photo by ILMO JOE on flickr, made available by Creative Commons license.

“I can’t believe they don’t know that!” I hear that phrase so often.  Is this generation of students as overwhelmed by ignorance as it sometimes seems? Those glaring gaps in student knowledge are  certainly a favorite topic of adult conversation.  As soon as I tell someone what I do for a living, out come the stories.  “My son has classmates who don’t know how to do long division.”  “They (!) don’t even know the name of our vice president / Chief Justice / governor….”  “I can’t believe they have no idea what ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees’ means.”  “They can’t even read a regular clock face.”  And on and on and on.

I used to teach a college reading class using African American literature and most of my students, both black and white, had little knowledge of our bloody shameful history of segregation or Jim Crow laws.  It made the anger and bitterness of the literature hard for them to understand, so I created a slide show of images from a segregated America to help them see from whence our country’s racial tensions arise.  I understand why we don’t want to air that particular dirty linen with our children but, without an understanding of our past, the racial tensions of our present time make no sense.  Students, both black and white, need to know that the struggles of black students on a white campus are not solely their own problem or fault, but rather a reflection of our American history.

When I first began to realize how little the students knew about the realities of segregation I did feel surprise.  I couldn’t believe they didn’t know that.  But I had to move quickly to accept and remediate that particular gap – my expressions of surprise clearly made the students feel defensive and upset. We so easily make assumptions about what someone else should know, or what they should have learned, or what they should  be able to do.  Yet that assumption rarely serves us well as teachers.  When we feel (and inevitably express, whether verbally or non-) shock at an unexpected gap in a student’s knowledge, we put that student in a position of defense and opprobrium, not a happy place from which to learn.

Our students were born into their own time, not ours.  No matter how much we believe that our cultural references should be theirs, they won’t be.  No matter how much we bemoan the celebrity-driven “news” and the parochial perspective of the world, we need to move away from judgment and toward teaching.

One excellent tool to help us internalize the reality of the world our students live in is The Mindset List published annually by Beloit College.  In 1998 Beloit College created a list of incoming freshmen’s cultural realities to help faculty adjust their references to better match students’ understanding.  For example, on the list for 2012, Jay Leno has always been the host of the Tonight Show and GPS satellite navigation has always been available.

Our director has shared that list every year during our fall kick-off staff meeting, and it never fails to make me feel oh so very old.  But it also helps me grasp the reality of the “brand new world” that my students occupy.  Their experience, their world, is not mine, and I am a much better teacher when I remember that.

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