Once in a grad class I was taking we were asked to choose a picture that figuratively represented learning to us. Most people chose images like this:
I chose one that looked more like this:
That choice probably says a lot about me (for one, I take the word figuratively very seriously). One of my most passionate beliefs is that teaching is hard. Much harder than it looks. And the role of destruction in learning is one example of how much more complicated teaching is than it first appears.
Because students don’t come to us as blank slates waiting to be filled, right? They come with preconceived notions about reading and writing and the world. And in the biz we call that prior knowledge. And we say things like “to teach effectively, activate the students’ prior knowledge so they can connect new ideas to it.” Okay, easier said than done, but I’m on board.
And we might even acknowledge that some students have gaps in prior knowledge that make teaching harder. And again, I agree. It’s easier to teach books like The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and A Raisin in the Sun if students have some basic economic understandings, like the difference between buying and renting and how home ownership fits into the American Dream. And a lot of ink has already been spilled on activating and building prior knowledge (this chapter from Overcoming Textbook Fatigue is a good place to start).
But what we don’t talk about as often is when the prior knowledge and beliefs aren’t just missing, they’re wrong. What if students think that most Americans are middle class (not any more) or that race has never played a role in getting a mortgage (see redlining)? Then it’s not just building prior knowledge, it’s destructing misinformation first.
And I would argue that most of the time there’s an element of destruction to learning. To be clear, I’m not saying the students have done anything wrong and I’m not blaming other teachers. Because I don’t think a lot of people are teaching that mortgages are color-blind, they’re just not saying anything about it and students are making a natural, if optimistic, assumption. Just like there aren’t a lot of people teaching that the Greek and Roman statues have always been pristinely cream-colored. But that’s how they are now, and there’s a natural need we all have to fill in gaps and make sense of the world, so it’s pretty easy to assume they always looked like that, and pretty hard to imagine this:
Our brains are designed to work that way. It’s amusing when my 3-year-old asks what I’m going to put out for snack for my students, because it’s clear that she’s building off of her knowledge of what teachers do, but not understanding the differences between preschool and high school. But take a high school junior with a fair amount of schooling and life experience under his or her belt and it makes sense that the classroom can sometimes feel like a minefield of misconceptions. Some of the ideas and beliefs I feel like I spend the most time trying to destruct:
Revising means spell-checking and maybe adding some commas.
America leads the world in education, healthcare, economic equality, etc.
Authors hide meaning.
Poets are authors who are really, really good at hiding meaning.
When you get your English teaching certificate, it comes with a big book of answers about where the authors hid all the meaning.
Not having any questions means you understood.
Knowing what happened at the end is the most important part of reading a story.
Stories can be reduced to nice life lessons, like always be yourself.
Once you can say all the words on a page out loud, you’re done learning how to read.
Adults never find reading difficult (except for Shakespeare, nobody can understand him because he wrote in Old English).
Words don’t matter if you get the gist.
Racism and sexism were “back in the day.”
The most important goal of school is to get A’s so you can get into a good college.
Kids who do well in school were either born really smart or work really hard.
Everything on the internet is true.
Teaching is easy.
So what’s a well-meaning teacher to do? (Other than the obvious answer of hide under the covers and cry.) Stay tuned next time on Next Time Teaching for some ideas on how to handle the necessary destruction in the classroom.