A class is starting in a fitness center. The instructor comes in and begins with warm up exercises, then moves on to the planned lesson. A very well planned set of exercises and activities, with workouts for each part of the body. It is well researched, and as the session progresses, the instructor keeps telling the students the importance and benefits of each of the movements. The instructor demonstrates each exercise, one activity flowing into another seamlessly. The students are expected to follow the demonstrated directions and move along with the instructor. If it was a YouTube video, it would have been a perfect demonstration of a well-rounded fitness class.
However, someone observing this particular class would have noticed that a large number of the students were following the motions listlessly. Some were surreptitiously looking at their watches, others would stop every now and then and just sit or stand. Some were catching each other’s eyes and sending discrete messages. The instructor trundled along with the class, perhaps oblivious to the students’ apathy, perhaps not.
So what did happen in that class? Why did that class not click? It was not that the students were not interested. They had paid through their teeth to be in that fitness class and had joined of their own free will. They were not distracted teenagers. All were mature adults. Yet, when the class was over, most gave a sigh of relief.
The reality was that there was a mismatch between what the instructor was doing and what the students were capable of. This was a class of predominantly senior citizens as well as people who were there because they had ailments that needed some form of flexibility training. Most of them were not very agile or nimble in their movements. The instructor’s flexibility level was much higher, and that is what the class was based on. Since the sequence was based on an assumption of a much higher level of flexibility and stamina, the students faltered.
This is a common enough situation in a regular class in a school or college. We teachers often write beautiful lesson plans, but when we proudly and enthusiastically take them into class, we may sometimes find that the students are not interested. When this happens, we often blame students for this kind of situation --- they are disinterested, today’s children just want to be spoon fed, they are too entitled, they have no respect for education, and so on. I have faced such situations and made such judgements myself often enough. Over the years, however, as I learned to look at my lessons critically, both good and bad, one realization came up again and again --- the need for teachers to be able to place themselves in their students age, knowledge and ability levels while creating and delivering lessons.
To give an example, in one of my Sociology classes I used the example of Tiananmen Square protests of China. The students looked blank. Though it was an interactive class, the students were not responding. Finally I asked them if they were aware of what happened on that fateful day in Tiananmen Square. More blank looks. I ranted and raved at their lack of general knowledge, their lack of interest in reading newspapers and so on. Suddenly, one small voice said, ‘when did this happen’? I said “1989. In which class were you then?” Turned out they were all one or two years old then, not even in school! I was absolutely ashamed of my lack of perspective. Because it was such a general knowledge issue in my time, I assumed it should be so with my students too. I had forgotten that my students were of a different generation, and hence may not be familiar with issues of a different time frame.
Taking another example, I was observing a teacher’s 8th grade history class. The teacher warned me before the class started that these students were quite problematic and disinterested. I sat at the back of the class while the teacher started her lesson on Hitler and the holocaust. The topic she was teaching was how Hitler used propaganda to influence his people. The teacher had a list of propaganda techniques that Hitler used and started explaining each one of them. Students were indeed distracted and seemed disinterested. On a hunch, I went to the front of the class, and with due apologies to the teacher for interrupting, asked the students whether they knew what propaganda meant. Eighty percent of the class did not! We then had a session on what propaganda was, with examples from music and media they could relate to. The class was very engaged, with none of the previous listlessness. At the end of the class there was a feedback session with the teacher. The teacher held forth about the students’ lack of vocabulary. As she was ranting, I asked her whether she herself had known what the word propaganda meant when she was their age. She said she was not sure. As I persisted and she reflected on this, she realized that she really understood the term well when she was in college and studying International Relations!
I have used these two examples to illustrate how we teachers often make assumptions about students’ levels based on our own levels. Our own knowledge and abilities are however the outcome of our age and our longer years of education, compared to our students. We sometimes forget that certain words, terms or practices could become so familiar to us over the years that we start taking them for granted. For the students, however, they may be totally new or that they may lack the expertise we have to interpret these forms of knowledge.
As I think through the story of the fitness instructor and connect it to my own and others’ classes that have not gone well, three things become clear. First, , the need for teachers to be in tune with the students response and modify our lessons accordingly. The history teacher and the fitness instructor just went on with their lesson, oblivious to the fact that the students were not responding. Second, that we can sometimes get very attached to a good lesson we have created. When that does not go well, we often tend to blame the students for it, without reflecting on whether we ourselves had overlooked something. If that small voice that day had not asked me when the Tiananmen Square protests happened, I would probably have continued to blame those students for not reading the papers and for not having knowledge about something that happened when they were babies! Third, when we plan our lessons, we start from our own knowledge base. We often forget that our student’s knowledge base is much less. And since they are from a different time frame, their interpretation of an idea may be very different from mine. One thing I have learned to do now is that when I use words and terms, I first ask myself ---- did I know what this word meant when I was that age? Would I need to explain that word first before proceeding with the lesson? How would my students interpret this idea? And I find that when I keep my students perspective in mind while planning classes, connecting with them becomes much easier.