About Sarah Sorge

A high school science teacher, Sarah Sorge has taught in private, charter, and public schools in grades 7-12. Her areas of interest include neuroscience, education, and problem-based science instruction. Recently, Sarah was awarded the distinction of New York State Master Teacher.

If I were to ask you “What two days of the week begin with the letter T?,” what would you answer? If you said “Tuesday and Thursday,” then congratulations! You may now give yourself a pat on the back for being correct. But what if another person responded “today and tomorrow,” would that individual be any less correct than you? I would argue not; they merely have a different way of thinking about a concept.

Our students are ripe with ideas and creativity; unfortunately we often try to place them into pre-existing molds. We have many places where we may pass blame: state standards, high-stakes testing, required curricula, lack of time. However,  how often have our own, preconceived notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers affected us as educators? Allow me for a moment to refer back to the title of this article: think, thought, thunk. Thinking implies neural processes or the exchange of information among neurons in fractions of a second according to electrical and chemical changes across various synaptic regions of our brain. We think as a result of external stimuli from our environment: a sound, a smell, a visual cue, or any number of stimuli that affect us according to our senses. Thinking is something we, as human beings, do without conscious thought. You thought about opening this article to read it; you thought about the days of the week question earlier, and right now you might be thinking to yourself “what is she getting at?” We constantly encourage our students to think: answer questions, analyze a work, expand their knowledge base, and make connections to previous knowledge. This is part of our jobs and our missions as educators, and arguably many of us do it very well without conscious thought.

Speaking of thought, let me elaborate on my concept of thought. My thoughts are governed largely by my preconceived notions and personal experiences. We are, indeed, the products of our environments. They shape us and mold us, turning us into the individuals we are. Some of you may have heard of the much-debated term ‘tabula rasa’ (blank slate) in regards to the brain when we are born: we are blank slates with endless potential and are consequently formed based on the environments we encounter. Our students, consequently, are also the products of their environments, experiences, and preconceived notions. If a student, for example, walked into my classroom and admits that he/she hates science, I can only make the assumption that something happened in that student’s past to bring up that distaste.

Ultimately, this brings me to ‘thunk.’ The word ‘thunk’ is an onomatopoeia for me: it’s the sound of comically running into the metaphorical brick wall and stopping dead in our tracks. It’s hard, abrupt, and sounds vaguely painful. When we stop our students’ creative minds, we are giving them a thunk into a brick wall of being ‘incorrect,’ or at least that’s how they perceive it. We know, as adults, that exceptions, gray areas, and half-truths exist as a part of life. Our students, however, have not had enough experience to come to that conclusion; they often see the world (and their lessons at school) as black and white, right or wrong, and that subjects are exclusive of each other and separate classes they attend each day. They do not grasp the interconnection of it all, and they also sometimes fail to realize that their own creativity is at stake.

Due to the pressures of our daily classroom lives, we often inadvertently stifle creativity before it has a chance to flourish. As teachers, we are often unable to entertain those tangential ‘slightly off-topic’ questions that could be good but may suck away precious time from our lesson plans. We’re acutely aware that every precious minute counts we have the students in our desks. In the end, I wonder, are we doing a disservice to our students’ creativity and willingness to think outside of the curriculum.

Just as there are two answers to the question I posed above, there are multiple ways that we can question our students and seek out their creative input. We’ve all heard “alternative forms of assessment” in the past and, while this is absolutely wonderful, we should be practicing this on a regular basis in our daily classroom activities rather than keeping it on the sidelines until it’s time to give them a graded assignment. Students need to be shown that the classroom environment is an acceptable place to try out and discuss their ideas. If the classroom they enter is inviting and welcoming they will feel less intimidated and fearful of making mistakes. I have a sign on one of my walls that indicates to my students that it’s acceptable to make mistakes in my room, but it’s more to their credit if they avoid making the same mistake twice.

The joy of learning, as a result, is seeing that shades of gray are just as meaningful as a clearly right answer. For those of you who do not currently do this, try it out: avoid saying “no,” “incorrect,” or other negatively-perceived words for one day in your classroom. One of my practices is to say to my students “you’re very close” and proceed to help them come to the correct answer with a little guidance, or I may also say “that’s a good point. Let’s discuss that.” I have found that my students are more open and receptive to volunteering answers, asking questions, and bringing up connections to what they see in their personal lives if they know they will not be shot down by me or their peers for thinking differently with a knee-jerk reaction of “wrong.” I was pleasantly surprised to see that, when I practiced this in front of my students, they mimicked me and were more accepting when I made mistakes. They learn that creativity is not wrong; it is merely a different way of perceiving the world.

If we encourage our students to think openly and discuss freely, their thoughts regarding their classroom experiences with us will change as a result of changing perceptions about the school environment. I would  like our students to avoid the “thunk” moments and instead find ways around or over the brick walls placed before them. The workforce our students are entering do not necessarily desire drone workers who are simply there to fill a task. Employers desire workers who are innovative and willing to try multiple solutions to solving a complex problem. It is better for all of us, consequently, to encourage that creativity and innovation to give our students an edge as they leave our classrooms, and also give them reason to return to our classrooms again to see if they can come up with new solutions again. After all, today and tomorrow come every day of the week.

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