TITLE: Be Open to What Students Think -- For Real AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 02, 2016 4:12 PM DESC: ----- BODY: On the first day of my compiler class this fall, I had my students fill out a short survey to help me set the stage for the course. After I asked them to list the the three or four programming languages they know best, I asked them: We then used their answers to unpack what "easy" and "hard" mean in these contexts, and what it would mean even to be answer these questions. While they were completing the survey, one student raised his hand and asked, "When you easy or hard to compile, do you mean for the programmer or the compiler?" I laughed almost immediately. Fortunately, I've had all these students in class before, and they know that I'm not a mean-spirited person. Even so, I just as quickly apologized for laughing and let him know that I wasn't laughing at the question so much as laughing at my own surprise: It had never occurred to me that someone might interpret the question in that way! I realized, though, that from a student's perspective, getting a Python program to the point of runnability is a very different thing from getting, say, a Java or Ada program to the point of runnability. For a beginner, to get his or her first few Ada programs to compile is indeed a chore. I remember feeling the same way when I learned Haskell as a relatively experienced professor and programmer, many years after I had last been a student in a classroom. This story came to mind as I read Required Reading for Math Teachers this morning. It's actually pretty good reading for teachers of any subject. Toward the end of the post, the author reminds us that it helps for teachers to be legitimately open to students' thought processes, whether or not they think what we think they should be thinking. In fact, those are precisely the moments when we want to be most open to what they are thinking. These are the moments that help us to diagnose errors in their thinking -- and in ours. This passage resonated with my experience:
I have throughout my career been repeatedly surprised by the discovery that nearly every time a student offers an idea authentically (i.e. not as just a random guess), it makes some sort of sense. Maybe not complete sense, and maybe it's not at all where I was headed. But if I can curb my initial reaction of "this kid is totally confused" long enough to actually take in the train of thought, there is almost uniformly some worthwhile reasoning inside it. Then even if I need to say "we're going to stick to the topic", I can do so after acknowledging the reasoning.
Acknowledging students' ideas and thinking is a matter of basic respect, but it also plays a big role in the environment we create in our classes. I hope that I have been respectful and open enough with these students in the past that my question-asker could trust that I wan't mocking him and that I was genuinely surprised. We all learned something that day. As that blog post goes on to say, we have to make sure that the questions we ask students are legitimate questions. We communicate this intention by acknowledging people when they treat our questions as legitimate. We teachers need to treat our student's questions the same way. -----