In one section of Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, author Paul Bloom discusses the ability of humans to recognize that others can have different beliefs and knowledge (known as the ability to attribute false beliefs to others). This is an ability that comes relatively late in childhood development.
In a striking experiment that Bloom discusses in his book, researchers place two children in a room with a covered basket and a covered box. Outside the room, another child is watching the scene of the two children via a closed circuit TV. One of the children (let’s call him Sonny) places a marble in the basket and then leaves the room.
When Sonny is out of the room, the other child (Sal) moves the marble from the basket to the box. When the child outside the room is asked where Sonny will think the marble is located, the child indicates that Sonny will know that the marble is in the box. Because the child outside the room knows that the marble has been moved, he assumes all others will know this too.
While this ability— to recognize that other can have a different reality within their minds— is one that comes relatively late in development, in most of us the understanding is never complete.
Bad Assumptions: the Mother of All Misunderstandings
We experience incredulity at every turn as adults. We are truly flummoxed that others don’t share our view or understanding of things. For example, everyone has exclaimed at the fact that not everyone finds their favourite food delicious.
With regard to hot button political issues, two relatively sane people can be given the same information about a situation. Prior to hearing the new information, one of the listeners believes X and the other believes Y. The new information might leave no subjective room for any conclusion other than X. Instead, the listener who believed Y will often only have his existing views strengthened. More importantly, both cannot fathom why the other holds the opinion he does when presented with the same facts.
The idea that it is hard for humans to grasp what others know is highlighted even more in the world of teaching and learning. It is why there are so few good teachers in the world. As Bloom further discusses in his book, the “curse of knowledge” means that once we understand or know something, it is almost impossible to imagine not knowing it.
The Curse of Knowledge
It’s why user manuals and instructions are larded with assumptions about the knowledge level of the end-user. It’s why engineers usually make horrid teachers when it comes to explaining how to use the things they have built. Because they know their creations so intimately, they are unable to imagine what it is like not to be familiar with them. In fact, they are not even able to cast their minds back to a time when they didn’t know about their creation because they have known it in concept, component parts, and final product.
It’s why the apocryphal tale about the Englishman, Frenchman and the German discussing the merits of their respective languages rings true. When given the chance to make a case for why English is the better of the three languages, the Englishman selects a word at random, let’s say “duck,” and compares it to the word for duck in French and German. He rates the English word as superior because, “doesn’t the word describe perfectly what a duck is?”
It's Not Easy for Your Students
It also explains spluttering language teachers who can’t fathom why a student doesn’t grasp a grammar point.
Yes, intellectually we know that the student has a different native language and thus a completely different template for communicating. But this doesn’t prevent that niggling annoyance from creeping in, the underlying sentiment being, “How can they not understand this?”
Avoiding Bad Assumptions
So, how do you insulate yourself against making the kinds of assumptions that prevent you from being a good teacher?
First, simply being aware of how easy it is to make bad assumptions can help you to recognize exactly when you are doing just that. Most English usage concepts are elementary to you because the understanding of the language is burned into your brain.
Second, make the effort to learn the native language of the students you are teaching. Not only will it make you empathize with them, but you will start understanding why they make the kinds of mistakes they make.
Third, spend some time and go beyond the grammar practice books and Headway-type books on which many teachers rely. While many weighty tomes on linguistics are about as interesting to read as watching paint dry, you can find some readable and instructive books as well. A fuller understanding of English will make you a better teacher and could inject some enthusiasm into your lessons.
Fourth, change up your teaching style frequently. While teaching is one of the best ways to learn about any subject (and especially a language), changing the way you teach can also help you to see things from a fresh perspective.
Finally, read widely on any grammar point that you teach. If you are referencing only one or two grammar books, you may be omitting important exceptions and perhaps not giving your students all the information they deserve.