"They don’t hear anything you’re saying"

Doug Noon has been visiting my classrooms, unbeknownst to me, and wrote about them:

The achievers are great at following directions, and they remember everything you say, even if they don’t know what you mean, and they figure it out after a while. The kids who didn’t know what you were talking about to begin with just copy what you’re doing, and they don’t hear anything you’re saying.

I’m still having trouble with students failing to follow simple instructions, or not doing things they’re not told to do but which to my mind are common sense: e.g. if you create a blog, you should remember the URL and your login and password or at least make a note of these, because you’ll be wanting to go back to your blog and post there at some future date. I’ve had students create their blog, then be completely unable to find it again! It must be “you’ll be wanting to return to your blog at some future date” part that’s pure assumption on my part. After all, I didn’t say remember your blog’s URL.

A friend who’s smarter than I am, made the following suggestion:

I always pass out a sheet of paper with blanks for students to write down their URLs and passwords for WordPress, Moodle, and Flickr. I try to encourage them to use the same combos for all three and to write it down in another place as well, including making a digital copy to place on their hard drives.

To which I responded,

Why (oh why?) do I assume that they will realize they need to figure out their own way to remember these names and then do something about it? They never do!! Is this yet another example of how schools make people stupid?

I created a powerpoint presentation made up mostly of screenshots showing how to subscribe to a blog using bloglines. Of course, my presentation was a model of clear communication, and yet unbelievabley some students had problems with it! The problem (snark aside) was not so much they didn’t understand the instructions, as I discovered when I went around the room (someone recently playfully suggested that the mark of a good IT teacher is how far they walk during class! Are they wandering around helping out, or are they behind their screen, checking their email?).

The problem was … well, perhaps you can tell me! Here’s what happened in one case which was, while not typical, not uncommon either.

Slide #2 says “go to www.bloglines.com”. Clicking on the URL in the powerpoint slide has no effect (something I hadn’t considered). I wonder what the kid will do so I wait and watch. Mad clicking and rattling the mouse! Then he turns to me and says “It doesn’t work!” Resisting the urge to tell him “Well done!” dripping with sarcasm, I ask him how he might solve this problem. He immediately opens a new browser window. I’m mildly surprised that he didn’t do this straight away but instead turned to me, and I’m already wondering why. Meanwhile, he’s got the new window open and he’s clicking around on the menu bar, on the “back” button, and other places, randomly without any order or method or even purpose that I can see. I ask him what he’s doing, or rather what he is (supposed to be) trying to do. He looks at me blankly. I suddenly recall myself earlier that morning, moving purposefully and quickly from my bedroom to the kitchen, only to pause when I got there and wonder what it was I came here, so urgently and purposefully, to do. But I’ve got an excuse: I’m 50! This kid isn’t even 20 yet (so still a kid in Japanese law)!

Feeling that it would be fun to tease this kid, but realizing I don’t have all day, I remind him that the other window is a presentation slide which has instructions on it; perhaps we could take another peek at it, it might give us a hint as to what to do next. Mr Diplomacy, that’s me.

This pattern is repeated: every few minutes I will have to remind the kid that he is supposedly working on a task, and the instructions for it are on the slides. I have to remind him, because he’s out there clicking his mouse, opening new windows and closing them, clicking in bookmarks and etc at blinding speed. What is going on? Is it a short-term memory problem? He doesn’t seem to be messing with me (I don’t think he’s that bright). He eventually finishes the task, but I’m already imagining (or trying to imagine) this kid in full-time employment in 4 years’ time, driving a training instructor to distraction.

My pop-psychology analysis is that, this boy, and others like him, have learned not to trust their own instincts because they are usually “wrong”. They must, instead, follow directions, even if it means not understanding the why’s and wherefore’s.

I am reminded of the children that John Holt writes about, the ones who randomly yet frantically shout out (im)possible answers to a question he has asked; instead of trying to reason it out, using the knowledge he knows they have, they seem (to Holt) to be sucked into a game of “getting the right answer”. Instead of quiet confidence, he saw fear in their eyes, and that disturbed him enough to write about it, and investigate where that came from.

Is that what I’m witnessing, too? Is it fear that has distorted these kids’ ability to learn, so that they act stupid?

One thought on “"They don’t hear anything you’re saying"”

  1. I have always surmised (but that doesn’t make it true) that this behavior was based on the fact that in the primary grades K, 1, 2 and often in 3rd also, children are walked through just about everything. There is little done that isn’t guided – this is especially true since we have dumped art, PE, and science in the name of raising literacy rates. We do less and less of the kinds of activities that foster trying things – making mistakes is not part of the curriculum, so kids have a total lack of experience with what to do. In many ways that is the rub between constructivist learning and totally scripted/guided programs like Direct Instruction that was “discussed” on Doug’s Borderland blog a week or so ago. I have read and heard that this is one of the reasons America is an innovator while the Asian countries that have historically killed us in testing situations don’t innovate as well. However, it seems that in true “The-grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-fence” fashion – the US is heading toward scripted, repeated, rote learning – and the Asian countries are beginning to drop that in favor of how we used to do school.

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