Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Learning How to Not Learn

As promised in a previous post here comes the all-out rant against "kids these days"... actually not.  I did mention some ideas that I've been thinking about for some time in a previous post about how kids learn to accept not understanding what's going on and so I thought I'd write some more about that.  Actually, the more I look at my work and my thinking about my work I realize that I'm mostly working with questions.  Sometimes the questions change direction or become better questions as more information comes in but it's rare that I can say there's been a definitive answer.  With that in mind, here's some observations and questions.  For many years now I've noticed that some students will be reading a text and when you ask for their opinions, ideas, predictions etc. they can't tell you anything, or they choose not to tell you anything.  This makes me wonder "When did 'I don't know' become an acceptable answer? or perhaps more accurately, when did it become the default answer, acceptable or not?" In these situations I've tried to get into the thinking of the student and find out if there are parts of the text they don't understand.  I've found in many instances that a student will say they "Don't get it" or "Don't understand" the text.  The fact that students might not understand a text is not surprising, indeed much literacy education revolves around what to do when you don't understand something.  The surprising element has been that many of these students would just keep reading a book day after day without having a clue about what was going on.  It's possible that they understand more than they're admitting for some reason, but I worked under the assumption that students were telling the truth when they appeared to not understand the text.  I wondered how it was that they could sit with a book open in front of them and turn pages, reading words but not notice that they didn't understand the story.
In many interviews with students I found that a lot of them watched several hours of TV and movies every day on top of a few hours of video games.  When asked about what they were watching many students reported watching movies and TV that would be rated R or playing games designed for mature audiences.  Getting more specific with kids about the shows or movies and asking them to explain what was happening in the programs the responses indicated that the primary allure was either violence or sex.  I haven't found any of the nine or ten year olds I talk with that can explain the nuances of a romantic relationship with an abusive partner who is cheating on their spouse with a heavily armed secret agent who blows up tanks, buildings and people for a living, but they sure seem to like the explosions and the promise that sooner or later someone will be taking their clothes off.
These experiences lead me to ask questions.  For example, if a child is watching programs on a regular basis where the plot is obviously aimed at an adult and would require an adult perspective to understand the motivations behind the actions, can they become used to not fully understanding the "text" which in this case is the plot, the dialogue etc.?  After all, for the child who enjoys that sort of thing, there's often a big pay-off in terms of some ripping action.  Could it be that this kind of experience tells a child, "It's okay to not understand why people are acting this way, and it's okay to not really grasp the emotions behind an adult relationship, you'll enjoy watching the amazing special effects explosions and the sex"?
If that sort of thing is going on, and the self-monitoring part of their learning brain is switched off then teachers face an uphill battle to say the least.  This doesn't even get into the possible impact of this kind of media diet on the student when faced with the typical books they will encounter in school.  For many years I've worked with fourth or fifth grade students who are reading at approximately a second grade level.  Often these are students who a regular consumers of adult oriented programming.  Imagine the shock when you go from James Bond to Cam Jansen or Nate The Great which would be books on the level that these students could reasonably read independently.  How boring is Encyclopedia Brown with not even a hint of romantic intrigue with Sally Kimball and not an Uzi in sight?
My goal in asking these questions is to gain some understand for myself as a teacher in how best to work with students who are dealing with these challenges as learners.  Perhaps one of the first steps is to recognize that it is a challenge.  Obviously, I can't say that there's a direct correlation between adult themed TV, movies and video games and an apathy towards understanding, or inability to recognize when something doesn't make sense, but I think it's an important question to be asking.  What does go on? How is it that some students seem to have learned how not to learn?

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