Words Matter: Does A Teacher's Language Affect Student Curiosity?

K.T. Sancken

Why do children want to learn?  It's a question so central to assumptions about education that it is frequently overlooked.  The inherent curiosity of childhood is sometimes taken for granted, or worse — tamped down — for the sake of meeting the math and language goals of a standardized test.  But what if this same natural human instinct to learn could be harnessed to turn around struggling students and school districts? 

These are questions Jamie Jirout, assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education and newly appointed principal investigator at the Research in Education and Learning Lab, posed to win a $70,000 grant from the Center for Curriculum Redesign.

"I'm going to be looking at teachers and teacher language," Jirout said. "How often are teachers saying things that promote question asking and inquisitive behavior? How often are they saying things that make kids feel like their curiosity is suppressed? Like, a focus on finding the right answer? Or just looking smart?"

Jirout will be analyzing and rating videos of teachers throughout the nation using the Measures of Effective Teaching Database founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Her main objective is to see if teacher language promotes not only growth mindset but also curiosity.

Growth mindset and its opposite, fixed mindset, are products of the research of Stanford University's Carol Dweck.  A fixed mindset is the belief that you are born with all of the intelligence you will ever need for your lifetime. A growth mindset is the belief that your natural intelligence is only the starting point for development. 

Studies have shown that fixed mindset leads to fewer achievements, while a growth mindset sees challenges and obstacles as another way to learn, ultimately leading to more accomplishments.  Dweck's theory of growth mindset has created a new field of educational study, of which Jirout has built upon with her research in curiosity.

In combination with her previous research on gender, spatial play and their broader application to math and science learning,  Jirout is now asking if it is possible that the way teachers speak to girls about math and science at a young age effects their mindset towards those subjects through out their educational careers?

Jirout offers this teacher's statement as an example: "It's okay, not everyone is good at math."

"Research shows praise like this has an impact on whether kids develop a fixed or growth mindset."

According to Jirout, when children experience failure in math, teachers are more likely to attribute it to a lack of effort in boys, but a lack of ability in girls.

"In college, there are many fewer women majoring in STEM areas that have strong gender stereotypes favoring males,"  said Jirout. "It doesn't matter if you're curious and you want to understand something if you think you can't improve.  Having a growth mindset leads to mastery."

For Jirout, what drives her are the same things that drive the students she's researching.

"I do it because I'm curious," said Jirout.  "How can I help kids enjoy school more, and support learning in ways that improve on what is currently done?"