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Watch Out: Those Pesky Assumptions Can Get in the Way

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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A couple of recent incidents have reminded me about how important it is to not take knowledge, things, or people for granted. The first occurred in a fifth-grade classroom, where I was doing a residency that included some iMovie work with the kids and their teachers, and we were talking about the use of the Ken Burns effect, named after the famed documentarian, in which a video or film zooms into or pans across still images.

The image included here, one I consider likely to be the most powerful image I have ever collected, was captured at New York City's Ground Zero on December 1, 2001. I find the look on the red-haired woman's face haunting, especially as it is juxtaposed with those that surround her, especially the fellow in the red T-shirt. I wanted to use the image to discuss finding the themes, the important pieces, the points of focus in a still image.

Of course, a significant contributor to the power of this or any image is the place, the time, and the events that surround it. And as I began to talk about the image and its environment, a girl raised her hand and said, "Excuse me, but I don't know what 9/11 is." I stopped, and another child in the class said, "You know, like on the bumper stickers? Lots of cars have them. The two towers got knocked down."

While they discussed it, I was dealing with the fact that I had naively assumed 9/11 had become such a part of our national psyche that everyone knew about it, adult and child, that it is a cultural legend of our time, a story that we all share, part of who we are.

But, no, I was wrong. This young girl and several of her classmates didn't have a clue about 9/11, and even those that did have some sense were not well informed of even the basic facts. The accompanying photograph will be, to anyone, a relatively powerful image of an emotionally isolated individual in a crowd. But lacking context, it cannot be, for the younger generation, the all-powerful image it is to me. I see a woman watching the way her world used to be sliding away, or having already slid away, never to return. They see a lady who is sad for some reason. I must never again take an understanding of 9/11 for granted when I am working with kids.

The second experience happened when I heard a middle school teacher describe how she had wanted to begin doing some blogging with her class but was stymied because the specific tool she was using was acting up. Just as she was about to move away from the blogging and revert to plan B, a girl spoke up and said, "I think I can get it to work."

She proceeded to do just that. Using HTML skills gained at home building personal Web pages, she came to the rescue of the teacher and the class, and the lesson continued. Blogging became part of the way that class now communicates through a teacher's desire to use the best tools and a student's ability to help.

The only difference between these two anecdotes is that in one, I assumed kids knew something when they didn't, and in the other, a teacher assumed the kids didn't know something when they did. Either way, once the situation was cleared up, everyone was the better for it.

So, here is my question: Have you ever assumed kids couldn't do something and been surprised to find that they could? And how did this realization change what your class or school was able to do? Did a project reach new heights because the kids could? How about technology? Are you able to do some of the things you do with technology because competent kids are part of your support?

I look forward to hearing your stories -- and trust me, I am making no assumptions about what I will hear, so, please surprise me.

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Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

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Bonnie Bracey( Sutton)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I had an aha moment using owl pellets in a science classroom. A child no one paid much attention to articulated a complete skeleton of a bird in perfection. I wasn't sure what skills this demonstrated except unusual attention to detail, but I was able to learn that many of the ways we test kids leave out some other skills. Later this child, asked to draw a picture of a place he liked on a field trip, filled in areas of specific difficulty, as we had visited the Smithsonian Naturalist Center. I never thought of the career of medical illustrating or geography or other jobs .. I never really considered providing experiences that would allow a student to utilize visualization and modeling, or demonstrate particular attention to detail using non linear materials, such as articulating a rabbit skeleton, or creating models .. but I learned from this child.

Once I had a project with Shakespeare as a goal, and we decided to invent our own castles, so children brought in various models. One child asked if I could go to this home to see his work as it was very complicated.. and so I went. I found out that this child was interested in model making and that his whole basement was full of projects, of various types including mockups of various space vehicles. The family didn't have a lot of money, but they sacrificed to get his these model pieces, some were from a kit, but others were using found objects. The best I could do was to refer him to resources at NASA, showcase his work at a NASA event, and to introduce him to robotics. Again, this was not a child that anyone singled out for any special reason. He was
so gifted at creating models of all types. ( on his own or with kits).

There are ways in which children learn that we find for particular reasons. I was introducing him to a special book on castles , when I learned of his work and his skills.

Genny Sterling's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

During state testing, a teacher asked if after the test students would be able to view a film. The school administrator told the entire teaching staff that all students would be given books to read after they completed the test and that there would be no exceptions. After three days of testing and reading chapter books, one of the students told the above-referenced teacher that was the first time he had ever read a chapter book from cover to cover and LOVED the book. The teacher was insulted and stated, "I have been trying to get him to read all year and THIS is the way he learned to love reading!"

Jim Moulton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Genny -

How sad the teacher was insulted and not ecstatic. The assumption proved wrong is that, " learn what we want them to learn, where we want them to learn it, and when we want them to learn it." Turns out unexpected sparks kindle fires at unexpected times and in unexpected places, eh? ;-}

Thanks for sharing.


Laura Sienkiewicz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is definitely something to keep in mind. Thank you for reminding me not to assume that my students know about something or do not know about something. I have ran into a similar situations with my classes regarding technology. Students really do seem to be quite knowledgable with most internet based activities!

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