If you have had moments like this, most likely you pause to reflect on what the barrier is. You may ask yourself “Do I need to review their background knowledge and search for gaps?” “Do I need to adapt my approach for a different learning style?” “Do I need to change the language that I am using?”
Usually when we go through this process, we are relating it to our own experiences of learning - “What would I need to understand this concept?” “What do I need when the material is moving too fast?” This is great when we can relate our learning processes to our students, but how often do we assume we have this commonality?
The more I teach students who are educated in different systems and countries, I become more intrigued by the neurological process of learning. I often wonder how the experiences in one’s culture or education system shapes the rooms and pathways in our minds. How their experiences shape the way they organize information and categorize problems then approach their solutions.
Our society is becoming increasingly visual and digital. This has undoubtedly affected the way our students learn and their brains react to their environment. But what about the way the synapses connect in the minds of students who come from different educational and cultural backgrounds. What background knowledge do we assume they have? What metaphors do we assume are synonymous with all learning, but are simply a result of the education and society we participate in? For example, I often relate my learning to a computer filing system where files are linked by outcome, content and experience tags.
Here is one example of learning difference between cultures. A few years ago I was volunteer teaching in a Nepal in a grade 3 English class. I had observed the teacher for a few classes and noticed that much of the teaching was straight from the text book provided to the students and was based on rote memory strategies. This was not my style of teaching, so I thought I would try it my way the next day to see what would happen. The lesson was on synonyms, so I decided to take the information from the textbook and reorganized the main information into a mind web for the visual learners. None of the students seemed to understand what I was doing, even the teacher looked confused. This is when it became apparent to me that even presumed simple learning strategies are not innate. These students were used to rote memory, copy and repetition methods, and this visual strategy needed more introduction to be effective. Or perhaps these methods were not as effective for these students because that already had acquired learning strategies, which I then needed to regard as their ‘type of learner’.
In primary school, students are learn how to learn. Some of us may assume that students in our classes who have immigrated from different countries have learned to learn in the same way as students born in the country. So next time, instead of asking questions such as “What would I need to understand this concept?” “What do I need when the material is moving too fast?”, I contemplate the type of system that student may have come from before asking, “What would this student need to understand this concept?” “What does this students need when the material is moving too fast?”
A simple paradigm shift, but a worthwhile one at that.