In my Kindergarten class the other day I spent five minutes teaching the kids a simple song with two parts. I told them, “The A-part changes. The B-part stays the same.”
I asked them to repeat what I had said, several times. “The A-part changes.” “The A-part changes,” they dutifully repeated. “The B-part stays the same.” “The B-part stays the same.”
I immediately asked them which part changes, the A-part or the B-part?” Silence. I said, “Raise your hand if you think the A-part is the part that changes.” Some of them raised their hand. “Now raise your hand if you think the B-part changes.” The same students raised their hands again.
This put me in a dangerous position. It seemed as though they didn’t understand me. If I didn’t carefully consider the reason, I’d be likely to attack their confusion in the wrong way.
If I assumed that they were obviously too young to understand, or that they were obviously incapable of higher thought because of where they live or where they come from, I might move forward in a way that could genuinely do them harm. I might end up revising the lesson to reflect my biases, and as a result I might miss the mark so far that I could confuse or even insult them.
Most likely, they were ready and willing to repeat everything I said, but their desire to mimic was far stronger than their ability to extract the important information from my words. Therefore, my strategy of simple repetition wouldn’t help much. My real solution would involve making sure they knew what “A-section” and “B-section” meant before asking them to repeat.
A friend of mine once described a Chinese math professor who had to stop and explain a step of a problem he had demonstrated during a lecture. Puzzled, the professor replied, “Is obevous!” The sad part is that in the realm of mathematics, the concept or step the professor had described was most likely obvious, as opposed to aspects of mathematical problems that must be worked through.
But to the student, who lacked the complete context of the work, it wasn’t obvious at all. This fundamental difference in viewpoint made it impossible for the professor to help the student. From his perspective, the student simply hadn’t seen the obvious.
But the professor hadn’t considered why the student hadn’t seen it, nor what the student needed in order to see it. This should serve as a huge caution to all teachers. I cannot rely solely on what seems obvious from my point of view when constructing a solution to a learning problem.
I have to think about what the students know as well as what they don’t know. I have to think the way they think. Most important, I have to temporarily reframe the definition of “obevous.”
Was this obvious to you? Have I missed something obvious? Isn’t it obvious I love your comments and want you to respond?