Sometimes students say precisely what they meant. “I don’t understand the question” means they don’t understand the question. “This is too hard” means it’s really too hard.
But sometimes, it takes a little translating…
Half of my classroom conversations go like this.
Student: “I don’t get the question.”
Me: [longwinded, exhaustive explanation of what the question is asking]
Student: “Yeah, I knew that. But I don’t get the question.
Me: “Oh. This is one of those conversations.”
Kids may expect to know how to tackle a question upon first glance. Feeling unsure what to do is tantamount to “not getting” the question.
But sometimes, they might know everything they’ll need. All that’s missing is the experience of applying that knowledge, of forging connections between ideas. And that’s not something I should (or can!) tell them how to do.
This is dangerous ground. We math teachers often find ourselves defending the indefensible, trying to argue, “Ah yes, you’re going to need rational functions all the time in your career as… uh…. an HR representative.”
I try to remember that the real battleground isn’t “useful”; it’s “meaningful” or “worthwhile.” If a lesson nourishes our curiosity and makes us feel like masters, then we don’t care so much whether it’ll help us compute our taxes.
Sometimes, the work I assign really is too hard: I’ve misjudged the class’s background, overestimated the impact of yesterday’s lesson, or forgotten about the intricacies of the puzzle at hand.
But sometimes, “too hard” is actually “just right.” The problem isn’t really the problem itself. It’s the human fear of making mistakes, of taking wrong turns. The students don’t need an easier task; they need the courage (and the encouragement) to take risks on this one.
Sure, I’ve been guilty of assigning excessive work.
But far more often, I’ve been guilty of assigning tedious work. Knowing the importance of practice, I forget that not all practice is created equal. Practice that’s folded naturally into a meaningful task is better than a string of decontextualized problems any day of the week.
Some kids really connect with certain subjects, regardless of their scores and grades. Power to ‘em.
For the rest of us, our favorites tend to be the ones where we feel most successful. Earned the top mark in your class? Then that class is likely to earn a special spot in your heart. It feels great to be great.
In this way, grades can actually work against us as teachers, both for their artificial scarcity (“I can’t give all of you A’s!”) and for the sense of hierarchy they engender (“Sure, I got an A-, but my friends all got A’s”).
They create a climate where not everyone can feel successful.
What we need are ways to give kids the chance to feel successful not in comparison to others, but to themselves. It’s no easy task. But it’s the task.
It’s tempting to write off grade-grubbing as groundless whining, like a frivolous and opportunistic lawsuit that any decent judge will chuck out of court.
But for some students, it’s not about the grade itself. It’s about the sense of disconnect: the feeling that the effort they put in was greater than the subjective judgment I’ve rendered.
When that happens, I need to provide channels for their effort. It’s true that some effort bears little fruit. But well-directed effort, almost by definition, will yield success—and it’s my job as a teacher to act as director.