I did an experiment in my Living Skills class the other day, a little free association. I wrote words on the board and asked students to write the first thing that came to their minds. Then we compared answers. Predictably many–but not all– the students made the same associations. Both the commonality of answers and the few odd-ball responses intrigued and disturbed my 15 year olds.
I said “yellow.” Several students said “green.” One student said “duck.” Nobody said “submarine.” If you “get” why that’s funny then you are probably a lot older than my students.
I used this exercise to continue our discussion of the brain. They’ve learned about neurons and neural networks. The associations they make reflect their neuronal networks. They aren’t all the same. What implications this has. The teacher speaks and the students understand. That’s the way its supposed to work. It often doesn’t because understanding really means making connections and for that to happen the maps in our brain need to match pretty closely.
I don’t know what is worse–a complete mismatch between the students’ cognitive map and mine, or that maps that are just slightly “off.” Certainly the later is the cause of much mis-communication, argument and strife. When a student is completely clueless, at least there is a chance the hand will go up and some version of “I don’t understand” will come forward.
I am going to greatly simplify a recent conversation that illustrates this.
Several staff have come to me about a female student that I work with, complaining that her behavior is rude, arrogant, and disrespectful. When I ask for more details, I usually find out that the student has “barged into my office,” “interrupted in the middle of the conversation” or “took it upon herself” to make a change or fix a problem without permission.
If this student was younger or a new arrival at The Family Foundation School, I think the staff would be more tolerant. But she has been here for several months, is 17 years old, generally well spoken, takes good care of her appearance, is lively and out going.
If you ask her about any of the specific situations you can sense her frustration. In each and every case, she feels both justified in her actions and mystified by the criticism.
We spent some time working with the words “rude”, “arrogant” and “disrespectful”. We needed to find out what those words meant to her first, before we tried to explain the perceptions of others. I needed to build a bridge from her understanding to the common understanding of those words. Explaining the perceptions of others
“Rude” is the best illustration. To my student rude=unnecessarily and intentionally, impolite. That is a distillation of about twenty minutes work, reviewing events and having her explain why she felt the people who criticized her were unfair. When I made the connection rude=thoughtless. The light bulb went off.
How do I know? We were examining her most recent encounter with a staff person that she respects. This was the “barged into my office” scenario. The second the word “thoughtless” came out of my mouth, the student turned red, starting with her ears and throat and extending to her entire face. She had no difficulty doing the next right thing; going to the staff person in question and making an apology.
The cognitive work we did to get to the new equation rude=thoughtless required that I not act on thoughts I was having like, When will she stop blaming everyone else for her problems? and remember my living skills students–communication depends upon making connections between similar mental maps.
The most common mistake I see is that we start from the wrong end. The bridge must be built from the student’s point of view outward. If your student says she doesn’t get it, dive in and figure out what she does get. See if she has any wrong ideas and correct them. Then work out to new knowledge and new understanding. Too often, we just repeat our explanation, possibly with some variation in example or modality. Sometimes that works–a connection is made. And when it doesn’t work we are likely to blame the student.
The same principal applies to misbehavior. In this case, I began with her point of view. Many therapists would say that I “validated” her experience or reality. Perhaps. But the relief I senses from her, didn’t seem to come from validation as much as from connection, that is, mutual understanding: she of me, and me of her.
I would see it that way. I am sociologist, not a psychologist and, for me, connection is everything.