How Language Can Supercharge the Instructional Core
By Matt Doyle, the executive director of iCERP; Amanda Datnow, a professor and associate dean of the University of California, San Diego; and Alison Wishard Guerra, an associate professor of the University of California, San Diego.
This is an exciting time to be in education for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is being part of a national movement toward a learner-centered approach to education—a more personalized environment that positions the learner in the driver's seat of their knowledge, skill, and talent development. Our current emphasis at the International Center for Educational Research and Practice (ICERP), housed at Vista Unified school district in California, has really focused on researchers working hand in hand with teachers across grade levels with two goals: first, to discover the fundamental shifts in practice necessary to set the conditions for learners to take control of their learning pathway; and second, to reframe the role of the teacher to become a lead communicator rather than just a content expert.
Any successful teacher, businessperson, coach, public servant, or parent will tell you that the secret to success is the quality of the relationships you make with other people. Education is, after all, primarily a people profession. Richard Elmore calls this the instructional core—the relationship between the teacher, the student, and the content. This relationship, more than anything else, relies on the quality of the language and social interactions between the teacher and the students in the presence of the content to be learned and the skills to be developed. This post digs in to how the effective use of language within these social interactions can supercharge the instructional core.
"With language, you are at home anywhere."
—Edmund De Waal
Open or Shut? You Choose
Effective language interactions between the teacher and the students are often based on deliberate planning and may be informed by a broad set of data. As teachers prepare for and engage students in learning sequences, they are making critical decisions that shape students' learning opportunities. They consider how they will use language to communicate curricular content and learning goals. They think about what information, or data, they have about students that shape how they plan their instruction. These decisions can either open doors for learning by inviting students to co-construct their learning or shut doors for learning by limiting engagement to predetermined roles.
Teachers rely on their wisdom and experience in making many instructional decisions throughout their day, and increasingly they have various forms of data available to them. Many teachers also have collaboration opportunities to collectively examine data to inform instruction. But the use of data alone is not an unqualified good. As Datnow and Park explain, thoughtful use of multiple forms of data can expand opportunities for all students, whereas misinformed use of data can limit students' opportunities. Data need to be used in ways that challenge rather than confirm assumptions about students and open doors for them rather than shut them. Instead of using data to simply highlight what students' can't do, it is important to build on students' strengths and linguistic assets. Instructional practices need to reflect these goals of equity and excellence as well in order to maximize the possibility for students to thrive in language-rich classroom environments.
"The limits of my language are the limits of my world."
What Is Your Language Snapshot?
Through the iCERP Teacher/Researcher Collaborative, researchers from the University of California, San Diego, spent an entire year fully embedded in classrooms interacting and collaborating with Vista Unified teachers in prekindergarten through 3rd grade. Together, they studied how to transform language interactions for the purpose of strengthening teacher-to-student relationships and to challenge students to go deeper with their learning. Perhaps the most fascinating outcome of the collaboration is our discovery of the incredible impact the use of language has on promoting deeper learning for students.
The leading learning theories posit that learning occurs in the context of social interactions that are mediated by language and when the learning plays an active role in constructing the learner's own understanding—that is, learning is an active rather than a passive process. With intentional planning, teachers design learning activities that will excite and engage learners with the content. Learners thrive when they experience a language-rich environment coupled with teachers who are responsive to their individual abilities and interests.
The Teacher/Researcher Collaborative participants used The Language Interaction Snapshot (LISn) to document the moment-by-moment language and social interactions that make up the fabric of children's daily experiences in the classroom. Throughout the micro-moments that make up a typical school day, teachers make moment-by-moment decisions in how they use language or organize activities, to inform learners, to invite exploration, and to manage behavior. When teachers intentionally use language in ways that bridge learners' previous knowledge or personal experiences with present curricular goals and invite learners to actively use language to create new understandings, learners feel valued; connected to teachers, peers, and school; and excited about the content. Reflecting on the cumulative impact of these micro-moments over time, participating teachers have been excited to consider how intentional shifts in language use can open more opportunities for their students to experience the type of high-quality language and social interactions that are known to promote optimal learning.
"Language is the house of the truth of being."
Supercharging Our Core
The relationships between and among us are really what ignite the passion and engage the spirit of learning. Quality language interactions can supercharge the instructional core and inspire learners to go deeper with their thinking and expand their skill development. The careful and deliberate use of language can serve as the fuel for your supercharger. Please follow our work as we move into the second year of the iCERP Teacher/Researcher Collaborative focused on opening doors for all students to achieve at their highest level.