Get Smart Fast, vol. 24: The power of positive language

Progress or pessimism: Self-fulfilling prophecies?

An analysis of publications in England leading up to the Industrial Revolution and a follow-up analysis looking at Spain yeild a striking insight: A surge in language associated with progress and the future appears to predate a surge of technological breakthroughs.

Carrying that analysis into the present day yields a troubling corollary: Language connoting innovation and improvement is subsiding, and the language of risk and worry is on the rise.

And it’s not just that people talk more about progress when their country is moving forward.

In both, culture evolved before growth accelerated. The finding that language and culture can play important roles in triggering economic development has major implications for the west today.

Extending the same analysis to the present, a striking picture emerges: over the past 60 years the west has begun to shift away from the culture of progress, and towards one of caution, worry and risk-aversion, with economic growth slowing over the same period. The frequency of terms related to progress, improvement and the future has dropped by about 25 per cent since the 1960s, while those related to threats, risks and worries have become several times more common.

Why it matters: A sense of stalled progress is not just worrisome because it can prove self-fulfilling. It also fuels the kind of zero-sum thinking that is anathema to progress in education.

Whose problem?

A writer’s move from the U.S. to the U.K. prompts reflections on attitudes toward child-rearing on both sides of the pond.

I still find parenting overwhelming and difficult at times, even though I know I’ve got it better than most people. But there’s a different feel to parenting over here—more sure-footed and secure—and it took me a while to figure out why    . It’s the sense that my children’s welfare is not all on me and my husband. That is, after all, what a policy like paid parental leave represents: the conviction that parents deserve support, that the work of raising a country’s next generation of citizens should be a collective enterprise. When the government instead leaves parents to look for employers willing to tolerate their care responsibilities, it sends a clear message: your kids, your problem.

Why it matters: Competing beliefs about the ideal roles of individuals, governments, and voluntary community efforts often lurk in the background of debates about education and childcare policy. Comparisons across countries throw them into sharper relief.

Key Findings

Students whose teachers set tougher grading standards learn more and do better in future classes.

More U.S. companies are paring back requirements that job-seekers hold college degrees.

Students in more racially diverse college classes graduate with higher GPAs.

Helping teachers incorporate cognitive science principles into their practice can make them more effective.

Students in more violent neighborhoods tend to choose schools farther away from home.

Innovation in school transportation is still in its early stages.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)