Never Assume

I find myself saying this quite a bit as a teacher.  It seems too often we assume students have all the skills they need, but that is not always true.  I know, this doesn’t seem like a positive way to start this post, but it can be a reality.  Sometimes we take for granted that students will write in complete sentences or be able to form a cohesive paragraph or think their way through a math response.

There’s another layer to this idea of “never assume” and it has to do with experiences.  Many students don’t have the same experiences and therefore the background knowledge to make connections with some of the things they are learning is simply not there.  Our job then becomes more than giving them the good drink of knowledge, but also leading them through the windy path to get to the troph.  We have inherited the job of giving students some basic experiences from Nursery Rhymes to what it means to respectfully sit and commune with friends.

I’d also like to balance this idea out by saying how we can get to a scary place as teachers where we assume that students can’t handle certain things in school.  It may be a direct affect of students not having the skills in one area, creating this idea that they can’t do something else.  For example, one may assume that the student who has poor writing skills can’t create a story at all, when in fact, they may have wonderful storytelling skills, but just has trouble organizing them and getting them down on paper.

I speak and write only from experience, and in mine, I have been in these shoes: both disappointed and awe struck at my students and at myself when I assumed too much.

In my years of teaching, I have learned that each student is an individual and I need to REALLY try hard to cater to all of them.  I guess the biggest and worst assumption of all is made when you assume that all your students will be at the relatively same level of learning, readiness and skill.  Of course we all know this is not true, but be honest, don’t you sometimes assume that?  Even on a small scale?   Ask yourself, as I do reflectively now: How often do you teach whole-class?  How often do you assign the same thing to all students?

Our whole educational system is based on the assumption that students progress to the next level of learning as they grow another year.  Our students aren’t grouped and moved on according to readiness, they are passed on by age (grade level).  (Whoa! Sorry. I didn’t mean to get on a national soap box there, but I guess that was worth mentioning.)

In all, this is where differentiation comes into play, but also teacher perspective.  I know I have to keep reminding myself to never assume students are all at the same place, that not all students learn the same way, that not all students learn the same way I did.  And with that reminder, comes a lot of hard work.  I have to take the time to learn about each individual student and understand what they need; never assuming I know it all.

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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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  1. Excellent post, Elizabeth. When I extend your ideas about assumptions to the realm of drama in the classroom, I more than second your emotions! I believe that one reason for the sparseness in the educational uses of drama lies in assumptions authors make about 1.) students’ experience in and background knowledge about drama and acting, and 2.) teachers’ understanding of drama methods. In many articles, teacher guides, and web sites, for example, the drama instructions to teachers are overwhelmingly minimal:
    “Have students act out….”
    “Create a skit to illustrate.…”
    “Place the students in roles.…”
    “Cast the students as the characters.…”
    “Create tableaux or frozen scenes of.…”
    “Have students pantomime….”
    “Instruct students to enact the scene….”
    “Have students take turns portraying a character…”
    How many teachers have read similar instructions, implemented a classroom drama activity with high hopes, and had it go dreadfully wrong? Lots and lots—who often then decide that they will never again attempt to use drama in their teaching!
    But really—effective use of drama in the classroom requires tool and skill-building, just as math and reading do. Drama methods can be incredibly powerful, but more so with careful planning, scaffolding of drama activities, and the coaching of students towards proficiency in elements of drama and theatre. Successful results in such drama activities require more than a one-sentence instruction. I always cringe when I read such instructions (well-meaning as they may be) because I know there are so many assumptions behind them and sadly, those assumptions often lead teachers and students into disappointing experiences.

    • Elizabeth Peterson says:

      What a great point you make! It’s true that we can assume too much in terms of arts integration. We expect kids to be able to illustrate a scene in a story, recite a poem or act something out, when in fact, those skills require teaching and learning in and of themselves.

      That is what arts integration is all about!

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