Words that Ignite Learning

Below is a guest post by Kevin Washburn, Ed.D., author of “Architecture of Learning” and Executive Director of Clerestory Learning. His most recent recording at a Learning and Brain Conference can be found here

3184815166_1b775d1817It seems like a ridiculous question: Can a teacher’s words influence student learning?  Of course, we’d respond, how well a teacher explains new ideas naturally influences student learning.

But what about the words that are less planned, the comments teachers make in response to students’ ideas, efforts, and results? Can they make much of a difference?

Research suggests they can and do, probably to degrees we’d be surprised to discover.

Words reinforce beliefs, and beliefs, especially those about intelligence, influence learning. Students can hold or lean toward either believing intelligence is something you’re born with (or without), or intelligence is something you gain through effort. A student who believes you’re born smart—or not—is less likely to put forth effort to learn. This student seeks to convince those around him that he is one of the chosen who were given the gift of smart at birth. Either that, or the student may believe he is not among the chosen so effort is futile. The same belief interpreted differently yields the same result: a student who is unlikely to work to learn when learning does not come instantly or easily.

This mostly erroneous belief can be slippery. A student may believe it is true in one discipline but not another. For example, the same student can believe that you are/aren’t born smart in mathematics, but that you get better at reading through effort.

Where do these beliefs originate? Many times in the home. We’ve probably all heard a student say something like, “My dad said that I’m probably not good at math because when he was my age, he wasn’t good at math either.” The father’s words conveyed, confirmed, and/or introduced the wrong belief. When adopted by the child, the erroneous belief becomes an obstacle to learning.

However, communicating the wrong idea about intelligence is not usually so overt. In fact, it can show up in a statement intended to encourage learning: “Wow, Sam, you’re really good at math.” Such a statement emphasizes a belief that intelligence is something you are/aren’t born with because it suggests innate ability rather than drawing attention to the effort-result relationship. “Wow, Sam, you worked hard on this and look at these results!” is better because it reinforces the idea that we get smart through effort.

Just how much of a difference can this make?

In one study, some teachers used comments that suggested intelligence as inherited (“You’re smart at this!”) while others phrased comments that emphasized effort-result relationships (“You worked hard and look at the results!” or “We didn’t work very hard at this and the results show it. How can we make this better?”)

The results reveal the power of words that suggest both the right and the wrong beliefs. Students praised for innate ability put forth less effort, avoided challenge and feedback, and lost 20% of their achievement between pre- and post-testing. Not only did they not learn much, they seemed to lose ⅕ of what they knew prior to instruction.

In contrast, the students praised for their efforts sought challenge, desired feedback, and had a 30% gain between pre- and post-testing. Think about that—a 50% difference existed between the two groups at the study’s conclusion, and the defining factor was the teacher’s words.1

Neurobiology plays a role in this effect. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that influences emotion, provides a sense of pleasure when what we anticipate happening matches reality, but when our expectations are not met—when our actions do not produce the desired result—we feel disappointment. Jonah Lehrer explains, “The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the ‘smart’ compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models.”2

Through disappointment, we gain an opportunity to literally rewire neuronal connections, to learn, but only if we attend to our mistake. The student who believes intelligence is genetic loses this opportunity because he generally refuses to attend to his mistakes.

Our words can influence the belief students hold about intelligence, and that belief influences the effort students apply to learning. We need to pause and think, “How can I phrase this feedback so that it emphasizes an effort-result relationship?” Our students may have to wait a moment for our comments, but what they receive may actually make them better learners.

A wise writer once warned that words can be so destructive they burn down entire forests. But fire can also ignite rockets.

Let’s intentionally use our words to ignite learning.


  1. Mangels, J. A., Motivating Minds: How Student Beliefs Impact Learning and Academic Achievement. Presented at Learning and the Brain: Using Brain Research to Enhance Cognitive Abilities and Achievement (Nov. 2007).
  2. Lehrer, J., How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009), 53-54.

This post was originally published at Ecology of Education

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