Understanding Students’ Mindset

Beloit College’s Mindset List spurred some pretty strong opinions on twitter today (all of which were negative from what I saw). I was curious so I checked my year’s (2009) list and found it to be filled with bad jokes and observations that on their own give a very superficial (at best) impression of my class’ cultural experiences. So I suppose I’ll agree that the list is trolling us. However, that doesn’t mean the idea behind the mindset list isn’t useful.

From being a TA for some great professors, I’ve learned that good teachers try to understand how their students process and contextualize information, making the idea behind the Mindset List quite important. Take a general topic like “Terrorism.” For most college freshmen, 9/11 colors every interaction with terrorism during their lives. For me, instances of domestic terrorism (the Oklahoma City bombing, the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, Ted Kaczynski’s later bombings and arrest and the Columbine shootings) were major events from my childhood that likely give me a different perspective on 9/11.

It works in much the same with other major world events. I was very young at the end of the Cold War, but old enough where I still had many school maps with the USSR on them. For eighteen year olds today, the Cold War is pure history, while it was a major influence on many adults’ worldview. Similarly, the perception of the 2003 invasion of Iraq likely changes depending on whether you can remember Operation Desert Storm, the Kosovo War, and 9/11, or only two, or one, or none of those events. It might seem like common sense that your life experience affects your perception of the world, but I wonder how often this is actually taken into consideration when teaching about these events and concepts. While fear of nuclear war might seem like common sense to someone who lived it, to those who grew up without the Cold War it might seem outdated or even outlandish.

It’s probably fun to point out, that your students may have never used a payphone, called collect, had to dial up to reach the Internet or had to stop and ask for directions when lost, (you can find plenty of nostalgic lists online if you are inclined to do so) but understanding the mindset of our students is vital if we, as teachings, want to communicate information to them. While it’s easy to get carried away (see: anything with “digital natives” or about “millennials” generally), we often assume our students think much like us, when in fact the difference in mindset can make a substantial difference in perception.

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