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

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose7 Comments

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.

Comments 7

  1. Dear Jose,

    Back when I succored the afflicted, families and I focused on how to make things better–writing a prescription alone won’t do it, and, truth be told, most illnesses (other than those self-inflicted, which may be most of them) get better on their own.

    My favorite criticism by the hospital staff was what a pain in the ass my patients tended to be. (I’d urge children to question, always question, any drug anyone was putting into their IVs. Small things like this gave them power in places power was not expected, maybe even outside the hospital.)

    I’m starting to hear it from teachers who get my students. As I get better at this, I hope to hear it more.

    Attending your conferences helps. Thanks for all you do.

  2. It really is important to have the space to say “I don’t get it.” Many times ( even adults), students will sit there in a room full of quiet and let the lecture pass and never say “I don’t understand” because of social pressure of the classroom. Teachers/Instructors/Professors will do this in meetings, too, under if they’re young or new, it’s this idea that if I expose that “I don’t know” then other people will think I’m dumb or won’t agree or think I’m wrong or won’t like me or *insert more here.*

    It’s feeling like you’re in a judgmental environment vs. a safe environment. Or perhaps thinking if you admit “I don’t understand,” that people will develop a whole image of your character/ who you are as a person.

    So it’s important for me as an instructor, student, & worker to be able to validate myself, my thoughts, my ideas, my knowledge – so that when there comes a point where “I don’t know,” I can say that without feeling that it’s speaking to my intelligence, competence, or who I am as a person. When I know I’m whole, I’m not thinking about how someone else will perceive me as a whole person. Does that make sense? As a woman of color and from an urban environment, it’s important to validate yourself. And kids with similar backgrounds, it’s important to give them spaces to validate themselves, because “I don’t understand” is one a step in the right direction for someone to help you understand. If you hold on to that silence, no one will be able to provide that support for you.

    It’s very frustrating to for me to sit in a classroom – having a class discussion with either my students or my peers, and have people of color not contribute because sometimes we don’t feel that our realities will be supported in that space. I’ve had a professor redirect the conversation when I brought up race for example, and it pissed me off. That experience has silenced some of my peers but you have to know that it’s important to speak your position – it’s important for support and communication and building relationships.

    Anyway, I’m flying on a tangent. Great entry!

  3. You’ve hit upon the teacher’s paradox here, one which has teeth in the adolescent grades in particular: the kids have to feel*safe* enough to say when they’re lost, and ask the questions they are actually thinking; but they also have to live *dangerously* enough to trust in the knowledge they do possess, and think independently of “what the teacher wants.” Are you familiar with the work of Ed Deci and Rich Ryan, Jose? It’s a psych theory of motivation that pertains, and is getting a lot of attention these days. Might be really interesting to you.

  4. Thank you for what you do in the classroom. There is so much emphasis on testing that we forget to teach kids how to think. My AP discourages this and has taught the young teachers in my department to never ask “why”. Kids settle for mediocrity because that is what the system encourages. There is no incentive in most classes for them to excel. Memorize and regurgitate is what the system wants.

  5. Post

    Everyone, thank you so much for your comments.

    Tracy, I’m going to add that right now.

    Michael, you drop serious jewels. I’ll have to highlight that one soon. Same with you, pissedoff.

    Vio, what an illuminating experience. It should piss you off. That’ll produce something so long as we channel that energy towards advocacy.

    Dina, thanks for the research.

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