September 24, 2020

Scott Phillips

The Power of Words in STEM

Topics: STEM Education / Play


Did you know the average person speaks 7,000 words in a day?

Words are flying around us at such a rapid pace that it’s sometimes hard to keep up. It’s also difficult for educators to teach students to discern the value and impact of their words. 

In our classrooms, it’s our duty as educators to choose our words wisely. The words we say to ourselves, our colleagues, and our students will continue to leave an impact long after we’ve left the teaching field.


The Language of STEM 

The stigma of math education is that we’re all about numbers. Most people believe vocabulary, and word type connections, belong in a class like reading or English. But very few subjects rely so heavily on the understanding of vocabulary as math.

Imagine yourself sitting in a class and the phone rings. On the other side of the phone is the school secretary and they sound concerned. They ask you to report to the office. Once you arrive in the office, you notice three men with sunglasses and three-piece suits: James Bond, Ethan Hunt, and Jack Bauer, all in the same room. They escort you outside where you’re greeted by a military grade helicopter. Before you can ask what’s going on the helicopter scoops you up and takes you hours away from your hometown. Eventually you’re hovering above a foreign country and they begin to lower you to the ground with a cable and harness. After you’ve touched the ground, they fly off. Now obviously, other than the mere safety factor of a child being dropped in the middle of a foreign country, I always ask the kids “what is the biggest hurdle you have to overcome?” They almost immediately respond with “what language do they speak?”

Reflecting on this story, imagine what you would do in this situation? What if you didn’t speak Spanish, French, or Russian? Now, replace that “foreign language” with the language of math. How do our students feel when they’re dropped in the middle of our math class and they don’t understand the vocabulary? If we demonstrate the importance of math vocabulary with our classes, we’ll also create a more accepting classroom climate for those students who don’t consider themselves a “math person.” 

I’m Just Not a Math Person

How we talk to our students is critical when considering their level of understanding and confidence in a math classroom. We may think we’re connecting, or empathizing, when we reassure them that “some people just aren’t math people.” But we’re doing one of the most detrimental things we could as math educators. I can’t keep track of how many times a parent, usually during conferences, assures me that since they weren’t successful at math it’s a free pass for their child to be unsuccessful too.

I’ll admit I’m not a “naturally gifted” mathematician. When I first began to teach, I was afraid I would be called out. I felt like a fraud. A book called “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler taught me I didn’t have to perform at a certain level to be qualified to teach math. Over the years she has done extensive research regarding how our brains are wired and how to strive towards a growth mindset.

I let go of the fear of being unqualified to teach children math. The words I thought about myself, and often said to myself in private, fit in the fixed mindset category. I was placing myself in a box and thus relaying the message to my students they should do the same.


How to Give Growth Mindset Praise

It never crossed my mind that I may be praising kids in a fixed mindset way. But this realization was huge for me not just as a teacher, but as a parent too. I’ve always praised my children with such phrases as “you’re so smart” or “you have so much natural talent.” Those are both training our kids to naturally be fixed in their mind.

While “you’re so smart” has good intentions, it would be wiser to compliment children on effort, grit, or approach to solve a particular problem. For example, growth mindset praise would be “you worked so hard on that problem” or “I really like how you chose this strategy to solve that problem.”

Failure is part of the growing process for anyone who wants to accomplish something. If we always shelter our students, and don’t allow them to fail from time to time, they will not grow. We need to teach them how to overcome that failure, push through adversity, and rethink their strategy.

I was compensated with a game for this blog post but the opinions are my own.

Author’s Bio

Scott PhillipsScott Phillips is a 7th grade math teacher at Aurora Middle School in Aurora, Nebraska. He will be starting his 11th year of teaching middle school in Nebraska. He works hard to instill a growth mindset in his students and tries to show them how to relish the challenge that math presents. He’s passionate about instilling confidence in his students and thrives to make math class an enjoyable experience for all. Away from school he enjoys time with his wife and three little girls. He also enjoys creating videos for his classroom YouTube channel with his cousins Bobby Joe Fry the Math Guy and Nigel the Math Explorer.

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