What Students Do Better Than Teachers

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horizontal-integrationWhat Students Do Better Than Teachers

by Terry Heick

You can ask your students what they’re interested in—what they’re curious about—but that’s not the right question, because they probably don’t know. Or don’t know they know.

A big part of communicating with children (of any age) is the terms and form of the conversations.

Terms as in why you’re communicating, who is a part of the communication process, and the medium you’re communicating through (if any).

Form as in the aesthetic of the communication—the language, tone, and schema.

That last bit—schema—hints at background knowledge. Those symbols that have meaning for students. The schema and syntax and language patterns matter as much as the topics of conversation. And this is an important distinction. Moving from exchanging words to exchanging ideas is a big shift that doesn’t happen just because there is a question and answer exchange. There is a certain trust inherent in any meaningful communication:

I trust you to truly listen and understand me.

You trust me to use symbols and forms that mean the same thing to you as they do to me.

We each trust that we’re both open to communicating, and vulnerable to new ideas.

The Solution

Terms and form.

Asking students what they’re interested in breaks rules in beneath both of these banners. It’s an adult-centered question—asked on adult terms expressed in an adult form.

The same goes with other questions that are entirely valid for you and I as adults:

What do you want to create?

What are you curious about?

What inspires you?

What do you want your work to be?

Or the most cliché, adult-centered version of all, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A solution can be found if we shift the terms and form of the communication. Iterate the question so that it doesn’t drip with adult stink and the morass of “accountability.”

Children have difficulty seeing past this afternoon. Those that think to coming weekend are visionaries. Traditionally, getting them to “think about their future” turns into a lecture on jobs and bills and “life”; we project our insecurities and failures on them.

Children are spontaneous. Rebellious. Naturally innovative. Emotional. Adaptable. Forgiving. Fragile–and curiously strong. They can make a game out of almost anything. But an underappreciated talent that almost every student has is to live in the now. To resist us grabbing their heads and turning them to some nebulous, uncertain “future” that none of us understand.

They’re future blind, but their ability to see the here and now is off the chart. So seek out terms and form that resonate with them. Think in music and language and chaos and love in pursuit of the now.

Their physical location right now. Their potential collaborators now. The possibilities now. The opportunity now. Their needs now. The worthwhile challenges that are within their reach right now.

Point at a range of mountains and ask them earnestly, “Which one should we climb?”

image attribution flickr user horizontalintegration; What Students Do Better Than Teachers

  • Yesung Cho

    There’s a typo in this article. The difference between they are and their.
    It would have been an excellent article if not for the typo. :)

    • terryheick

      I’m king of the typo, but I’m still not seeing it. Where, exactly? ; ^ )

      • Yesung Cho

        :D it’s at the last third paragraph, 5 words in.

  • Alicia L.

    LOVE THIS: “Think in music and language and chaos and love in pursuit of the now.”

  • Maren LaLiberty

    I was intrigued by the subject of this article – I had never really thought about the extent to which young children are anchored in the present…and how far removed adults are from having this ability. I would like to begin incorporating this new insight into the way that I communicate with my students but I really cannot figure out exactly how to do this – suggestions?

    • terryheick

      Great question. Anyone out there have some ideas before I try to answer?

  • Stephanie Koclanis

    An easy way to do this is by commenting about a specific thing you observe them doing. The key part is to engage them with open-ended questions while they are engaged in the activity. “I see you used all circles to create your picture, tell me about that.” “I see you made a pattern with your blocks, can you show me how you did that?” These kinds of questions show the students you are interested in what they are doing while extending their experience. In addition, these guiding questions help develop their critical thinking skills by having them explain the process they went through in a way that makes sense to them. Engaging in these types of conversation make the students more aware of their experiences and in turn, more aware of themselves.