Saturday, September 25, 2010
A new kind of student?
“I didn't understand that.”
“What part of it didn't you understand?”
“All of it.”
We were in an algebra class. We were solving a simple linear equation. A simple linear equation. Integer coefficients. Integer solution. Stuff at the prealgebra level of difficulty. Piece of cake. But not for everyone.
“Okay. How about the instructions at the beginning? Do you understand what we're trying to do?”
“We're trying to solve for x. What does that mean?”
“I don't know.”
She was matter-of-fact about it. I didn't get any sense that she was being deliberately or provocatively obtuse. She was a serene icon of incomprehension, exhibiting none of the stress or anguish that usually accompanies such stark confessions of ignorance.
“It means we want to find out what x is. It means we want x all by itself on one side of the equation and a number on the other side of the equation. We want to end up with x equal to a number.”
“Oh. Well, I didn't get that.”
The equation was so simple that it could have been solved with the techniques taught at the end of prealgebra (the prerequisite the student had supposedly satisfied in order to enroll in algebra). This particular student, however, acted as if she had never seen any of the techniques or had had an extremely successful brain purge since her last class.
Students do forget, of course, but we hope that they recognize and relearn things as we review them and progress to new topics. My algebra student instead remained at a complete loss. What's more, unlike students of the past, she was not willing to suffer in silence. In a way, I guess, this is good. When you need help you should ask for it.
My joy in her recognition of her need for help was, however, not unalloyed. My joy was incomplete because we were more than four weeks into the semester and she had not once bothered to darken my office door during office hours. She had never visited the class's assigned tutor. And I had had trouble learning her name because she was often missing from class.
Yet she was expecting me to abandon my planned progression through the day's topic in order to back-fill the profound abyss where her prerequisites were supposed to be.
“It's a sense of entitlement,” said one of my colleagues. She shrugged as she told me this. “We are now viewed as part of the service-sector economy. If they don't know something, we must spoon-feed it to them on demand.”
I was afraid that my colleague was right. My student had been completely unabashed while announcing her total ignorance to the entire class and then waiting calmly for me to do something about it. I'm a teacher and she's a student. That makes her my client and I must service her needs. In the meantime, she demonstrated no interest in lifting a finger.
“But students used to keep quiet when they were that lost, didn't they? In fact, they'd try to hide it and then either slip away to our tutorial services or drop the class. I'm not used to such overt pronouncements of ignorance or prerequisite amnesia—whichever it is. This is new and depressing behavior to me.”
“Don't worry, Zee,” said my colleague, junior to me in years but advanced in her blithe wisdom and patience. (Her years teaching high school probably helped.) “These things resolve themselves. You'll see.”
Problem solved. At least till next semester, when she wanders into another class having had even more time to forget what little she ever knew. I couldn't connect with her at all. Will her next instructor manage to rescue her? I don't see how.