“Yes we can”: the language of optimism in the classroom.

30 Oct 2021

My six-month year-old has decided his day should begin at an even more unsociably early hour over the past few weeks. In the spirit of optimism, there are some perks: we have managed to sit through three-two hour documentaries on Barack Obama’s rise to the American presidency over the past month. Early morning bonding indeed.

I have been writing about applying minimalism principles to the world of education, and thinking particularly about the way we use communication in the classroom. This is matched with the wider and vital question of how we build a collective sense of class effort and community in our classroom endeavours.

The idea of group-think is an interesting one about thirty different personalities in a classroom. Some of the best teachers I have seen have seemed to manage to seamlessly create that atmosphere of shared drive and motivation in the classroom. How do they do it, how do we engender a collective mindset in young people that they can overcome obstacles and persevere?

The Obama documentary was well-timed: that buying into a collective idea and creating a group mentality was of course was his main aim – just on an ever so slightly large scale! Let’s have a wee look at some of his famous ‘Yes we can’ speech from January 2008: 

“We know the battle ahead will be long. But always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can stand in the way of the power of millions of voices calling for change.

[…]

 For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.”

In the final sentence there are six examples of the collective pronoun “we.” Now, personal prounouns have been staple features of political speeches since the dawn of time. But are they as much of a feature of our classroom interaction as they should be?

My completely unoriginal theory is that we need to build much more of this inclusive and unitary language into our whole-class interactions with young people. And framing our language to include “we” is perhaps the most easily applied minimalistic communication technique of them all.

There are three very simple reasons why it works so effectively:

  • It builds a sense of commonality and rapport – we are all in this together.

  • It demonstrates solidarity between a teacher and class.

  • It is inspiring and motivational.

There is also the very simple fact that lots of young people can feel rather anonymous in the school setting. Anything we can do to build that sense of community for them can support their sense of inclusion and their motivation. The more we reframe our instructions to inspire collective unity, the better we can achieve that.

So how does it work in terms of how we frame our instructions and discussions in lessons? Here are some simple suggestions:

“We don’t behave like that in this classroom”.

“We are listening brilliant folks, well done.”

“This is challenging, but I’m really confident we can do it.”

“We have ten minutes to do this task.”

“We will need to think really hard for this one.”

“We have worked so well there everyone, brilliant stuff.”

As Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, would have in in his excellent book ‘Learned optimism,’ such phrases can be significant in engendering more perseverance in our young people.

“Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure. I believe that optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence.”
Martin E.P. Seligman,

That sense of collective optimism can go further, as we can strive to encourage young people to see setbacks in their learning as opportunities for improvement – rather than cementing low self-esteem. That positive reframing can become a class ethos again – one that young people might begin to tentatively whisper to each in other: “Yes, we can!”

Young people are also often prone to elaborate catastrophising: “I will never be able to do this!” Part of our role as teachers is to ask them to reconsider that with optimism – and “yes, we (eventually) can,” can come in handy here. We need to be the voice of calm reassurance that highlights that all things take time – and that all learning is very much a process.

Talking of catastrophising: neither my baby or my three year old will be attuned to the changing of the clocks this weekend. I remember the glory days when it used to mean a delightful extra hour in bed. Who knows what hour Sunday will begin, and I’m sure many other teachers with small children will share that distinct sense of unease. Can we cope? At such trying times, I often turn to Barack himself for words of wisdom:

“Your response has to be to reject cynicism and reject pessimism and push forward, with a certain infectious and relentless optimism”

“Yes we can,” indeed.

 

Thank you for reading.

 

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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