Building our environment with the words we use

Arriving at NBCS as a researcher, fascinated by the relationship between physical space and learning activity, I expected to be watching. Instead, I found myself listening, and as I tried to figure things out I became aware of how the teachers were effectively building the space, and more particularly the shape of that day, with their words. Looking back through my field notes my entry on Day 2 starts with “what is the subtext of the language?” I spent that day, and many after, cataloging the ways in which teachers used words to build a space in which learning happened.

I listened to how they used tone and intonation to attract attention when it was time to transition from one thing to the next. Lis-ten-up following a pattern of high-low-high allowed teachers to gather the attention of all, without shouting. The sing-song intonation of the words strung together was sufficiently different to the general sounds of work in progress to be a marker for activity to stop, before further instructions were given.

Instructions were always delivered with confidence, confidence in the student’s ability to follow them. They were delivered calmly, repeated and very often written on a wall, whiteboard or screen. Having done this, further questions from students were met with questions like “have a think, did I use the word ‘or’, or did I say ‘and’ – do you think you should do one or both?” These questions weren’t phrased to belittle, they carried with them the underlying message that the student was being actively taught to listen and interpret the information around him or her.

Words were used to mark the passage of time and plan tasks. As teachers made their way through the working students, they would respond to trends they saw developing. Where students were falling behind they’d respond by asking the whole group a question highlighting the problem and calling for a solution, “If it takes longer – what should you do?”

My final note for that day was that words were used to point students towards what was valued in that space: problem solving, ownership and risk taking in learning. From “good job, I like that technique” to a child drawing columns before writing down the data to be plotted on a graph, to “hand in both” to the child who had done a task twice “that way your teacher can see you stopped and thought and had another go.”

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