‘I don’t know this word’… Why student knowledge and context matter

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My friend Mary, a bookseller in Chicago, told me I need to read Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover.

Westover was was raised by American survivalists, and her story explains how she broke with her family’s extremist ideology and left home to seek her education, culminating in a Ph.D. from Cambridge.

The part that stuck with Mary was a scene where Westover raised her hand in class at BYU to ask a question about the course reading.

“I don’t know this word… what does it mean?”

The lecture hall went silent.

The professor responded: “Thanks for that.”

Other students stared at her like she was a freak, and one warned her not to joke about such a sensitive subject.

The word? Holocaust.

This is a chilling story about how deeply isolated some segments of American society are.

It’s also a strong reminder that we as teachers never truly know what any of our students know before they enter our classrooms — and we need to continually build their context and background knowledge if we want them to flourish and not be ashamed.

Knowledge Matters

Shortly after hearing this story, I read a preview copy of Dave Stuart Jr.’s new book, These 6 Things (Corwin 2018). Dave’s book focuses on how key beliefs, literacy skills and knowledge are critical to students’ and teachers’ long-term flourishing.

His goal is to help teachers learn to focus on what matters most, so we and our students can be successful without working ourselves to death.

The book is both inspiring and practical — and he makes a compelling point about exactly the issues raised in Educated.

In Ch. 3, Dave tackles the myth that reading is a “transferable skill”, and that base knowledge is irrelevant in the age of Google. He kicks off the chapter with pointed examples of bright individuals struggling to read passages on topics they know nothing about.

“So what gives in these three scenarios? Knowledge.

In short, knowledge must be a part of our bull’s eye because it is integral to high levels of thinking, reading, writing, speaking and listening. … It’s pretty cool that I can ask my smartphone to define a new word or show me the news, but it’s the data that I’ve accumulated in my head over several decades of my life that makes any new information interesting and more likely to stick.”

An excellent point.

Dave goes on to explore how we, as teachers, should discern what’s critical for our students to know — and what’s merely trivia — as well as how to get kids hooked on learning seemingly mundane facts.

Argument is Essential

If you’ve read my book, Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers, you already know I’m a big promoter of storytelling and debate/discussion in the high school classroom.

Dave’s book explores these topics in depth as well. In Ch. 4, he explains why argument — civil debate — is an essential skill for all of our students.

“The ability to argue makes one able to read critically, to write logically and compellingly, to listen at a level beyond compliance, and to carry on complex conversations aimed at solving problems or settling disputes.”

Argument is, in fact, the heart of critical thinking — and it can’t be learned by merely talking about it.

Tara Westover’s book and Dave Stuart Jr.’s book kind of sum up my summer reading.

One book to fill me with stories, ideas, and questions from the larger world — stories I hope will enhance my teaching and make my classes more engaging to students.

One book to help me reflect directly on my teaching practices — and think about ways to sharpen my focus and avoid wasting time.

Now I just need to put it all together into a solid lesson plan.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom