Virtual Conference 2011: How “I Don’t Get It” Is The First Step Towards Mastery

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning, class!

Hope you’re all settling down now, because I got a story to tell you all. It’s about this young lady who had tons of potential in the world, but got away with too much due to her pretty handwriting and good manners. It’s about this young boy who sat down quietly and thought his intelligence was enough to get him past my class. It’s about boys and girls who sit in the back of the classroom who, for their own reasons, won’t bring anything to write with, including their brains. It’s about a set of students so willing to disregard their academic self-worth that they would rather just know enough to pass a test at the end of the year and be rid of us for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately, it’s also about a teacher who stood up and said he wasn’t going to tolerate that mess. It’s specifically about a math teacher who, upon realizing that learning wasn’t linear, was going to extract some thoughtful responses from his students about the math they were learning in the classroom. That, my friends, is the basis for my speech today. If we continue to perpetuate the myth that learning somehow comes from one test given in two hours, then we’re cheating ourselves of too many opportunities.

This includes having them say things like “I don’t get it.”

In my classroom, having a space where kids can actually say “I don’t get it” is empowering. Far too often, we subject the lowest-achieving students to regimented learning, where, if they sit quietly enough and don’t bother enough, then they deserve a good grade. If they stray too far from what we consider normal, we devalue their humanity and tell them they’re not allowed to get any part of our instruction, something they were rejecting to begin with. In the same fashion, we gun down flowers because the weeds around them render them unusable.

Ha! But once they say “I don’t get it,” then you got them hooked, because that means that they’re not only listening, but, if you do it right, they’ll be vested in actually knowing the answer, and eventually doing it themselves. This process takes lots of time and patience. You’ll have to pull back from your innate need to correct an errant behavior the minute you see it. You’re going to have to let the thoughts simmer there for a second as you see them talking amongst themselves. In some classrooms, giving students that little window can scare the average teacher or administrator into thinking that rituals and routines haven’t been set.

Believe it or not, the best routine in that classroom can be the lack thereof. When I can cultivate that with my students, I may not get the brightest students by state standards, but I get some very creative and inquisitive students. I prefer that. Those kids have personality, attitude, and sass, something communities can put to use for the right reasons. I push my students, questioning them until I see that they get it, then I give them a “HA!” and walk away. I give them teacher looks whenever I know that they know the answer, and they usually know they have the right answer when I say, “WHY ARE YOU ASKING ME!?” hoping to instill some self-reliance in them. It seems rough at first, but I assure you these students become a whole different kind of student than when I first get them.

You also know that if students are going to get questioned, then they too will ask me the tough questions. That’s the other part of the equation people never get: the teacher should be questioned, so long as the questions are thoughtful. Once they’ve been taught how to question critically, then it’s up to me to find concrete answers for them. My ability to explain things to kids has gone up a thousandfold since we crossed that threshold.

Sometimes, I often feel bad for the high school teacher who has my students after because they’re going to get a lot of questions asked of them, and they’re going to have to learn how to explain their own reasoning in a way those kids can understand. But maybe it’s my way of saying that we in this country have a ways to go before we get to the point where kids can say “I don’t get it!” and having that be OK. There’s so little time and so much to cover. There’s so little regard for a student’s questions about their world and too much regard for what some distant outsider think is best for too many children all at once.

There’s so little focus on kids’ other intelligences (and adults’ for that matter) that, in the midst of creating the most profitable and efficient student, we forget that this country also needs better people. But that’s not going to come from some regulation or any funds; it’ll have to come from us. We’ve already told the world we don’t get it. It’s our turn to ask more questions and better questions.

Look at us modeling the right behaviors for our kids. Here, we’ll become masters of our own destiny. Until then, our kids don’t get it. And that’s fine, as long as they say so.

Thank you.