Updated: Jan 10, 2020
Sometimes children will say seemingly ridiculous things. It is what separates teaching from a boring office job. Another word for “ridiculous,” however, can be “enlightening” if one takes the time to figure out why the child said it. I have found out that understanding a child’s point of view is often the key to teaching. It sheds a bright light on what they are thinking and why, telling the teacher which way to steer the ship, which is sometimes into unexpected waters.
Teaching math is an easy example of where “why in the world did you do that?” works. “How did you figure that seven take away nine is two?” Well, evidently the thought of seven take away nine was brain blowing since you can’t really do that, so she did what seemed doable, which is nine take away seven, so thus it is obvious that to her that seven take away nine is two.” What really is obvious is that the concept of borrowing a ten from next door and subtracting always from top down is a foreign concept to this young lady, so let’s start there. Or maybe even back up a little bit to make sure that she understands place value, or back up a little bit more and say “Hold up seven fingers, please” and then dare her to show you how you can take away nine. Visuals sometimes help.
Going way deeper into this point of view thing, I once was counseling a Caucasian young man and we were talking about the absurdly high price of tennis shoes when he came up with “I am going to steal a pair of those shoes for my baby when she gets a little older.” In the middle of my “Are you out of your mind?” lecture I paused and simply asked “Why would you do something like that?” His response was, “Well, my girl is as good as any rich girl and she deserves the best also. I am going to get her the best.” I was quiet for a minute. I had never thought of it that way. I had a very confused but deeply caring Dad in front of me, not a criminal. I responded with “What if you went to jail?” “I don’t care. She deserves the best.” I then asked him if she would rather have a pair of shoes or her Dad, if it came down to that. He was quiet for a minute. He had never thought of it that way. Our discussion continued and was a very good one because we understood each other.
I was teaching a class of mostly African-American 11th graders, trying to explain what was happening in Ireland and the sometimes open warfare between Protestants and Catholics when a young man chimed in “What is their problem? They’re all white aren’t they?” What a brilliantly illuminating statement! From his experience, which shapes point of view, all strife comes from racial conflict. Religious conflict isn’t even on his radar. I have had a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy who could care less about skin color, because all their experiences revolve around their religion and the conflicts that it has brought them. Understanding others points of view allows a deeper teaching process, allows the teacher to fit the information so that the child can understand, no matter what they previously thought. Warring Indian tribes. “What’s the matter, they are all Indians aren’t they?” North Vietnam vs. South Vietnam. “What’s the matter, they’re all Vietnamese aren’t they?” The civil war. “What’s the matter? They’re all Americans aren’t they?” Ireland. “They’re all Christians aren’t they?” Muslims killing Muslims in the Middle East. What’s the matter….Understanding a child’s point of view is probably one of the most important thing that a teacher can do to teach effectively, I don’t care what the subject, because it gives direct insight to their thought process. Sometimes the “aha” moment is priceless. I was teaching first grade when Emma, one of my students who was six years old and African American, came up to me and asked “Mr. Hoatson, what are those?” I replied, “They’re freckles.” She looked at my arm quizzically and asked, “Why don’t all white people have them?” I responded “Well, I don’t know, sweetheart.” She looked at me and said, “Well, you should know. You live down there with them, don’t you?” Laughing, understanding and learning all at the same time. It doesn’t get any better than that for a teacher.