Teachers at Work
A column about teaching
"Big Brother" in the Classroom
Can teachers manipulate language to their advantage, as a way of shifting their students' perspectives in a more positive direction? It might sound a little Orwellian, but Steven Kushner, who teaches at Bremen High School in Midlothian, Illinois, has found that taking a page from "Big Brother" can be an effective educational strategy.
Teacher: "Your homework assignment for tonight is..."
Students: "Ohh..." "Argh..." "No..." "Come on..." "Sigh..."
Teacher: "Your homework assignment for tonight is... to watch five hours of television, eat three bowls of chocolate ice cream, talk on your cell phone with your best friend, and surf Facebook before you go to bed."
Uttering the word "homework" in a classroom can trigger an immediate student backlash, as if students have been innately programmed from birth to respond with reluctance and revolt — which in some ways they have. Fundamental classroom terms like "homework" have been used in formal education since the dawn of time — terms that, in students' minds, are synonymous with hours of tedious busy work, rote memorization exercises, and not getting enough sleep. Sadly, however, I can create and assign the most stimulating, exciting, and imaginative assignment, but because I have attached the word "homework" to it, students hastily jump to conclusions and the assignment's rationale is quickly dismissed. Students have become conditioned from an early age to equate homework (regardless of the content) with unpleasantness.
Is it possible to desensitize our students from these educational terms to prevent premature judgments and skepticism — to alter their conditioned responses that have stuck with them since they first learned their ABCs? I do not wish to come across like a mad scientist in a white lab coat attempting to control our students' minds, but I think it is important that when students hear words like "homework," "education," and "learning," they do not instinctively rebel with cynicism.
In my search for a greater understanding of this phenomenon, I cannot help but reflect upon my own studies of psychology and recall Pavlov's famous classical conditioning experiment, in which he trained a dog to salivate at the sound of a bell. Strangely, this appears entirely too familiar when I think of my own students' innate responses to staple classroom terms like "quiz" and "lecture." And while I do not expect them to drool at the sound of my voice when I repeatedly state the word "project," I do expect moans and whimpers.
My question is this: would a student's natural response to withdraw emotionally from learning fade away over time if teachers stopped pairing "homework" with "busy work" or "in-class assignment" with "rote memorization"? Conversely, would a student begin to appreciate and see greater purpose in education if we continuously equated "assignment" with "meaningfulness" or "project" with "self-expression"?
My first experimental attempt at breaking the negative associations that have plagued our students' minds took place in my first year of teaching. I conducted a small in-class experiment on classroom semantics, wondering how students would respond if I created a euphemism in place of "homework" to dissociate the natural responses students had developed over the years. I hypothesized that if our military can employ "doublespeak" to numb us from reality (e.g., calling accidental deaths during a military campaign "collateral damage"), or if businesses can apply it to diminish the feelings and emotions of layoffs (e.g., calling the termination of workers "downsizing"), why can't education follow suit?
The following day in class, I asked students what expression we could use in place of the term "homework" — one that would naturally elicit positive feelings and emotions.
Students: "Cheesy puffs!" "Hamburger and fries!" "Frozen popsicles!" "Florida!"
I felt like Big Brother from George Orwell's classic novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the leader of Oceania systematically erased words from the dictionary and employed propaganda in order to control language and thought. Although I wasn't trying to convince my students that "war is peace" or that "freedom is slavery," I was trying to make a point about human behavior. After completing my next day's lesson, I looked up at my students and without hesitation or pause, I announced, "Your frozen popsicle for tonight is..." Immediate laughter and jubilation spread to every corner of the classroom.
Their unconscious urges to moan and complain were replaced with smiling faces and chuckles. I felt like I could have assigned my students to read an entire Dostoevsky novel and write a five-page essay on Einstein's Theory of Relativity and it would have been embraced with open arms. I continued substituting "frozen popsicle" for "homework" the following week before concluding that my little experiment had been a success. Ultimately, the content of my "frozen popsicle" assignments became irrelevant as students seemed to repress any natural impulse to revolt.
Of course, I realize that teachers are not going to walk around school calling out absurd phrases like "Disneyland" or "merry-go-rounds," just to evoke positive responses amongst our students. But for teachers who feel comfortable with the idea of altering their vocabulary and creating euphemisms to replace traditional classroom terms, scholarly expressions can be constructed.
Instead of announcing "quiz," which certainly generates anxiety and recoil amongst many students, teachers could state that we have a "knowledge check-in" next week to shatter negative associations. Review assignments might be branded as "memory retrieval activities," while in-class worksheets could be renamed "cognition exercises." Although I have personally found many of these expressions to be effective in my classroom, teachers are encouraged to coin their own classroom terminology; as the proverbial saying goes, to each his own.
I am well aware that eliminating words from our vocabulary is not the solution to fixing our education system or the spark that will lead to more passionate and productive students. I am also quite cognizant of the skeptics who may question the lasting effects manipulating language would have on students' academics and their overall outlook on education. Skeptics may also think about the possible unintended consequence of my small in-class experiment such as the spawn of hatred and fear of frozen popsicles amongst my students. If my research had continued, could I have personally caused a financial collapse in the frozen popsicle industry?
The goal, quite bluntly, is that by creating more positive associations in school, a greater majority of our students will begin to correlate "education" with "success" and "learning" with "fulfillment," a perspective that these young adults can and must take with them after Big Brother has left the classroom.
Steven Kushner teaches psychology and sociology at Bremen High School in Midlothian, Illinois. Steven received a Bachelor of Science degree in history and psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He received a Master of Arts degree in teaching from National-Louis University and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in psychology.