Friday, June 19, 2009

Feigned Helplessness

One thing I cannot and will not ever accept is when a student responds to a quotation or a reading by saying, "I don't understand this."

I put a quotation on the board every day. Its function is to get the students thinking about something which is germane to that day's reading or lesson (as well as invoke the "critical lens" task on the ELA Regents). Students are required to write brief responses to these quotes in their notebooks for the first five minutes of class, while I take attendance and they settle in (what old-school DLP adherents would call the "Do Now"). Never is there any particular thing I expect the students to write; the responses become part of their notebook grades. There's no "right" or "wrong" "answer;" indeed, it is inappropriate to characterize the response as an "answer" because no question has been asked.

Invariably, inevitably, there will always be students who read these quotations off the board and say, "I don't understand the quote." This can have one of several connotations, but they all essentially mean the same thing. In some cases, it's not so much the quotation that the student "doesn't understand" but the task before him, i.e., he thinks there is a "right" "answer" that I'm specifically looking for and he doesn't know what it is, since I haven't given it to him in advance. Such students may be so accustomed to the binary Q-and-A approach to school and learning that they have not developed the capacity to think beyond the right-or-wrong-answer paradigm. Others are fixated about what the quote "means" in the same sense that they would ask what a phrase in a foreign language "means;" i.e., they're trying to translate English into English, which is futile and pointless.

Most likely, and ultimately in most cases, they fail to understand not the quote, but understanding itself, i.e., what "understanding" actually means. "Understanding" occurs when one arrives at a realization of meaning, at the end of a process of thought and inquiry. Students who claim that they "don't understand" a quote have not engaged with that process; they have not given it much, if any, thought and have not asked a single question of me or anyone else. They expect understanding to just happen automatically on its own, without any expenditure of time or effort, and if it doesn't, they give up.

This is where the problem arises. Partly out of narcissism and partly out of intellectual laziness, students in this situation fall back on a posture of complete inertia and utter helplessness. Because they expect "understanding" to occur automatically, it must follow that if they "cannot understand" the quotation, then it must be either impossible, or at a minimum too much to ask of them. Their response, in this helpless state, is to announce that they "don't get it" and wait for me to "explain it" to them, to give them the understanding which they cannot find, and cannot be expected to find, on their own.

I refuse to do that. I tell students all the time that I will answer any questions they have, but I will not under any circumstances do their thinking for them. Of course they hate that, and of course some of them think it makes me a bad teacher, and I accept that. But I truly believe that I, or any other teacher for that matter, do students a terrible disservice by allowing them to take a posture of complete helplessness and then giving them everything they need all at once.

My first response when a student says "I don't get it" is always, "Ask a question." Unfortunately, they don't really know the difference between asking a question and declaring that you are helpless, or perhaps more charitably, asking me to think for them. I've probably written here before that it is impossible to read something in one's own language and "not understand" it, again in the same sense that one would "not understand" an expression in a foreign language. But kids don't want to hear that (neither do parents, for that matter). To them, if they "don't understand it," it's the teacher's job to "explain" it, and they will sit there feeling helpless and victimized until I do.

The problem is that by taking a position of helplessness every time an intellectual challenge appears is of no use to anyone who is actually trying to learn. The obvious corollary is the English Regents; what are they going to do when they take the exam, read the "critical lens" or the literary passages, and say to themselves, "I don't understand it?" Then what? Where will this helplessness get them then? What they don't realize, and which a lot of English teachers and administrators still don't realize, is that the ELA Regents is a test of first-encounter, in that no one has any way of knowing what its content will be (although the tasks are always the same). Whatever they are given to read, it will be something they have never seen before and will have had no opportunity to prepare for, let alone have explained to them, in advance.

My supervisor on Long Island in 2001-02 used to enable the kind of helplessness I'm talking about here. She would say it's "not his fault" if a student "doesn't understand" a text or a quotation, so I have to explain it to him otherwise I can't expect him to write anything. She believed, without any logic or evidence to back it up, that if I provided the answers to helpless students now, if I do their thinking for them now, they will be able to do the tasks themselves when they actually take ELA Regents.

Hogwash. My telling them what one quotation "means" will not help them determine on their own what a different quotation "means." My telling them what the main idea of one poem is will not help them find the main idea of a different poem. Students have to practice these skills on their own. And yes, they need to try and fail. This supervisor dismissed "trial and error" as if it were cruel and unusual punishment. Since when is "trial and error" not a legitimate means of learning?

Students who learn to always take a position of helplessness when presented with an academic challenge will always fall back on that position. It's easy, it's convenient, and it relieves the student entirely of any intellectual responsibility, let alone any need to improve himself. We need to stop teaching kids to feel helpless, and start teaching them to help themselves.