Read This Book! Opening Minds

How do you create classrooms in which children come to see themselves and their classmates as vital and powerful contributors to their own learning? In his new book, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, Peter Johnston provides some much-needed answers for how to do exactly that. Johnston gives readers an inspiring vision of how their words can shape who their students become, and practical, easy-to-apply strategies for how to make that vision a reality.

Johnston’s basic premise is that as teachers, we can use language to open students’ minds to their potential as learners and to the excitement of learning itself. He urges readers to think intentionally about using language to foster the “growth mindset,” a term coined by researcher Carol Dweck. Dweck’s studies show the many positive effects of helping students develop the belief that through discipline, effort, and hard work, they can improve their performance in any area of school or life. Johnston takes Dweck’s work and shows how teachers’ language can move children from a fixed view of their abilities to this growth mindset.

Even small changes in language can reap huge rewards. For instance, in the first chapter Johnston points out the difference between saying, “Look how many words you know” and “Look how many words you know already.” The first gives the message that a student’s knowledge is fixed, while the second tells her knowledge is a work in progress. So, when a student says, “I don’t know how to do __________,” try answering “Not yet!” That’s a response that gives a subtle but strong message that what students know and can do is not fixed—it can grow and change.

One especially powerful chapter gives readers advice about how to give feedback to students. Johnston urges readers to give “process versus person feedback.” When we give students information about what they are doing that is leading to success, they can repeat and build on those actions in the future. The key is to tell them what they did that bears repeating.

Johnston also shows how to give process-oriented feedback without using words of praise. By asking questions such as, “What do you think?” “How did you do that?” or “How might you figure that out?” we convey powerful, positive messages to children. We tell them that we believe they are capable. Even without specifically saying so, process-oriented feedback tells students, “Your opinion matters in this class,” “You can figure things out on your own,” and “Knowledge is a work in process, and you are an important part of that process.”

Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives is full of accessible descriptions of research results, examples of real-life classroom conversations, and practical suggestions both small and large. Building on the tradition of his previous book, Choice Words, and on The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton, Johnston’s new work is both inspiring and immediately useful, a powerful combination.