The Swiss Cheese Syndrome

The following is reposted from the blog The Inspired Teacher. She offers some insights about the challenges of listening and speaking–even when we mean well.

I went to a conference recently. The first speaker was from the state department of education and I was ready to listen; in fact, I did listen, but I could not follow her remarks. Why? I simply could not understand what she was saying.

In her first sentence, she used two unfamiliar acronyms. While I paused to decode the first one, I missed several words which followed. The second acronym was completely new to me, so when she said it, I could not understand it all. Thus, in spite of a wide vocabulary, I could not grasp the meaning of her sentence.

The same problem continued throughout her remarks. I spent more time wondering if I had decoded the acronyms than I did absorbing her advice and information. As you can imagine, I was annoyed and frustrated. But suddenly I saw it as a learning experience: I was feeling the same sensations that students feel when they don’t understand the vocabulary or references that I use in the classroom.

In a related incident, I was the speaker at a staff meeting. After I presented an involved list of steps for meeting the goals in the school improvement plan, one of the teachers said, “I would really appreciate a list, so I could keep track of all these things.”

“She already told us we would get one!” said one of his colleagues impatiently, at the very moment that I held up the checklists I was ready to hand out. I paused to talk about his knowledge gap.

“You know, Justin’s comment brings up a common issue,” I said. “He has been here, and he looked pretty attentive, but he still missed, or didn’t remember, that detail. Everyone misses things. It’s human to miss things. Whenever our attention wanders for just a second, we lose a detail or an idea. It’s important to remember that when we talk to the young people in our classes. They will have the same gaps and not because of bad intentions.”

In both cases it was as if the listener was looking at a scene through a window with stickers all over it. He/she missed meaning because parts of the whole picture were obscured by blockages, whether of understanding or attention.

Add these two issues together and you get what I call the Swiss Cheese Syndrome.

Listeners are highly likely to have holes—big and small—in their comprehension of our words, just as Swiss cheese is normally full of holes. We are wise to expect gaps and do what we can to fix them, rather than let the situation make us angry or discouraged.

What can we do?

First, be aware. We have to stop assuming that if we know a given word ourselves, then everyone knows it. We can plan in advance to include simple words in explanations and descriptions. Generally, the more syllables the word has, the more likely for it to be unknown to someone. In addition, content vocabulary and scientific words must be explicitly taught, and then reviewed and used–up to a dozen times for full comprehension by all students.

Second, check constantly. Ask for a student to restate a point. Be sure to call on those average learners, not just those whose hands are usually waving. It is too easy to assume that if one person in the class knows something, then the whole class knows it. Direct your learners to summarize for an “elbow partner.”
Have each student write a summary as a “ticket out the door.” The methods are numerous once we recognize the importance of using them.

Most of all, remember that when you feel like moaning “but I TOLD them that,” it is pretty likely that some of the students are thinking, “I never heard her say THAT.” Just take a deep breath, know that it is the Swiss Cheese Syndrome in action, and try again.