Friday, June 20, 2008

So, where's your no go zone?

And what impact does it have on your learners?

During my 17 years as a software trainer, I put a lot of people through their paces on Excel. But, as I've mentioned before, I never quite figured out pivot tables. So they were a bit of a 'no go zone' for me. While I could teach people how to create a pivot table, I was at a loss as to the when and why. So, if a question of that nature came up, I had to find a way to handle it. I probably caused several people to go away and create outlines instead! So there are probably hundreds of people who think that an outline is a better way of summarising figures than a pivot table... all because of my 'no go zone'.

(Note added 11 September 2008: apparently a lot of traffic is finding its way here when running a search on 'GO zone' - I think Go Zone may be more the sort of thing you're looking for)

When I was in my final year of high school, I was asked to look after a class of grade 1 girls while the primary school staff had a weekly meeting. This was standard practice and I was rather pleased to have been asked.

I sat down on the floor with my charges and asked them what they had done during the recent long weekend. One little girl was very excited to relate that "We went to Morgan Bay... and we looked in all the rock pools... and we saw sea urchins and aneno... anemo... ameno... anemomoninnies and we saw a octopus under a rock and my Daddy pulled it out by its testicles."

"I think you mean tentacles, " I said, trying hard not to laugh.

"Yes. Tentacles. And we..." She cocked her head to one side. "What IS testicles?"

I was flummoxed. I was raised in a home with no taboo topics, but at 16 I knew that we were a rare breed. If I told her the answer, there might be trouble. If I fobbed her off, I wouldn't be answering a very valid question. I compromised.

"Octopuses don't have testicles. But lots of other animals do. If you ask your Daddy and Mommy tonight perhaps they will explain."

I was only a child myself, but I assume teachers regularly face questions like this, and have to make the choice as to how they're going to handle it. When they refuse to be drawn on a subject, what impression does that give to the child? On the other hand, why should it be the teacher's job to handle the prickly topics? It's a tricky balance, but I have often wondered about the impact of conversational 'no-go zones' on learners.

As a practising Christian with a (usually) clean vocabulary, I often startle people by proving to be open to discussions on absolutely any topic whatsoever. Somehow there seems to be this notion that I should be repressed. I'm not sure how that came about.

There is no question that our children are forbidden to ask us. While we will not divulge specific details of our own sex-life, we are pretty close to unshockable. Conversations at our dinner table have covered a wide range topics that I gather would set most people's teeth on edge.

When sex education classes began at school, our sons found that there was nothing there that they hadn't already had explained to them at home. I wondered how teachers handled questions from kids who have not been given this information at home.

We hope that this will help our sons to form healthy relationships, with as little baggage as possible. Unlike Elliott in Scrubs (sensitivity warning) who, in spite of being a doctor finds it necessary to use euphemisms such as 'bajingo' and 'icky sticky' - and even those are whispered!

But it doesn't have to be about sex - and not all the tricky questions are about sex by any means. That's just the most obvious culprit. When we create no go zones in our conversation, what message does that send? The list below is a rather hastily drawn up collection of the sorts of no go zone responses I have overheard at one point or another:

  • "I'm not prepared to dicuss instant messaging/Facebook/whatever - it's off limits and that's that!"
  • "I'm not prepared to talk about drugs, but mind you don't take any!"
  • "I'm not prepared to specify what staff may and may not do in their leisure time, but don't think we won't fire you if it turns out to be something we're not happy with!"
  • "We don't need to talk about the gory details of apartheid/slavery/whatever. Just accept that it happened and it's wrong!"
  • "We're not going to discuss the 'so-called' Holocaust. It makes me feel nauseous just to think about it!"
  • "I'm not prepared to discuss the role of the British Empire in the slave trade - most of those people were better off as slaves anyway!"
  • "I'm not prepared to tell you what that word means, but don't you dare use it in my house!"
  • "Uh-uh-uh! No politics/religion, thank you!"


Anonymous said...

I think choosing not to go 'there' because you don't want to and choosing not to go 'there' because you can't (don't know something) have to be separated. When I don't know (often) I like to ask the audience ( of one or many) to tell me what they know. The "I'm not prepared to..." suggests 'don't want' vs. 'don't know.' Probably, it's the 'why' and 'when' though that's the problem zone.

Anonymous said...

@Janet You make a good point, but I wonder how often the learner/listener is aware of the distinction. Sometimes they might leap to the conclusion that something is a taboo subject when, in fact it falls into the 'don't know' category.

I would also argue that, for many people, the 'won't' subjects constitute a very real 'can't' but for psychological rather than knowledge reasons. Moreover, I would suggest that your 'won't' may become your learners'/childrens' 'can't'. It may be that they now 'can't' go there because they don't know. Equally, they may find that they 'can't' go there because someone, somewhere along the lins gave them the distinct impression that it would be Wrong and Bad to do so.

Oh good grief, I hope that makes sense!

Andy Roberts said...

The answer given to the unfortunate child was also incorrect. An octopus does have testicles, they just happen top be located in the head.

Anonymous said...

@andy Oh dear - so my ignorance was an impediment, then, too! Ah well, I was only a child myself.