Mind your language – High Challenge, Low Threat

5th October 2018

Mind your language – Using language to reduce threat and increase participation in the classroom

Tim Taylor

In her book ‘High Challenge, Low Threat’ Mary Myatt talks about the paradox of safety, that is the safer people feel the more likely they are to take reasonable risks and act reasonably. And, conversely, the less safe they feel the more defensive they become and the less likely they are to stick their neck out.

The truth of this observation is everywhere we look and evident in our own lives. Without having to search my mind vault for long, I can recall moments that still give me a stab of pain, even digestional reflux, when I bring them back into my memory – the day Mr Langley, our secondary school English teacher, remarked in his sickeningly sarcastic voice, “Taylor, don’t ever try to make a career out of words.” Or Mrs Steiner pointing at me in class as she moved the chair in front of her desk, “This is your new place, Taylor. Where I can keep an eye on you.”

The effect in both cases, as you can imagine, was crippling. Mr Langley was an adult, not a very nice one, but still an adult and one who clearly knew a lot more about his subject than the fourteen-year-old me. I believed him, I became what he labelled me, and I stopped trying. As far as I could tell, it was true: I was bad at spelling, my handwriting was terrible, and it took me an age to write anything well. So, I pretty much gave up trying to get any better, what was the point? It took me years to realise Mr Langley was a bully with a closed mindset and that if I worked hard, took risks, and didn’t worry about making mistakes, I could overcome my deficiencies.

Years later I thought about dedicating my book to him but decided against it. Let it go, Tim let it go.

Mrs Steiner’s effect was more long lasting. She pulled me up to the front of the class because I had misunderstood her homework instructions and did the wrong page of homework. I did my homework, you understand, just not the right homework. This wasn’t satisfactory for Mrs S and my punishment was to spend the rest of the year in her close proximity. The result was I hated her and I hated, by association, her subject – German. I refused to learn it, I did my homework, did the tests, and sat in her class, but I stopped trying. I gave up, deliberately. And predictably failed the exam at the end of the year.

That showed her.

I’m recalling these painful memories because they are illustrative of Mary’s point: high challenge, high threat environments are destructive to risk taking and acting reasonably. Mr Langley’s sarcasm crippled my self-confidence in his subject, which was already low. I had always struggled at spelling (still do) and at primary school it had taken me an age to learn how to read, so his judgment cut to the bone and made me risk aversive. I stopped putting my hand up in class, stopped trying to think imaginatively, stopped taking risks. Kept my head and my hand down. My essays for him were personifications of dull and diligent. They must have been awful to read. I just scrapped O’ level English.

Mrs Steiner’s punishment had a different effect, it made me angry. Hate brewed in my soul and I grew more and more resentful of her power and control over my time and free movement. As a result, I became unreasonable, I deliberately damaged my own education and spent a whole year failing a subject which might have been of great value to me. I did it just to spite her. How much more unreasonable can you get?

You probably have similar stories of your own, painful memories, perhaps of school, perhaps of work, that still rankle and nag at the back of your mind. They are formative, they cut deep and live long. They scar self-confidence and they shape (if we let them) the people we become.

Of course, schools have moved on since the 1970’s when Mr Langley and Mrs Steiner were practising their particularly corrosive form of secondary education, but we as adults now in their place, need to remember how it felt and to strive to do what we can to avoid making the same mistakes..

Language, I believe, has a vital part to play. It is the tool we use most in education, it shapes and moulds how learning happens in our classrooms, how it is framed, and how (to a large extent) the students feel about it.

This last claim, I realise, is controversial. We don’t like to talk about feelings in education, they’re woolly, difficult to quantify, and subjective. In fact, even mentioning them is likely to distract us. Horrible things. But, and this is going to sound really annoying, feelings matter – specially to learning – and if we are interested in getting better at teaching we need to pay attention to them. Ignoring them won’t make them go away, students still have them, and we still need to be responsible for how we make them feel. Sorry.

Which brings me back to language. The words we choose, the order, the phraseology, all matter, enormously. Probably even more than we realise. Take a look at these two questions and imagine their effect on the students:

“Put your hand up if you can tell me why the First World War started?”


“Why do you suppose countries went to war in 1914?”

Both, it is to be sure, require formidable banks of knowledge, cultivated over a long period of study, but (assuming that is all in place) what do you think are the different effects each will have on the classroom as a community of learning?

I’m going to suggest the first version is a ‘high challenge, high threat’ question and only students confident they know what you’re asking for are going to put their hands up.

“Sir, the First World War started when…”
“Good answer, now who can tell me…”

And so on.

At this point you might object and say, “The teacher is missing a trick here, he shouldn’t have told the students to put their hands up but picked out a student at random.” Which would certainly have circumvented the possibility of only hearing from those students who are confident of the answer but would hardly have lowered the threat level. Imagine being a student in that classroom who is not sure they know what the teacher is after and waiting to see if they are going to be picked, my palms sweat just thinking about it.

The second version of the question on the other hand carries far less threat. The teacher will, of course, have their own views on the matter, but by phrasing the question as a supposition he is giving the students the chance to form their own hypothesis based on the knowledge they have accumulated and their own thinking.

After asking his initial question – “Why do you suppose countries went to war in 1914?” – he might follow up with:

“Interesting. Could you tell us a bit more about that idea?”

You’ll notice he is not accepting whatever the student gives him but asking for more information. Upping the challenge but keeping the threat level low by acknowledging the student and then distancing the idea from them as a person by saying ‘that’ idea rather than ‘your’ idea.

Also, you’ll notice the teacher is not asking the student to tell ‘him’ but rather asking her to tell ‘us’. This is a tiny switch of language, but it has massive repercussions. It avoids a two-way interrogation between the teacher and a single student. Such as:

“Jenny, why did the USA join the war in 1917.”
“Because German submarines started sinking ships.”
“Um, restarted.”
“Resumed, yes. Good.”
“Tony tell me the name of the American President at the time?”
“President Wilson.”

And so on. The purpose of this kind of questioning is clear, the teacher is revising previously taught knowledge by asking a series of closed questions to students he is (apparently) selecting at random. This is fine, but the conversation is entirely between the teacher and the individual student, everyone else in the classroom is effectively an on-looker, listening into the discussion but otherwise superfluous. In contrast, by saying ‘us’ rather than ‘me’ the teacher is indicating this discussion involves everyone in the class not just the two people talking. For example:

“I wonder what made the USA join the war in 1917? It can’t have been an easy decision. Why not spend a minute or two talking to the person next to you about the pros and cons as Americans saw it? You might want to make a list.”
The students work on the task.
“So, what have we got?”
The students go through their lists. As they do so the teacher asks them follow up questions to correct misunderstandings and challenge them to go further:
“Hang on a moment, are you suggesting…?”
“Don’t forget the German’s had just announced…”
“What makes you say that?”
“Could you tell us some more?”
“I’m a bit confused, when you say…”

And by including other members of the class:
“As we go through the lists can you let us know if you hear anything you want more information on, or anything you think needs clarification.”

In this way the teacher opens up the discussion and includes everyone in the room, providing them with the chance to get involved. It is no longer a conversation between two people but an open investigation involving everyone.

Here’s another example, this time from a classroom in Key Stage 1. First using language that is high challenge, high threat. Then language that is high challenge, low threat.

Teacher: “Who can tell me the name of this person?” She points at a picture of Florence Nightingale on the whiteboard.
Blank faces. One child puts up his hand.
Teacher: “Yes, Ryan?”
Student: “Queen Victoria.”
Teacher: “No, it’s not Queen Victoria, but you are very, very close.” (No, he’s not).
The teacher waits to see if anyone else wants to guess. No one does.
Teacher: “Her name is Florence Nightingale. Has anyone heard of Florence Nightingale?” (No one has).
Teacher: “She was very famous at one time, what do you think she did?”
More guessing from the students. No one gets it right.
Teacher: “No, Sarah she didn’t write Peter Rabbit.”
Teacher: “Here’s another picture.” The teacher shows them a second picture, this time an engraving of Florence tending a soldier in a military hospital. “Now what do you think she did?”
Student: “A nurse?” (Probably a guess).
Teacher: “Yes, well done Tajinder. She was a nurse. What kind of nurse do you think she was?”
Blank faces.
Teacher: “Well, do you think she was a nice nurse or a nasty nurse?” (The teacher puts the emphasis on ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ to make it clear to the children these are the words she wants them to think about.)
A forest of hands. This is an easy question – low challenge, low threat – any idiot can see the answer.
The teacher scans the room and picks a child who hardly ever puts his hand up. “Yes, Bobby.”
Bobby: “Nice!”
Teacher: “Yes, Bobby she was very nice, very.”

Teacher thinks: “Blimey this is hard work.”
Students think: “I wonder what’s for lunch?”

Now the same context, but this time the teacher is doing her best to make the session high challenge, low threat:

Teacher: “I’d like to show you a picture, it’s a photograph actually, of someone who became very famous shortly after it was taken. Her name was Florence Nightingale. You might have heard of her.”
Teacher shows the children a picture of Florence Nightingale. She leaves it there for a moment, letting the children look without saying anything.
Teacher: “What comes to your mind when you look at this picture? Just turn to the person next to you and ask them. What do you notice?”
Teacher waits, there is a short conversation between the children.
Teacher: “As I say her name was Florence Nightingale and this photograph was taken over a hundred and fifty years ago at a time when Florence was still quite young. She was just about to go on a voyage and had an important job to do. A job that would change her life, and the lives of many other people, forever.”
Teacher: “What do you make of her eyes? What about the way she is standing?” The teacher takes on the pose of Florence in the photograph, straightening her back. “Try it yourself.” She says.
The students sit up straight, putting their hands in their lap.
Teacher: “Now try the eyes and the look on her face.”
The teacher watches. “I’ll tell you what, why don’t we all stand and see if that makes a difference.”
The students stand, again the teacher models the way Florence is standing. The children find their own stance.
Teacher: “Now let’s try the face.”
The students make an attempt. The teacher looks and notices.
Teacher: “Here is a determined face, the eyes of someone not easily daunted. She indicates one of the students. “Here is another,” she indicates another, “who will stand for no nonsense, someone who gets things done, whatever the opposition.” And here is another, one who has iron will of someone who knows they are in the right and doing the right thing.”
Teacher: “Please sit down.”
Teacher: “Here is another picture of Florence,” she shows them the second picture of Florence at working tending to a soldier in the hospital. “This one is not a photograph but an engraving.” She uses her hands to indicate a drawing of some kind. “It was made at the time for a newspaper. News, you see, had got back to London that something remarkable was happening in the military hospital in Scutari, near the Crimean front. News of a remarkably determined nurse who was making a difference and saving the lives of hundreds of soldiers. Her name, they leant, was Florence Nightingale. You can see her here in the picture.”

And so on.

In this way the teacher is doing everything she can to involve the students in the inquiry whilst providing them with the information they need to make sense of the content. She is not merely telling them about Florence Nightingale, a technique that would be limited in its effectiveness, but is doing as much as she can to pique the children’s imagination and develop their curiosity. At every stage she is mindful of her questions and the tasks she wants the students to do, looking to raise the challenge whilst reducing their levels of anxiety, since they don’t know what they don’t know, and those confident enough to guess will guess and those not confident enough will stay silent.

You might think this level of analysis is over the top, but I beg to differ. I see people averse to risk will the time, I notice it when I teach young children, I notice it particularly with teenagers when I work with them, and I notice it with adults. I believe we ignore Mary Myatt’s observation at the peril of education and that there are effective ways to reduce anxiety in our classrooms through what we do, what we ask our students to do, and by what we say.

Mr Langley and Mrs Steiner please take note.


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