the students’ learning.

The RAS filters what we take in from our environment to support our assumptions and mental models. Essentially, our narratives limit our reality. Our personal narrative about learning influences our reality, and the behaviours that we employ to act upon that perceived reality. Apart from an interesting TOK exercise, what we choose to employ as our reality around learning becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If we wish to enact a robust learning environment, it seems that an examination of our assumptions around learning may be a necessary reflection.

Since our assumptions structure our perspectives around learning, perhaps enacting a healthy environment for learning to flourish requires a metacognitive tuning in to how we speak about learning.

This is where the internal dialog comes in.

  • What are we noticing about what we say about our learners?
  • How might we reconstruct our narratives to express what we value about learning?
  • What might we transform in our thinking to become more congruent with our intentions?

If our intentions combine to enact self-directed learning in our students, what might need to change in our own thinking to express this reality?

The stories we tell ourselves about learning in our schools influence how we enact the ways that learning happens. In our internal dialog, the narrative we uphold around learning has a great role to play in how we act. How we act in turn creates the environment that shapes how our students learn. 

The Pygmalion Effect was first studied by Rosenthal in 1968, and highlighted the influence on teacher perceptions of students’ potential on the eventual achievement. Results from the Rosenthal study suggest that high expectations create contextual conditioning for students to believe and fulfil an expectation to achieve. Edutopia has a discussion of this phenomenon here. Subsequent studies on the Pygmalion Effect have added substantial argument that bias does correlate with responses from learners that support the bias.

How this happens is a matter of great complexity, involving a range of other variables in schools. Expectations might be influenced further by students’ self-concept (Friedrich, et al., 2014). Expectations might also be affected by organisational micro-politics (how school personnel value diversity and ‘make sense of differences’) according to some researchers (for examples, Lareau and Hornet, 1999; Roscigno and Ainsworth-Darnell, 1999; Diamond, et al., 2004). In studies of self-fulfilling prophecies in educational contexts, there seems to be operating a relationship between what teachers believe about learning and learners, and the collective responsibility that a faculty may share toward students (Diamond, et al., 2004).

The relationship between expectations/belief and collective responsibility suggests that the narrative about learning is a source of teacher agency. This relationship poses personal significance to the teacher who reflects on how the internal dialog about learning manifests in expression and action.

The stories we tell about learning certainly hold a whole world in them. Perhaps we might tune in to what we are really saying, and ask ourselves what makes us say that. How might listening to the dialog within surface our assumptions? What might we learn about our intentions? How might knowing our narrative about learning influence how we choose to act?


Featured Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash

Diamond, J. B., and Randolph, A., and Spillane, J. P. (2004). “Teacher Expectations and Sense of Responsibility for Student Learning: The Importance of Race, Class and Organisational Habitus. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 35(1), 75–98. 

Lareau, A., and Horvat, E. M. (1999). “Moments of Social Inclusion and Exclusion: Race, Class and Cultural Capital in Family School Relationships.” Sociology of Education 72(1), 37–53. 

Roscigno, V. J., and Ainsworth-Darnell, J. (1999). Race, Cultural Capital, and Educational Resources: Persistent Inequalities and Achievement Returns. Sociology of Education 72(3), 158–178. 

Rosenthal, R., and Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the Classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 

Sylwester, R. (2015). How to explain a brain: An educators handbook of brain terms and cognitive processes. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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