Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Conversation I Try to Avoid

What kinds of conversations about teaching or learning do you avoid having?

There are two kinds of conversations I have learned to avoid having with most people:
  • Conversations about what students can't do
  • Conversations about the misconceptions students have

And I want to be clear that these conversations are distinctly different from similar conversations I enjoy and find immensely productive:
  • Conversations about what is hard for students to learn?
  • Conversations about why those things are hard to learn?

What's the difference? The first conversation is about students as objects - they are filled with inabilities and misconceptions. It is about students being hopeless.

The second conversation is about students, classrooms, and content; and the potentialities for learning that exist if we get it right.

So here's the hard thing. There are a lot of people who want to rope me into the first conversation- about hopeless students filled with negative things. This happens to me at conferences. It happens to me in the hallway. It happens in papers, in books, and in proceedings.

But, now, here's the harder thing. My first instinct is to enter into that conversation with the hopes of changing that person's mind about their students and the conversation. I have often tried to coyly change the conversation into this one:
  • A conversation about what students can do (or might be able to do soon)
  • A conversation about what ideas students might have that serve as productive beginnings

And while I think this third conversation would be great to have, it never turns into that conversation. Because that person wants to talk about what students can't do. So, now with most people who want to have that first conversaton, I simply say, "I don't want to have a conversation about that." And I walk away.


  1. Brian, this is a great point. It's something that should be posted on every faculty room bulletin board.

  2. Thanks! I think there is some more intellectual work myself in further teasing apart the difference between the first and second conversation. But I'm glad with even the short thrift I gave it, that it resonated with you.