Most learning is gradual. It is authentic. Yes, there are “ah-ha” moments, but by-and-large, we learn through a sort of osmosis. This struck me one day while I was teaching my 7th grade math class. I had a student, we’ll call him Fernando, who was struggling with multi-digit subtraction. In 7th grade. I know, right? I couldn’t understand how he had made it to me without mastering this skill. I had tried and tried to teach him how to subtract, but he just wasn’t getting it. I then tried asking myself how I learned to subtract; maybe my own experience would help me communicate it to him. I realized suddenly that I didn’t remember learning how to subtract. It was like I’d always been able to do it. I started searching for other concepts and found most of them to be the same way. How was I supposed to teach a skill I didn’t remember learning myself?
I ran into similar problems when I switched over to teaching Language Arts. All the students in my 7th grade classes were required to write a research paper for their science class. I wanted to be a part of that process (yay for cross-curricular teaching!) so I solicited comments/questions from my students. I asked to see their products at each stage of the process. They were all required to have an outline for their paper. I knew how to write an outline; I knew of several ways to write an outline. Nothing prepared me for the dismal results that were my students’ outlines. None of them knew how to write an outline. How could they not know how to write an outline? It’s not hard; it’s not even that time-consuming. The research is the long, difficult part. I tried to remember how I learned to write an outline. I couldn’t. So I taught myself again. I sat down and laid out the fundamental parts of an outline. I then put together an example and a lesson to teach students how to make an outline. The revised products my students showed me afterwards were amazing. It was like night and day.
The lesson here is that we often forget that kids don’t know what we’re teaching them. When we know how to do something, it’s hard to sympathize with the roadblocks our students face. Sitting down and forcing yourself to go through a process step-by-step can help you get better results.