Choosing your words is the single most important choice you can make as a teacher. Just ask Peter H. Johnston who observed children moving from fixed theories about themselves to dynamic theories where, literally, their lives were transformed all by the choice of a word. He explains that “holding a fixed theory or a dynamic theory may seem like no big deal...(but) when children holding fixed theories encounter difficulties, their mistakes become crippling.”(p.11) They will, in fact, choose not to learn something in order to avoid looking stupid. When children hold dynamic theories, they know (because they are taught explicitly) that the more you learn, the smarter you get and that it might be hard getting there. They also know that how you look as you get there is irrelevant. When teachers stop praising or criticising the child and start acknowledging only the process, children begin to hold a dynamic knowledge frame where they know that change is inevitable for growth.
Johnston doesn’t want you to just take his word for it. He takes you firmly by the hand and shows how the addition of even just one word can create a mindset which dramatically transforms the path a person’s life will take. If a teacher moves a child from saying “I can’t write” to saying “I can’t write yet” the world of possibilities is opened. He also shares about a classroom where a teacher says thank you to students instead of good job so that students feel useful in the function of the classroom instead of just liked. Children learn to participate because they want to learn and not because they want praise.
At one point, he shares a classroom conversation where second graders are outraged that Thomas Jefferson was allowed to be on the nickel because he once owned slaves. Johnston explains that this is why slowing down and stepping back as a teacher in order to allow for a dialogic classroom creates children who think for themselves and actively solve civic issues. It is an impressive conversation for anyone, let alone 7 and 8 year olds. Even Johnston stops at the end and writes a single sentence.
“I want my children and their children in a class like this.”
And you should too.
There were a few concepts that I couldn’t get out of my head long after I finished the book. Johnston writes a lot about children needing to learn to be okay with uncertainty. He quotes Robert Altman as saying, “If you and I agreed about everything, then one of us is unnecessary.” We need to be willing to disagree in order to get to a place of new learning because (as we learned before) the more you learn, the smarter you’ll get. He also shares that teachers are not just teaching academic facts and this can be difficult. “the problem with apprenticing children into humanity--the intellectual and social life of society--is that much of the action we want them to understand takes place inside people’s heads.”(p.69) We have to teach them to read people’s minds, literally. Teachers need to ask students to look at the way people stand and how their eyes look and then figure out what that person is thinking about what is happening in that moment. I knew that, but when I read it I felt something in my brain crack wide open.
Johnston’s thinking is transformative. He has created a layered effect of ideas and theories that form a solid path to becoming a master in the apprenticeship of children into humanity.