Helping Our Students up the Ladder
by Tina Blue
June 4, 2004
My friend Ellen, a cultural geography major and German minor, has just completed her junior year of college. This past semester she had a professor who, I believe, is typical of a certain kind of instructor often found at the college level.
As Ellen describes him, this professor is a vigorous and interesting lecturer--in certain ways. But in other ways, he is an absolute dud, not just in the classroom, but in the course as a whole.
What she likes about his lectures is that he really knows his subject and often presents it in fascinating ways.
What she doesn't like is that his lectures are so often incomprehensible. A related problem is that most of his assignments are just as incomprehensible.
This past semester she took African cultural geography from him. It was a subject she wanted to learn about, so she began the course with the highest hopes.
But as he rattled through his lectures, she found that she did not understand one word out of five. To him the names of African historical figures and political leaders were totally familiar, but to most of his students in the course, they were incredibly hard to understand and keep track of.
Long names in foreign languages are always hard to understand and remember. And in a region where leaders and parties can rise and fall with alarming rapidity, there may be a bewildering number of such names--many of them sounding almost alike to a student for whom the languages are totally alien.
Similarly, the political and economic activities of such a region also seem confusing to those with no prior familiarity with the subject.
The way to handle this problem, of course, is to start slowly, acknowledging what the students are not likely to know, and then build the structure of their knowledge carefully and deliberately.
Even if the students read the assignments, as Ellen always did, they are not likely to follow lectures that consist largely of a rapid string of difficult names and descriptions of complex economic and political activities. A teacher needs to be aware of the way learning takes place--and to care whether the students learn or not. (Thoughtful use of the blackboard would help, too.)
But the feeling Ellen and most of her classmates got from this professor was that he absolutely did not care. He resented that they were so ignorant about his subject, and he made no concessions to that ignorance. In fact, he seemed to want to punish them for not already knowing about the subject he was teaching.
Another friend, Mark, once had a course in medieval European history in which the professor did pretty much the same thing. From the first day of class, he raced through his lectures (again, not using the blackboard), rattling off names, dates, places, and events that his students were totally unfamiliar with.
As the term progressed, even though Mark kept up with the readings and even did some research on his own to try to fill in his gappy background, he still found the professor's lectures almost impossible to follow.
Both Ellen and Mark are dedicated note-takers. In most of their classes, they end up with detailed, helpful notes from each lecture. But when they showed me their notes from these particular classes, there was hardly anything there. Not only were there few notes, but what notes they did have were vague and obviously of no use whatsoever.
Certainly it is true that most students come into our classes without even basic knowledge that we once could have counted on, and I will admit to sometimes feeling not just frustrated but almost hopeless about whether I can bring my students up to speed fast enough to teach them anything I want them to learn.
For example, I often teach "Introduction to Poetry." You'd be surprised at how hard it is to teach the most basic things in that subject when students have no foundation for understanding historical or cultural references. The fact that I have to stop and explain points that once were taken for granted slows us down tremendously, and we don't cover anywhere near the same amount of material that I used to cover in the course. Of course, I could simply race past what they don't know and forge ahead. I would get more ground covered that way--but my students wouldn't have a clue about what I was trying to teach them.
We can complain all we like about the fact that our students come to us lacking in knowledge and skills they really should have. But that is just the way things are now. And since these are the students we have--these students, not some better-prepared students we wish we had--these are the students we need to be teaching.
A good model for the process of learning is a ladder. A person climbs by stepping from one rung to the next. If there are gaps, if a rung is missing from time to time, the person can usually still make his way up the ladder, though it will be more difficult. If two rungs in a row are missing, getting to the next rung might be a struggle. The more rungs that are missing, the harder it will be to get to the next rung. Some hardy souls can pull themselves up even if a lot of rungs are missing, but some will struggle or fail even if only a few rungs are not there.
There is no point in punishing students because they are climbing a ladder with so few rungs. We have to find out what our students know and don't know, and then figure out what knowledge and skills we need to supply in order to help them get up that ladder.
Standing above them at the top of the ladder, looking down in disgust at their woeful ignorance, might make us feel superior, but it doesn't accomplish anything at all in the way of education.