There is no They. And Context Matters.

Biologists, of all people, should understand variation in populations. We know, when we look up close, that not all the anoles or irises or E. coli in a habitat are identical, genetically or otherwise. Even if they were, they are probably not at the same stage of development, or have not experienced the exact same “nurture” with respect to nutrition, disease, weather events.

Yet we often forget this when we think of our students. We (oops, busted, I just did it too) use the pronoun “they” to refer to our students. “They” don’t read before class. “They” come from weak high schools. “They” aren’t curious. Where possible, can we please accept that there is no “they”? Furthermore, can we please stop behaving and reacting in our teaching decisions to the more memorable anecdotes among the outliers?

I’d be willing to say “they” are all outliers. Each comes to us with her/his own set of life experiences, frailties, cognitive strengths, academic aspirations, burnout, hangovers, patience and attention spans. So how the heck are we supposed to reach them all? I propose that we aim to reach most of “them” most of the time in ways that we each personally can deliver well. Because of how different students can be, some respond very well to nonstop lectures, while others really need to act out processes, discuss or debate. To further complicate this, a given student does not always need one kind of learning in every class. We should not allow them to express their fixed mindset by saying things like “I’m a visual learner.” The effectiveness of what we deliver is also contingent on who they are that day or what they learned in chemistry last week.

Here’s an analogy. From home of course. My Dearly Beloved Spouse and I took a wonderful outdoor educational tour in Quebec this summer. On two occasions, DBS had a significantly different reaction to the tour than I had. In one, our kayak guide, an experienced kayaker who has a gift for explanation, took us to a lake and explained many aspects of paddle control and managing water movement. As an educator, I was sure he was going on way too long without just letting us try it out. I was just as sure the entire group felt the same way, but DBS soaked in every word and thought that was the best part of the tour. He had a similar response about an evening lecture about Quebec’s nationalist movement. Fascinated as I was in general, and even having read the recommended book before the trip, I couldn’t stay attentive the entire hour and fought drowsiness as my tour companions did. DBS’s questions at the end were so on point that it was clear he had not missed a detail. I was envious. Don’t we wish our classes were filled with DBSs?

But wait! DBS’s amazing attention span doesn’t apply to everything. These stood as remarkable, even after 25 years of cohabitation, because that level of attention and interest is context dependent. He can only take about 1 minute explanations about things that are not on his personal radar. This is the same person who sets the family Christmas letter limit at one page. Context matters. Even the high attention span, careful listener is selective about what is worth that level of attention, and I can’t predict which day and which topic he will deem worthy.

The same goes for my students. Sigh. There is no they. And even each of them is a moving target. Wish me luck. Classes start tomorrow.






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