How our language is failing kids

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HOW OUR LANGUAGE IS FAILING KIDS The undiscussed world of unrecognized knowledge An article by Maya Lievegoed & Haim Dror

Much has been written about language development in children. But how does the language used by adults impact children’s self-image? This article explores the world of unrecognized knowledge. You will discover how we tend to overlook qualities and which five practical steps, originating from the TINO-method, can be used to prevent this.

Language offers us a way to deliver messages. It also helps us understand the world around us, by labelling and structuring it. ‘Daddy’ is part of ‘family’. ‘Bread’ belongs to ‘food’. It is not without reason that memories are strongly connected to our language development. But besides organizing impressions, our language usage reveals what we find important. How many flower types do you name in a day? Probably less than a florist who needs this information for his or her work. The same happens in our communication towards children. Adults talk about what they consider important and thus indirectly signal to children that those things are important.

Reporting as a second filter Part of spoken language is written down. An important question here is: what do you write down? How many observations about the child can fit into the report? How many educational components fit on the diploma? The recording of information creates, in addition to the language itself, a second filter. Moreover, the information you record is frozen in time. With a word like ‘apple’, this is not a problem because our image of an apple won’t change quickly over time. With more dynamic subjects, such as the development of a child, a disease or a problem in the workplace, this does matter. Here you will find that it’s not the documented information (like a report) that provides accurate knowledge about the subject, but the people. Yet, due to the many technological means of recording information, there is an increasing emphasis on these static sources. As a result, a large part of the knowledge that people have remains unseen and unused. We call this unrecognized knowledge.

We know more than we think we do An example: when I ask you what you could learn from a bus driver, you will probably mention how to drive a bus, traffic regulations, street names… What both you and the bus driver don’t realize is how much more information he has. About local fashion trends for example, due to the many passengers getting on and off the bus every day. Of course, the bus driver is not a fashion expert. But he could offer a valuable perspective about popular colours and patterns. This knowledge just goes unnoticed. Just as your unrecognized knowledge isn’t on your resume either. And the unrecognized knowledge of children isn’t shown on their diploma. This is a missed opportunity. Because what remains unspoken and unwritten, does not seem to exist at all. But if we never speak of the fruit tree in our garden and don’t write anything about it, it doesn’t mean that there is no tree. So, how can you start to see this unrecognized knowledge? The TINO-method inspires you to take on a different perspective and consists of the following five steps.

Step 1: Become aware of it We have to become aware that our current language usage still filters out this unrecognized knowledge. A term such as ‘disabled’ puts emphasis on the thing a person struggles with or can’t do well. It leaves out that he or she develops compensation skills precisely because of this challenge. Imagine a child in a wheelchair. Doesn’t he have to develop much stronger arms in order to move himself forward? In practice: In one of our workshops, children were asked to come up with a contest they could win by using their unrecognized knowledge or skill. One of the pupils thought of creating a ‘waiting contest’, because at home he had to wait for his sisters so very often. He recognized his skill (patience).

Step 2 and 3: Start at the problem and seek out like-minded people In his book “Leading change”, John Kotter describes magnifying the problem as the first step towards change. So, do not brush it off or downplay it. A crisis creates a sense of urgency and as Winston Churchill once said: ‘Never waste a good crisis’. At the same time, it’s hard to change an old mindset quickly. Even more so on your own. Therefore, seek out like-minded people and strive towards an environment in which everyone is on the same page. If your colleagues are willing but management is not, you won’t move forward. And when the school sees unrecognized knowledge in pupils, but their parents don’t, then it gets confusing for children. Example from practice: In 2018 we started a collaboration with a school for lower vocational training in Arnhem. It began with one enthusiastic and passionate teacher. We introduced her students to TINO through climbing workshops. The enthusiasm of the school grew and as of this year, all educational levels are participating.

Step 4: Practice, practice! The example of the bus driver is fairly simple. Using unrecognized knowledge in real life however is challenging. First of all, it goes against the grain of our habit to mostly rely on recorded knowledge. Second, you need a mixture of skills, such as empathy (what is someone else seeing?), thinking by association (what could this person teach me?) and agile thinking (how relevant is this information to me?).

And this is before you’ve even started asking questions to the other person. Nowadays, children and youngsters who mostly communicate through technological platforms, often find these interpersonal skills very challenging. Additionally, from whom should they learn to use unrecognized knowledge, if we as adults don’t do this either? Yet, we are certain that almost anyone can learn to apply this knowledge domain. In practice: we were asked by the Dutch public organization ZonMW to organize a TINO program in which youngsters can practice ‘knowledge detecting’ to find information with people that they wouldn’t normally get in contact with.

Step 5: Be as thorough as you can Our current language usage has many pros, just like reporting. By labelling someone ‘patient’, the doctor knows who to treat. By testing calculating skills, we know better on what level a child is performing. Therefore, we’re not pleading to let go of existing names, but to make our vocabulary more complete. It works similarly to the fruit tree in our garden. When we name something, we make each other aware of its existence and we get to see new possibilities. Let us add unrecognized knowledge to our vocabulary. Everyone reaps the harvest this way.

About the authors and TINO method Maya Lievegoed introduced the TINO-method in The Netherlands. She leads various TINO-programs for children, youngsters and adults in the public and private domain. The TINO method was developed by Haim Dror. Dror was a ‘human intelligence expert’ for the Israeli government, later he received his Master’s degree at Harvard Business school and then began developing and implementing the method. To stimulate awareness about unrecognized knowledge, Maya and Haim wrote the book ‘De Bende van Super-Anders’ (The Gang of Extra-able). For more information: and This article was originally published in Dutch. The translation is done by Melody Toering.


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