Personalized Learning Opinion

Do Students Understand What Teachers Are Asking of Them?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 13, 2018 4 min read
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We welcome back guest blogger Jacob Lewis. He is a self-advocating high school student, an award-winning photographer, and is working to quietly disrupt education by asking us to think differently.

School curriculum obviously encompasses the learning academic and social skills. Communication is central. Teachers communicate to students through words and actions, but also through the assignments and assessments they give. There is the obvious communication that is assumed to be clear to all students, and then there is the not-so-obvious communication that relies on upon interpretation and experiences.

These are lessons that aren’t taught explicitly, but rather social components that many educators assume most people just pick up through the interactions of everyday life. Not all of us do. In fact, this can be difficult from some people--like me--to comprehend.

Recently in one of my high school classes, we did an activity in which we were supposed to list the pros and cons of different methods of communication. The final question was to determine what the best form of communication is out of texting, calling or talking face-to-face.

The ‘right’, the one my teacher expected was, ‘face-to-face’. The reasoning behind it was that it gives the most opportunity for determining people’s feelings. However, I disagree that face-to-face is the best form of communication. I have difficulty reading facial expressions and tone of voice, which is why I chose texting as my answer. For me, it’s the best form of communication--It not only allows me time to reflect on the words and make sense of them, but the person I am communicating with has be to more straightforward with their language as well.

I also don’t believe that there is one correct answer to this question. How is there a definitive answer? All people communicate differently. Some people are harder to read, and some people are more adept at reading others.

This wasn’t the first time I failed because of my differences. I’ve had many instances where I’ve been taught in a way where the teacher assumes that my peers and I know what to do and how to do it.

By this, I don’t mean knowing the right formulas for math, but the other things that come with learning. Things like what is expected of us in terms of the unspoken requirements needed to complete an assignment.

It makes me wonder: Does that typical learner that teachers teach to actually exist? Is there truly a student who can always know to show their math when the directions don’t say so, understands you need to make eye contact to look like you’re listening and that face-to-face is supposed to be the best form of communication?

The world is full of neurodiverse people, so why is there this assumption that all learners know how they are supposed to operate or that even operate the same way?

Teachers don’t even all teach the same way because they are also neurodiverse people with unique perspectives, so it only makes sense that students learn differently for the same reason.

I’m fortunate to have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in which one of the accommodations is to provide clear instructions on every assignment so I have the information I need to know about what is expected of me. However, this isn’t perfect, and most people don’t have this accommodation for their IEP, or an IEP at all.

I think sometimes the manner of communication creates a disconnect between teachers and students. It stems from the fact that it’s not possible to think exactly like another person. There’s no way language can communicate what it’s like to think with my brain or to view an idea or concept exactly the way I do.

I’ve talked about this a little bit before, but it’s definitely my biggest obstacle at school. I’ve had plenty of instances where I genuinely don’t understand directions because I don’t know what the teacher is getting at.

It’s hard when you have to follow a teacher’s instructions without questioning and when not being able to interpret the instructions can come across as if a student is challenging the teacher.

I find it difficult to find a way to explain that I want and am willing to do the assignment, but I don’t know how. Sometimes, I truly don’t know what is expected of me and what the requirements are because the directions don’t connect or seem logical to me.

When I ask for clarification, what is most beneficial is not repetition of the same directions or even rewording. It’s reframing and rephrasing that helps because it requires changing perspective to explain it, which is much better than just changing words.

This isn’t only a problem for people with disabilities. Plenty of people in my classes would benefit from clearer instruction. Teachers need to be more explicit through all grades in order to better help students. It’s important to recognize that each person is individual and learns individually. There aren’t types so much as there are different perspectives, and there is no ‘typical’ in learning.

Photo by Jacob Lewis

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.