Teaching Opinion

Our Students Know More Than We Think

By Ariel Sacks — February 27, 2018 3 min read
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Last night it was bedtime for my almost 3-year-old. She was close to sleep, when she said she wanted her Perrito (stuffed animal dog). My husband was nearby and got up to look around for it, but he didn’t find it. I jumped to the conclusion that he just didn’t know where to look, so I got up and looked myself. I didn’t find Perrito either.

“Sorry, we’ll find Perrito in the morning,” I told her. She was quiet.

A few minutes later, my daughter whispered something. I got closer.

“What?” I asked.

“Maybe he’s on the shelf,” she whispered again very quietly.

“You think so?”

“Yeah, the ‘down’ shelf,” she specified. I didn’t know exactly where she meant, but it sure sounded like she knew!

“It sounds like you know where Perrito is,” I said. “Do you want to go take a look?” She got up and came right back with Perrito, smiling.

I got a good laugh out of this, but it also got me thinking. Not only did it not occur to either my husband or me to ask her where the stuffed animal was, but she also decided to watch us unsuccessfully work at this without telling us—until she had no other choice but to give up on it, or use what she knew.

Here’s the thing. Not so long ago, it would have been pretty unrealistic for her to put a toy in a specific place and remember it later, unless there was something very significant about the incident surrounding that action. This didn’t seem like it. But she is growing every day! And suddenly her memory was a big leap beyond where we thought she was—our assumptions and habits needed updating!

This made me think about a classroom of growing students. Sometimes the leaps adolescents make are not as concrete as those in toddlers, but research tells us they are growing at just about the same rate—and the leaps are probably as dramatic in terms of what’s going on beneath the surface. With 25-plus students at once, the likelihood of at least one making a cognitive leap at any point that we aren’t aware of is huge!

What does this mean for teachers? I think it means that we need to integrate an awareness that at any moment, that many of our students probably know more than we realize. Our impressions and our data can become outdated in an instant, and when that happens, students might not let us know. Come to think of it, I’ve seen students “play dumb” while a teacher overly breaks down and scaffolds a task they know well how to do.

There’s a strange power children and adolescents can derive from watching adults be clueless about something they know—it’s the role reversal that makes it a novel event.

From a pedagogical standpoint, this reality encourages teaching choices that create space for and build on students’ knowledge and abilities to make decisions in their learning, rather than present our own knowledge and prescribe processes for them. Certainly for efficiency it can be beneficial to limit the number of decisions students make in a particular learning activity, but we need to realize that when we do so, we open the door for students to hide what they know.

For my toddler at bedtime, that was cute, but in the classroom, I think it becomes a rabbit hole—the longer the charade goes on, the less students feel their knowledge is actually wanted in the classroom. That perception and a resulting anger is often behind the choices of bright, underachieving students. It’s frustrating to watch someone choose to underachieve—but perhaps more importantly, they feel chronically underestimated. It’s not just training ourselves not to make assumptions about our students when we look at them—our estimation of our students is also embedded in our planning and pedagogy.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.