July 11th, 2012

A Failure to Communicate


At my house, we’re deep into a host of summer projects and are having our usual communication difficulties. Yesterday my brother Charles and I were trying to help my husband Michael tie sheets of plywood to a cart so they could be transported to a work site. “Put the rope under the board. No, not all the way under. Put it under and over the top.” My mentally challenged brother is confused and frustrated as he tries to put the rope where Michael wants it. “No, loop it over.” I’m eager to help but I haven’t a clue where the rope is supposed to go.

Three fatal errors compromise our ability to communicate when we try to work together. My husband always assumes Charles and I see the big picture. It is perfectly obvious to him, simple, straightforward, so clear it never crosses his mind we might not understand what needs to be done. My brother always assumes he can’t do it. He tries and almost simultaneously he starts tirading about how he’s stupid and can’t do anything. He sets himself up to fail and he does. I always assume Michael is not communicating clearly. If I could just get him to use nouns instead of pronouns. When you don’t understand what needs to be done and somebody tells you to “put that over there,” you see three things that could be the “that” he’s referring to and four places that could the “there.” I ask questions trying to clarify the message meanwhile the plywood slides off the cart. “Just give me the rope,” my normally calm husband yells angrily. When we work together, it’s never pretty.

The same difficulties impede attempts to communicate and understand in classrooms. Faculty, intimately familiar with the content, see how all the details fit, relate and become the big beautiful picture they know, study and love. What some have lost is the ability to see how the picture looks to others who are looking at it for the first time. How could those perfectly obvious concepts be missed?

Meanwhile students don’t always approach the task of understanding our disciplines with much confidence. Some don’t think they were born with brains that can do math, so how could they possibly understand how it’s organized and logically coherent. Others are convinced they can’t write, and they have teacher feedback to prove it, so how could they possibility interpret what famous writers mean. Left to figure it out for themselves, they will surely fail or find meanings that are wrong.

And then there’s the language of our disciplines, so much of it is new, difficult to pronounce and totally unfamiliar to students. I still remember an exchange that occurred in a class when we were discussing language. “I don’t see why teachers don’t use simple language. Why do they think they have to impress us with all those big words?” one student volunteered. “How many of you think that’s why teachers use words you don’t know?” I asked. Heads everywhere vigorously nodded yes. I tried to explain (without much luck) that sophisticated language was necessary for sophisticated understanding. A student wrote about this discussion in his learning log, “Teachers have to use those big words so they have something to put on the test. They don’t want to make it easy for us.”

Consider this post a friendly reminder that the ability to communicate, as in explain things clearly, is at the heart of good teaching and you aren’t likely to offer the kind of explanations students need if you’re assuming everyone sees the world as you do. Your students aren’t likely to understand explanations if they’re encumbered with beliefs about how they can’t learn and misunderstand the role of language in learning.

These ideas are basic, but best efforts to explain and commitments to understand don’t matter when the plywood falls off the cart. Once the dust settles in our house, Michael and I have another conversation about how we don’t think alike and Charles doesn’t think enough. We love each other so we keep trying. I wonder if that isn’t what keeps teachers working for student understanding and if love isn’t what students feel for those teachers who show them what they can accomplish and why big words do matter.

  • kwk

    While your student's all-too-familiar obsession with tests is unfortunate, there was an interesting point in the comment. Should we try to "make it easy" for students? Too often the fact that learning takes effort goes unrecognized, at least until the first exam. Do we need to give more attention to helping students "get" this? How?

  • rhs

    Yes, learning is not always easy, including learning the vocabulary of a discipline. Students who object to "big words" (which I've found often means words exceeding two or three syllables) may unwittingly be disclosing that they're spending too much time on Twitter. Sometimes on initial reading assignments I have students highlight or write down all the words in the assignment that are unfamiliar. Then in the next class students come up to the whiteboard and write those unfamiliar words, followed by a brief class discussion that becomes a peer-teaching vocabulary lesson. Students need to understand that their success in the profession and the world they are preparing to enter will largely be determined by their ability communicate in the language of other professionals.

    • Your vocabulary exercise is a great idea! I used to do this when I taught ESL, and somehow I never thought to translate it to a university setting. Thank you for sharing.

  • Deborah

    Your article reminded me that as instructors we know the puzzle picture. In the classroom students are given each piece one at a time with the responsibility to connect them to create the final picture. As teachers/instructors our challenge is to give glimpses of the picture as we go along showing relevance to the learning. Communicating where the lesson is going early on increases student participation and interest.

    • Nancy

      Nicely explained!

  • Becky

    This reminds me that we forget what it's like to be a beginner. I once took a non-credit photography class where the teacher was a brilliant photographer showing many examples of great photographs. He would spout all kinds of terminology with which we were totally unfamiliar trying to teach us how to take pictures like his. This language was so second nature to him that he forgot we knew nothing about it. Needless to say I didn't learn too much because he never got back to the beginning level. Even if you would ask, he would not get it. I think that sometimes in our zeal to make instruction rigorous and let the student rise to the occasion, we miss giving them the foundation to see the bigger picture. It's good to take a class once in a while about a subject we know nothing about. I think it would make us all better instructors when we remember what it's like to feel as a student.

  • LAE

    The construction analogy struck a cord with me because I found myself assuming that my young son knew what to do when we worked together on "projects" over the years. Later in life, I watched him explain things in great detail to his own children since he understood what it is like to be new at somethinig. As an instructor with years of experience as an educator and a criminal justice professional, I try to remember that each student brings a different level of experience and understanding to my course. However, I do expect (even demand) that each student demonstrate growth as a scholar and as a person.

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  • Your posts are always a pleasure to read.; they are so well-written, and this one was especially so. I appreciate you bringing a personal dimension to this issue. You have succeeded in reminding me that learning is personal and inter-personal (rather than an exclusively professional exercise). It's funny just how much good teaching seems to require a lot of reminders, isn't it? Maybe like parenting, or even service-industry work…. or any work that requires a lot of patience with and compassion for others.

  • Emma

    Research indicates that students need to encounter a new vocabulary word 6 times before it can
    be stored into their short term memory. Including the multiple intelligence and a multi-sensory approach
    when teaching vocabulary may help retention of words.