When You Just Don’t Get It

Why did I put this photo in this post?

Why did I put this photo in this post?

We’ve all experienced this at some time in our lives. You’re in a room full of people, roaring with laughter, and you are the only one left cold. What do you do? Laugh anyway, even though you have no idea why the joke is supposed to be funny? Ask for an explanation, and spoil the party, drawing humiliating looks of disbelief from all those people who can’t believe you didn’t get it?

This excruciating experience can happen to anyone, however clever or knowledgeable they are. If you do not happen to possess the crucial piece of background information, you will be left in the dark, unable to participate unless you make the painful and difficult step of seeking enlightenment.

If adults find it hard to be the only one who doesn’t get it, and are reluctant to draw attention to themselves in order to seek admission to the crowd of those who are in the know, how hard must it be for young people, when they have not been given the relevant background information, to stand out from others and seek an explanation?

This is the situation in which pupils find themselves over and over again when there is no coherent teaching of core knowledge. The gaps that are left by a curriculum based on vague skills instead of specific content cripple them. They end up feeling stupid, just as we do when we are the only one who doesn’t get the joke.

But they are not in fact stupid. As E D Hirsch has pointed out, ‘even smart people don’t always get jokes’ (The Schools We Need, p23). These pupils just lack the background knowledge that would enable them to make sense of what they are being taught. This has nothing whatsoever to do with ability and or intelligence. It is simply a case of poverty: deprivation of intellectual capital.

(Image from Wikimedia)


5 thoughts on “When You Just Don’t Get It

  1. I think the assumption behind what should and should be taught to children from more deprived backgrounds is worrrisome. It seems to me in more ‘middle class’ schools they pitch higher and try to get as many to that level, while in more deprived areas it is about the lowest common denominator. There is a far greater focus on the ‘feelings’ and ‘failure’ children may experience who are deemed LA and as a result the classes are ‘dumbed down’ to the lowest level.

    Take for example the Computing Curriculum, the inclusion of the word algorithm for Year 1 pupils has caused much consternation among adults. Yet in all reality children in Year 1 are coming across many unknown words or increasingly longer words! What makes it better or worse than words like instruction or alternative for example? It’s not even as though it has been taught and found to be an issue – it was seen as an issue right from the start.

    The gut instinct of many is to make it ‘child-friendly’ rather than simply explain the terms and use the more complex ones. In this way, children who are already being exposed to less vocabulary and fewer complex terms are further held back from their middle class peers.


    • Vocabulary is a good example if where well intentioned progressives cripple children’s intellectual development. In the name of relevance or appropriateness, vital terminology is dumbed down. Middle class children often pick it up from their parents anyway, and so the injustice of inequitable intellectual capital is exacerbated. The reality is, of course, that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you know, and words you don’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly!! A year one teacher was explaining why she didn’t want to put the L.O. up. There may be good reasons perhaps in Year 1 except her reasoning came from the children’s ability to read it. It became an amusing exchange as she was expecting me to agree when I just told the truth which was that the children who could read would, those that didn’t would get exposure to at least some of the sight vocabulary/common words and if being able to read words was the criteria then most of the words displayed, like days of the week, should equally be removed.

        It’s just lazy teaching and the more the ’emotional’ development is pushed and taken into account, the lazier certain teachers can be in their attitude towards children.

        This is one of the reasons why I think the stranglehold of EYFS practitioners needs to be broken. There should be regular exchange of staff between year groups so that you can understand what comes before and after.

        Too many teaching and support staff are drawn to the younger children as it makes them feel more important rather than because they are good at educating children that age.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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