‘Understanding’ Students

It’s easy to say, “Teachers must understand their students and fulfill their needs on a daily basis.” But what does the act of ‘understanding students’ entail? If it is as easy as it is taught and learned in teachers’ training colleges, why is it still seen as an uncommon practice at schools?

Being understood gives rise to a sense of acceptance and belonging. It is an essential human need for survival and growth. It removes the frustration of being misperceived.

On the other hand, when people misunderstand us, their construal of ‘who we are’ become distorted. The image that we want to portray to others is inaccurately projected. Consequently, the feeling of being misunderstood creates an acute discomfort and the desire to remove oneself from social situations.

Understanding Students 2

Therefore, ‘understanding a student’ is only possible when a teacher accurately perceives and accepts the student’s true self. This is a challenging task, especially if a teacher is required to ‘understand’ twenty or more ‘selves’ all at one time, on a daily basis! Nevertheless, it is a task that a caring teacher performs, steadily!

According to Social Psychology, humans attempt to reduce the usage of mental energy while engaging in social interactions by utilizing mental shortcuts known as ‘heuristics’ (to ease social cognition). These mental shortcuts serve as ‘rules of thumb’ to help people construe meaning from a myriad of social situations and stimuli they are exposed to. Heuristics are used to accomplish the following, in social interactions:

  1. Making judgments about an individual’s group membership (e.g.: “Indians eat spicy food. You are an Indian. You eat spicy food.”)
  2. Making judgments about something or someone with whatever information that comes to mind easily (e.g.: “Tsunami affected Indonesia very badly. Indonesia is still recovering from the aftermath of the Tsunami.” – we tend to forget other countries that might be facing similar difficulties because the news media rigorously publicized the effects of Tsunami in Indonesia, and failed to feature the problems in other countries affected by the Tsunami)

Although heuristics are useful for human functioning, taking the effects of such mental shortcuts for granted, and engaging in them without a deliberate reflection, can pose adverse repercussion for the people involved in an interaction. When a teacher solely relies on mental shortcuts to learn about and relate to his/her students, the teaching-learning relationship does not involve true ‘understanding’.

There are no short-cuts for wanting to genuinely understand students in the classroom. Teachers need to take the time and make the effort to get involved in the process of familiarizing themselves with students and their lives in order to understand and cater for their every need. Unwillingness to do so will only communicate indifference and a lack of care on the part of a teacher!

Teachers who rely on mental shortcuts to make decisions (or form judgments) about ‘who their students really are’ might engage in prejudiced thinking, discriminate, and display biases in all aspects of teaching. This is dangerous because a classroom characterized by prejudice, discrimination and bias is a classroom that students fear to attend and learn.

A caring teacher carefully ‘studies’ each student and construes meaning about his/her ‘self’ as accurately as possible. A caring teacher does not engage in and conform to stereotypical thinking patterns that are usually unfounded and negative.

Understanding Students

Understanding students involves ‘knowing’ them. Genuine knowing is possible when teachers learn to relate to students in a more personal way, without relying on their mental shortcuts (to save energy that would be wasted anyway?). Instead, a caring teacher, lets time and relationship reveal ‘who a student really is’ and appreciates him/her as a person!

Examples of instances when heuristics work against relationships in the classroom:

  1. When a teacher concludes that all students from low socio-economic background would not do well in the classroom
  2. When a teacher associates ‘intelligence’ with good looks
  3. When a teacher judges a student’s personality traits based on his/her ethnic background
  4. When a ‘male’ teacher decides that no amount of effort would help a ‘female’ student to excel in science or math
  5. When a teacher conveniently punishes ‘male’ students because they are supposedly ‘violent’ and aggressive by nature

Copyright April 2006 by Dr. Edward Roy Krishnan, www.affectiveteaching.com

1 thought on “‘Understanding’ Students”

  1. Dear Roy,

    The point you brought out in your article “Understanding Students” is so true. How often we seek to be understood than to understand. Knowing our students well and understanding their needs and accepting them for who they are makes a truly caring teacher and creates an effective learning environment.


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