I Can’t Believe They Don’t Know That

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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.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

Whaddya know? Surveying Students


As I plan for my fall college reading classes, I find myself making assumptions about what my students will and will not know.  I assume they will have at least minimum computer literacy, although every semester brings students who have none.  I assume they know about blogs, although many don’t.  I assume they will know about using key words to search online, although very few students in my classes have ever demonstrated that ability.

So, this semester one of my first steps will be to develop a survey.  “What do you know how to do??”  The longer I teach developmental English, the more convinced I become of the importance of challenging my assumptions about what students do and do not know.  If I don’t take the time to find that out, I will be building my instruction on the instability of their presumed understanding.

I particularly want to find out what they know about computers because I am thinking I will design Friday activities in the computer lab (if I can talk the powers that be into letting us reserve it every Friday – not easy….)  I love making plans for doing thus-and-such on Mondays (“Monday’s wash day…”), thus-and-such on Fridays, and perhaps another thus-and-such on Wednesdays.  I know absolutely that those plans fall apart in the first few weeks of the semester, so I know better than to share my lovely symmetrical schedule with students.  But here it is again, creeping into my planning.  On Mondays we’ll do vocabulary, Tuesday-Thursday general reading content, then Fridays we’ll go into the computer lab.

So what we can do in the lab on Fridays?  I have several projects that worked well in previous semesters but, wanting to push myself and them, I am thinking of creating a class blog for each section (I can feel myself gulp in apprehension every time I read that.)  I may design learning projects to explore software that I think they might be able to use.  But I need to know who I can set loose in the lab and who needs extra time to figure out the keyboard, the basics of searching and typing and scrolling and … all the other invisible skill and knowledge gaps.   I ignore those gaps at the risk of losing those students who just plain don’t know, and they think everyone else does know, and they shut down, then stop coming to class, then drop out or flunk out.  All for the want of a simple question – do you know how to do this??

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com