If you’re a novice teacher ASSUME NOTHING about the students’ prior knowledge. They aren’t completely empty vessels but it would be easier if they were, because a scrap of knowledge is a terrifying thing.
I learned this lesson with a group of 15 year olds during a geography class. It was a hot day, early in the semester and I hadn’t been teaching them long. We were studying a unit on climate types and I gave them a climate graph activity with questions to complete. Everything was going well until it was time to mark the worksheet and discuss the answers. The climate type shown on the graph was in the northern hemisphere whereas we were in Australia, the southern hemisphere. I didn’t anticipate any problems with using a climate graph from the northern half of the planet. I was wrong.
The students answered questions that relied on a literal interpretation of the graph well. They identified the coldest, hottest, wettest and driest months from the information on the line and bar graphs. Eventually we came to the interpretive questions – when are the spring, summer, autumn and winter months? Most of the students chose December, January and February as summer months and June, July and August as winter months, which would be correct for Australia. I breezily explained these answers were incorrect as the climate type depicted was in the northern hemisphere. Naively I assumed this settled the matter.
I was mistaken. My explanation was greeted with a sea of blank faces.
“You’re wrong Miss,” pronounced Johnny, “It’s always summer in December.”
“It is here in Australia, in the Southern Hemisphere, but not in the Northern Hemisphere,” I responded. “This is a climate graph of New York, in North America. It’s summer in July in New York.”
“And it’s always winter in July,” chimed in Doug, ignoring my explanation. By now I was beginning to feel a twinge of despair. The few students who had answered the question correctly were giving me some serious side eye.
I grabbed the world globe from my desk and improvised a sun with a confiscated water balloon. “When we have Christmas here in December, it’s hot because the southern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. When people in the northern hemisphere have Christmas in December, it’s cold and snowing because the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. We did all this last week”, I persisted. My efforts were met with more blank stares, a few wrinkled foreheads and derisive snorts from the “tough” kids on the back row.
“Santa! Sleighs! Jingle bells! Dashing through the snow! Bing Crosby! White Christmas! Snowmen! eggnog!” I yelled.
Not a even a flicker of comprehension, yet when we covered the material about seasons in class previously, they all coloured in their earth-sun diagrams and seemed to understand the concepts.
Suddenly, the fog on Johnny’s face cleared. “I know why you’re confused Miss,” he announced.
“Do you? Oh please! Enlighten me!” I sarcased (this is a word I invented- it means, to reply back sarcastically when exasperated).
“Miss Valentine” he explained with elaborate patience. “Just because it’s December over here, doesn’t mean it’s December over there!”
“Yeah!” chorused the rest of the students relieved Johnny, at least, knew his stuff.
Apparently most of the class were under the impression that when it’s December in Australia, it’s actually June in the United States.
I wasn’t looking forward to teaching time zones.