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.

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Monday May 11th 2009, 6:24 AM
Comment by: ken R. (fresno, CA)
I think that the same kind of psychology could be used in the workplace, although the substitution words and phrases should be a little more business oriented!
Monday May 11th 2009, 6:45 AM
Comment by: Virginia L.
An interesting experiment and the possible ramifications extraordinary. But might not the world, and indeed, the educational system be better off if we started to teach children a little reality and stopped replacing reality with cream puffs. By the time today's kids hit the labor-force, they expect Jungle Jims and cosseting, not nine to five output.
Monday May 11th 2009, 8:37 AM
Comment by: Jackie R. (Fresno, CA)
Every word we say has meaning, and we know that which words we use and how we use them creates an environment and a culture. I very much appreciate what Mr. Kushner is doing and I know it works. I teach at the college level, students of all age groups, and I always refer to them as and call them scholars. The response is always strong and positive - they say when they're called scholars, they feel like scholars; they feel respected; and they behave accordingly. So shifting terminology can shift mindset and I say "go for it" - it's a new reality in every other way. Let's adapt our vocabulary to engage one another.
Monday May 11th 2009, 9:19 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
I think you definitely have a valid point, Mr. Kushner. I came across one teacher's 3rd grade classroom website that substituted the word celebration for test. I believe the sentence said, "On Friday, a “Spelling Celebration” will be given to all students and they will see how they did on the words they promised to study/learn for the week." Oh, the trickery that goes into teaching and learning! :)
Monday May 11th 2009, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Alexa (Panama Panama)
Bringing humor into the classroom as Mr. Kushner does is an excellent way to provide a relaxed and positive learning environment.

While in college, my father used to tell me "this is not forever." and that somehow helped me get through when a course or a professor was just unbearable.

It is unfortunate that not every student takes advantage of study skills, which is a shame, because these skills are usually practical and very helpful and can help them organize their time better and avoid stress.

As Jackie R., who calls her students scholars, I agree with using positive language. I compliment mine regularly, concentrate on their positive skills and downplay the not so good.

Indeed, the positive use of language, together with a smile, will bring positive positive results in most life situations.
Monday May 11th 2009, 11:38 AM
Comment by: Priscilla W. (Topeka, KS)
We homeschool for educational reasons only. Our child has a communication disorder which compels us to be highly cognizant of communication, both verbal and nonverbal. I vividly recall a special education session during which the instructor said "Now, for the bonus words." and my child balked with a "No". He knew bonus and spelling were mutually exclusive. That was one of many experiences with her which prevented him from trusting that this person understood his needs. He soon refused to attend further sessions with her. Language is precise and effective when it is used as Mr. Kushner suggests. If every teacher exhibited this awareness and skill, we might be able to put our child back into the public school classroom.
Monday May 11th 2009, 1:07 PM
Comment by: Lenny (Stow, MA)
Great article. I tried this same thing with an Energy Group I participate in. Instead of a "forum" we held a "celebration." The Group laughed and thought it was a "mind-opener."

Sometimes dramatic means are needed to produce dramatic results.

ESPECIALLY when it comes to easily distracted students.
Monday May 11th 2009, 4:08 PM
Comment by: Barbie K. (Murrieta, CA)
Hmm. Wednesday is often referred to as "Hump Day" for being in the middle of the week. What if, instead of midterms, we had "Humpathons".

Monday May 11th 2009, 9:50 PM
Comment by: Jerry B. (Horseshoe Bend, AR)
For our children, it wasn't the terms that caused anxiety. It was the senslessness of the education process. It was reinforcement at home that gave them meaning and structure to their educational journey. "You can make me study, but you can't make me pass the test!!" screamed my son. Now, today, 20 years later, he has a master's degree and is a teacher himself. My wife and I continually reinforced the truth that they were preparing for adulthood, to be responsible adults, caring spouses and loving parents. They needed a rational basis, rooted in reality as it is, with absolutes, boundries, rewards, and consequences.

Words really do have meanings and words can be used for or against the values of discipline, consistency, kindness and clarity. Humor, in the right amounts and in the right places, is a wonderfully powerful relaxer. But when used to mock or degrade, it can be as devious and harmful as a gunshot to the stomach.

Thanks for an enjoyable article about the vagaries of human nature.
Monday May 11th 2009, 10:46 PM
Comment by: James L.
Dude, you need to use your psychology to get them on side. You're just playing the kids' game "let's pretend everything is the opposite of what we say." The other kid shouts enthusiastically, "no, let's not" and the game collapses under its own logic. It can't last.

Better to use language that has a direct, literal reference to the subject, but with a specific connotiation that reframes it. "Challenge." "Mission."

And, my favourite: "Sure, you've got a choice. You can do it, or flunk it."
Monday May 11th 2009, 11:25 PM
Comment by: Mark P. (Chicago, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Frozen popsicle is the new sea kitten ( http://www.peta.org/sea_kittens/).
Tuesday May 12th 2009, 9:44 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
I don't think direct, literal references always work though, James. It may be easy to say, "Sure you've got a choice. You can do it, or flunk it." However, it's not going to inspire students to work hard. To many students, regardless of age, choosing to fail is an easier choice than trying to succeed, because in the latter, failure or mediocrity is still an option.

Teachers have to be creative with their instructional strategies to promote student achievement and Mr. Kushner is being creative with his language. By doing so, he's developing a more positive environment that promotes learning and achievement, even if students aren't fully cognizant of it.
Tuesday May 12th 2009, 10:55 AM
Comment by: James D. (Edmond, OK)
Ahh, the use of language for the purpose of socialization/communicating ideology. The main linguistic system at work here is the system of Appraisal through which certain things (people, ideas, texts, states of affair, etc.) are evaluated. The same is true for other text types like journalistic reporting. See Peter R. R. White, "Evaluative Semantics and ideological positioning in journalistic discourse," in _Mediating Ideology in Text and Image_ (eds. Inger Lassen, Jeanne Strunck, and Torben Vestergaard; Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2006). Good stuff.
Thursday May 14th 2009, 7:14 AM
Comment by: Patricia K. (Chicago, IL)
But what is wrong with students and employees becoming inured to words that imply "WORK?"It is not the words we use but the emotion we attach to those words that generates enthusiasm or ennui. I have a dog who I train as much by words as by behavior and attitude. I can say anything, any word he knows and loves (treats, walk, car), but because he observes me so closely, my tone of voice will give him pause before he leaps with joy (speaking of Pavlov and all that). My point is that I believe teaching anything must instill the belief that work is not only necessary to acquire the knowledge/skill but that the work required is to be embraced.

A “teacher” on the job, say an artisan or a skilled tradesman, will not not sugarcoat the difficulties of acquiring the skill they teach. In fact, they are proud of what it took to attain mastery. I am not mired in the idea that one must suffer to succeed and all that rot, though that is sometimes true. I am saying that the teacher's assignment of work (be it at home, at the desk, or at the job site) should be seen by the student as another opportunity to absorb the lesson, even if this work does not induce the student to jump for joy.

It is as if each new thing we undertake in life -- infancy-through aging -- requires a series of steps before the thing is distilled and instilled. Some of those steps reach beyond the "honeymoon" of happiness that comes with a new task, a new potential. Before assimilation we must do real work to make the new information part of our mental or behavioral tissue.

Discernment, practice, and critical reflection build the new steps. School (institutional) is not a 12-16 year program from which we graduate to leisure. It is not something to survive and put behind. We don’t get “sprung” from the classroom into a fully developed life. Not incarceration, any “classroom” is opportunity.

Children should be encouraged to jump for joy by the notion of acquiring life skills. School should **be** the sandbox, the playground, the magical kingdom of freedom.

If we (parents first, teachers, supervisors, etc) treat "work" like a punishment, we make a lazy society (microcosmic at home; macro in the world). Make yours a powerful "big brother.” Do not back down to their learned responses. As a teacher and as a parent, as "big brother,” ours is the most challenging "work."
Thursday May 14th 2009, 9:14 AM
Comment by: brindle (Canada)
Sounds dishonest to me. I am encouraged that students respond negatively to the imposition of homework. It's a subversive method to get kids to submit to authority of an entity over their free time and lives. This way in the working world, the demands of extra unpaid work will seem to be more acceptable. Homework should be optional at all times. The negative response would then cease.
Thursday May 14th 2009, 5:36 PM
Comment by: Priscilla W. (Topeka, KS)
I agree with brindle. Honest communication (including precise use of language) along with honest statement of the intent of the work (academic practice or practice of submission) is what my autistic child demands. It is his honesty that is refreshing and a joy to teach ..... at home, where honesty and mutual respect are a given.
Wednesday June 3rd 2009, 12:13 PM
Comment by: Elle
Manipulation is manipulation. We also homeschool, and have for 21 years. When I tried this with my 14 and 16 year old daughters, they saw it for what it was immediately, for which I was glad.
Perhaps part of what's amiss with this educational system is encouraging children to avoid work, or at least to feel "entitled" to do so. The "real" adult world is not going to play games with them in this way. Their college professors will, I hope, expect them to work regardless of the semantics, and their employers most certainly will. The eminently prized self esteem everyone is trying so hard to imbue students with is hardly worth anything is it isn't based in some sort of f-a-c-t.

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