On Feeling Stupid

It is summer and I have been enjoying a little light reading. I love mystery stories. However, I don’t like violent mysteries with lots of swearing, sex and gunfire. I prefer the quieter, thinking kind that reveals a bit about human nature from time to time. One of my favorite mystery series is the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. The series is set in Botswana and the protagonist is a woman named Precious Ramotswe who runs a detective agency. The books have been made into a television series on HBO, also. The book I completed this morning was The Kalahari Typing School for Men. In this installment, Mma Ramotswe’s assistant Mma Makutsi opens a typing school for men so that they may learn the keyboarding skills they desire for modern life. An unnamed student sums up his description of his typing teacher with this statement. “She is a good teacher, that woman, ” he said. “She does not make me feel stupid. She is good at her job.”

Book Cover

At our school, stupid is sort of a curse word.  No one would call anyone that.  Children get a stricken look on their faces if it creeps into a library book.  But that doesn’t stop feelings of inadequacy and frustration.   A teacher doe not have to be overtly disrespectful or condescending for students to feel badly about themselves during a course of study.  Those feelings may stem from a student’s past failures with the subject, the derision of peers, a more sensitive personality, or lower beginning ability level.  While no one can or should save young people from every case of negative emotion, it certainly can be a barrier to learning.  I have often thought that if learning to read had been as much of a struggle for me as learning any sport involving hitting a small ball has been, I am not sure I would have done it. I feel stupid when I play tennis, racquetball, billiards etc. I am sort of sports learning challenged.  Based on past experiences, it would take a very good teacher to overcome my wish to defend against feeling  stupid and try one of these endeavors again. This willingness to acknowledge  a student’s  fear of failure and embarrassment and provide strategies to overcome it should be a part of any good teacher’s game plan.

Sometimes we are very sensitive to this with young children but we expect our adult peers to never have this barrier.  I suspect many people do not fully engage with professional development because they fear that they will feel stupid.   It is easier to reject, make fun of or tune out a new program, idea or way of doing things than to go through the “Oh, no! This makes me feel stupid.” moment.  Of course, as adult reflective learners we should be able to take down the barriers, swallow our pride and move forward with courage.  But if we find ourselves as teachers of adults, we must face the truth of human nature and include strategies to open our learners’ hearts to the risk of change.

How do you make sure your students of any level don’t feel stupid?  What aspects and procedures in your school could be changed to help learners feel more confident and respected.?  How do you share  your passionate beliefs  with your extended circle of colleagues on Twitter and other social media without making new members and dissenters feel stupid or disrespected?

Would anyone like to teach me to play tennis?


The Importance of Imperfection : Wherein We Learn How to Upgrade a Computer

On Saturday, I added more RAM to my lumbering Dell Dimension desktop thereby rescuing it from the imminent destruction of my frustrated fantasies.

Although I am quite comfortable using computers, I really don’t like to open their neat little covers and even peek inside. I am usually convinced that doing so will result in the whatsit falling off of the doohickey thereby irreversibly closing my expensive-to-replace window on the world.

While researching information needed to replace my creeping time-wasting dinosaur, It finally occurred to me that a nice new 1 G of RAM would make my virtual life bearable again without a major purchase.  A couple of Google searches and a visit to the Dell site soon had me pumped for a little computer brain surgery.  Not only were there nice step-by-step directions to be had, but YouTube videos as well! This video made it sound so easy, I was hooked.

When my shiny new memory module arrived, I looked for the video again, but stumbled upon another  one, instead.  This one was rambling and profane.  The beautiful little stick did not snap in on the first try.   (I did have it embedded here but decided to take it out because of the language)

After locating the original video and a frustrating day trying to run a super-slow back-up, I finally cleared a space in the room with no carpet (kitchen) and grounded myself by laying hands on the kitchen stove.  Time for the delicate computer brain augmentation at last.  The cover slipped off easily.  I cleared away 5 years of dust with my handy canned air (which also proved invaluable for keeping the cat at bay.)  The slot was easy to find, but somewhat blocked by those whatsit wires and cables which led to all the  important doohickeys of my computer nightmares.  I solved the problem of worrying about touching the wrong part of the RAM module contacts  with my sweaty fingers by wearing rubber gloves.  This proved to be a good idea, since my little stick did not snap neatly in place on the first try as in the very well-presented first video.  My manipulations much more matched the second video (minus the cursing.)  What relief when the troublesome end under the wires finally snapped perfectly into place!  After carrying my prize work to the computer room and reconnecting all of the life-lines,  I held my breath as I pushed the magic button.  Success!   My cheery little desktop was still alive.  The new RAM was the perfect fix.  I am typing this with 6 open windows!

What does this story have to do with teaching?  I had two “teachers” who explained how to place the RAM module into my computer.  One did an awesome job of explaining the details in a very professional way.  The lesson was clear, simple and concise.  The second teacher was rambling, a little profane and less technical.  However,  he let me know that sometimes the little stick didn’t snap in on the first try.  He told me that I would probably have to push harder that I thought I should before it clicked in place.  He gave me permission to turn it the wrong way on the first try.  He gave me confidence that if I kept trying, I would, eventually, get it right.  If I had not seen the second video, I would have been calling for help after the first or second try.

I do love a smooth slick presentation, but our students are learning life skills not just information in our classrooms.  Are we modeling our own perseverance in the face of imperfection or do we hide the messy stuff from them?  Do we give them the opportunity to learn from each other?  Sometimes learning together with someone on our own skill level helps us through the rough spots that the experts have forgotten.  To turn an old tag line upside down — Have you let them see you sweat?

Chapter3: Notes on “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham (Wherein we read a “grown-up” book this summer.)


     Don’t you love the school scenes in the Peanuts movies?   No matter what the subject is, the teacher’s voice is depicted by “wah-wah-wah-wah.”  Do you ever think that is what your students hear when they listen to you?  Have you ever had a class seemingly engage in the day’s activities with enthusiasm, only to find that they retained very little of what you thought you were teaching?  In his new book, Why don’t Students like School?, Daniel Willingham outlines nine principles derived from cognitive psychology to help you connect with the developing minds of your students.

     The nine principles are:

  1. “People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.”   Students don’t like school because they are frustrated or bored.  The amount of thinking required must be just right to retain their interest.  Teachers must know their students in order to plan effective lessons.
  2. “Factual knowledge precedes skill.”   No matter how much schools want to teach “higher order thinking skills” there must be factual knowledge in the long-term memory to facilitate the process of thinking.  For example, reading comprehension requies the background knowledge an author assumes the reader can supply.  Willingham postulates that the 4th grade reading slump often seen in students from underprivileged homes is caused by the lack of this type of knowledge. I became interested in Willingham’s work through this video on reading comprehension
  3. “Memory is the residue of thought.   Here is where Willingham’s recommendations seem to contradict those of  other educational experts.  As he says in his conclusion, he is basing his principles on cognition, not just motivation.  Since memory can only come from what students actually think about, teachers must be very careful to motivate students to attend to a lesson without taking their minds off of the learning objectives.  Some possible distracting motivators he mentions are; attention-getting devices such as costumes and props, artificial items to create student relevance, and the use of a new technology to assist students in producing a product.  He suggests using a story structure in any lesson and moving attention grabbers to the middle of a lesson to sustain interest in the material being taught.  Willingham models this well in each chapter of  his book.
  4. “We understand new things in the context of things we already know.”  Abstract principles and deep knowledge are not easy to acquire.  Have realistic expectations. This type of learning must be  built over time.
  5. “Proficiency requires practice.”  Your grandmother was right.  “Practice makes perfect.”  This is true for basketball, playing the piano, learning the multiplication tables, and teaching.  Teachers should choose carefully what foundational skills need to become automatic through practice.  Shorter practice periods spread over time are better than long cram sessions.  Practice can be done while working on more advanced skills.
  6. “Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.”  Students will not be able to think like historians and scientists with many years of experience in their work.  Experts were all once novices.  They had to learn certain fundamental knowledge and skills in order to develop the the thought processes they now have.
  7. “Children are more alike than different in learning.”   Oops!  If Willingham is correct, most teachers  have  wasted a lot of in-service time on identifying visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.  Willingham asserts that even though people have different abilities and preferences, it is the content that should determine the mode of instruction.  No matter what type of input students prefer,  certain types of information and skills require visual, auditory or kinesthetic attention.  Using a variety of instructional strategies in the classroom is good practice for all students.  Learn more about his position in this YouTube video.
  8. “Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.”   Much of what we measure as intelligence is shaped by the prior knowledge we have stored in our long term memories.  This is due to both genetic and environmental factors.  Some studies favoring a genetic basis for intelligence may have missed the fact that genetic factors cause people to seek out different environments.  Therefore, environment may play an even greater role than once thought.  In order to foster the hard long-tern work needed to increase intelligence, teachers should praise effort more than ability and increase students’ confidence in their ability to improve.
  9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.  Experience is not the same as practice.  Teachers often improve in their teaching until they reach a level where they begin to coast.  Videotaping your teaching, keeping a diary, and pairing with a trusted colleague can help you to identify the areas you need to improve.  Be realistic and don’t try to change everything at once.

     By reading this book, you will , also, learn about the limits of working memory, chunking, and the importance of stored facts and processes in long-term memory.  This understanding should help you pace instruction for optimum comprehension.  Willingham’s modeling of his recommended “story structure” in each chapter gives you concrete examples of good cognitive lesson design.  I plan to keep this book handy this fall to use in planning my library and information skills lessons. 

     Willingham’s book is interesting, thought-provoking, and pragmatic.  Some will find a few of his assertions controversial.  I think his viewpoints will help to ground us in sound timeless instructional practice as we meet the challenges of a 21st century education.

     What do you think ?  Will we defeat our goals in teaching children to think if we neglect to teach them foundational factual knowledge?  How do we incorporate technology so that students are engaged in thinking about the skill being taught more than the medium?  Do you think learning styles matter?  Do you think your teaching , encouragement and guidance has helped your students raise their intelligence levels?