“I, myself, was always recognized . . . as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was . . . an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.”
“I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”
~Sir Winston Churchill
A recent post on the ASCD Inservice blog describes “Myths That Haunt Students”. The authors reference three points from Allison Zmuda:
* They see learning that comes quickly as a sign of intelligence and learning that requires effort as a sign of their own lack of ability.
* Students think school and life are disconnected.
* They think learning is an orderly process rather than a messy, recursive, ongoing struggle. Even high-achieving students will shy away from challenging tasks and embrace routine assignments, which they find more comforting, Zmuda noted.
These are fabulous points, and I would rush to buy the book referenced, if only I had the money and the time to read it (my current reading stack would literally be a meter high, were I so foolish as to stack the volumes in one place).
When we mistake speed for ability — or rather, lack of speed for lack of ability — we misinterpret a person’s intelligence and their ability to learn. Students who have difficulty processing multiple sensory modes will frequently have problems keeping up with lectures or rapid-fire instruction. Adult students who have been out of education for some time will also have problems because they are not used to, or aware of, how nuances in phrasing can impart important distinctions in material being presented. Many students find that their unfamiliarity with the technical terminology of various disciplines gets in the way of understanding, not only in reading texts, but also in lectures, presentations, or even decoding what is being asked of them in assignments.
Sometimes we feel “slow” because we cannot see how the material relates to other things in our lives; for students who are adept at a subject, those connections are “obvious”, and they can see how to use the material. But students who are new to a subject, or who have had difficulties with it in the past, the connections between class material and practical uses are not so apparent. Sometimes students don’t even believe that there is any connection; school and work and life are all separate realms. It is important for teachers to make these connections explicitly, and provide several concrete examples. Even better, they need to ask students to come up with their own examples of when they would use the information in ordinary life. Doing this will allow the student to not only better identify the need for learning the material, and will be more able to remember the information later, but they will also have more ownership in their own learning.
Frequently secondary (and early tertiary) students will just be looking for what are the “right” answers, or what the “teacher wants”, which is something of a shallow understanding of the purpose of the learning objectives. Sometimes this results from students who are used to just being given information to memorise and regurgitate (focusing overmuch on state assessment scores can produce this).
Sometimes it results from students who were assessed at simple taxonomic levels of learning, and who don’t realise that they will eventually have to be able to do more in the way of analysis. These are the students who will shortly be complaining about how hard the teacher is, and how the exams and assignments “aren’t fair”. It may not be that the students are necessarily lazy (tho’ sometimes they are), but that they are unprepared for how higher levels of education are going to operate, and what will be expected of them, and most importantly, how to do these things. Not everyone moves from concrete to abstract thinking easily, or in different subjects.
A lot of my students have trouble with not only decoding the material, but also with putting the concepts into the context of the ideas in the chapter, and especially into the context of the whole course. They have trouble seeing how the assignments are set up to lead them through skill acquisition, and how they reflect the learning objectives. Sometimes they have trouble discerning the “hidden curriculum” of school culture, and understanding how they are supposed to initiate their own problem-solving and determining what they need, and work at broadening their learning and skills, and synthesizing seemingly disparate bits of information from different classes.
I’ve seen some teachers who feel that doing this kind of teaching is somehow beneath them — that the students should somehow magically know everything they need about how to study, and when and how to ask for assistance, and what they should be doing outside of the stated class work. I think this is nonsense.
We expect graduates to have these skills, and we expect employees to have certain job skills when we hire them. But the whole point to school (be it primary, secondary, trade school or college) is to educate students. If you’re not willing to explain to students what they need to know, and how they can learn that, and what they need to be able to do to succeed, then what are you doing in the business of teaching? Teaching is an interactive process, not merely the “sage on the stage” dispensing information.
We also need to help our students understand that learning is anything but a neat, tidy linear process. There’s frequently a lot of review, of practice, stopping to put stuff into context, more review, more practice, looking at the context again now that things make more sense, et cetera ad infinitum. In other words, it’s highly recursive, and for students with learning difficulties, even more so. When our difficulties mean that the performance is uneven because we can do something one day but not the next, it’s especially frustrating.
No one wants to believe that such difficulty is “normal”, because it feels (a) stupid and (b) implies that we’re going to be going through this stuff every time we learn something challenging. But what we often don’t see is how many other people are also going through struggles. That’s one of the benefits to study groups — we lose the mis-impression that it’s easy for everyone else.
When i’ve taken undergraduate science classes as a graduate student (making up deficiencies), everyone else thinks that I do well because it’s easy for me. Well, the concepts are easy, and I can make connections between seemingly unrelated things like nobody’s business, but the memorising is just as difficult for me, and quite often the recall is even more difficult. It doesn’t help that I already have hundreds of scientific terms in my brain, because when I’m trying to recall one, I just end up with even more near-misses. I also know from experience that those really challenging classes are usually the ones that you’re glad you’ve had (past tense), because you have to stretch yourself to acquire new skills and will have those for further classes and work.
In the end, speed is rarely the big concern. (This is also why I don’t like timed tests; if you’re not actually needing to do something fast, like a medical procedure, then it’s unnecessary.) Quite often we have unrealistic ideas about how easily or quickly “everyone else” learns, or how each of us learns. Real life stuff is actually messy. And that includes learning.
(Andrea stands up straight again, and blushing, brushes the chalk dust stripe off the back side of her dark slacks.)