I remember when my primary school teacher praised me for being able to read. “Martin can probably read the Wall Street Journal”. After that, nobody ever helped me read the Wall Street Journal. Praise is empty without good follow up.
We should catch ourselves every time we pick out a student and say, “Oh, what a smart child.” Natural abilities don’t always continue to develop on their own. It takes a bit of cultivating. The bigger danger is the child, being told they’re smart, ending up with more attitude than skills. The point is that we are all too quick to pick out the quick students. For teachers and program developers, these are the students that make us look good. They give us the scores and justify our work. Our real work, however, are with those for which learning is not easy. After all, we’re educators.
Quick students are survivors. They can jump through hoops and over obstacles that the average learner stumbles on. The system often acts as a lid and only those with the strongest heads can pop off the top. The rest will suffocate under the pressure. Recently, I was able to observe how many children calculate. Calculating is something that happens in the head, but deaf kids use their fingers so it was easy to see what was happening. To calculate 8 subtracted from 9, they counted off each finger until only one was left, giving them the answer. This took around 12 seconds whereas it should take one. Nobody had shown them another way. When calculations get bigger, they’ll only get slower and more trapped.
We used pebbles from the yard. The game was to name a number and quickly pull the pebbles from the pile. After pulling nine stones into their personal piles, they quickly learned to subtract eight if the next number called was one. Again, the physical manipulation of stones showed us what they were doing in their heads. It was one of the simplest but most triumphant advances achieved in 10 minutes.
Children learn from understanding consistencies in patterns. It’s obvious with math, but the same case with language. There’s a consistency found when spelling “cat” and “bat”. There are inconsistencies when spelling “fish” and “physics”, but these are still rule bound. What is not consistent is when a teacher misspells words on the board. I’ve seen the quicker students jump over these inconsistencies with confidence, but the emerging learner gets confused.
Slack teachers become slacker when they depend on the quick students to sort out their inconsistencies. Teachers depend on students who can answer a question. Otherwise, they’re exposed. If there is no answer from a class of 80, it is clear that by majority rule, the teacher hasn’t done his or her job. Just one answer from the smarty gives justification to dismiss the rest of the students as ignorant.
The heavy dependence on choral drilling works in the same way. If we had technology to record individual students’ responses through audio processing, we’d probably find out that 10% are saying “physics” while 90% are saying “pisssh” but in a choral response, an aural illusion makes us believe everyone can respond and we are doing an awesome job as a teacher.
We will always need the quicker students. Not because they will help us believe we’re all actually teaching, but because the 10% of the 10% of the 10% might question if there might be a better way so that the 90% of their classmates can learn with confidence. Someday, I hope they’ll be teachers or better yet, educators.