The Zeroth Law of Teaching: “No Negativity?”

I was at a conference recently and I was chatting with the PhD students at their poster session. One of them summarised his life philosophy as ‘no negativity’. I looked at him to see if he was joking and then replied “So, positivity, then?” The student’s eyes lit up as he thought about what I’d said, and his own comment, laughed and agreed.

When I first told this story on one of my other blogs, a number of people responded by saying “Oh, but he could have meant ‘at least neutrality'” and, while I didn’t argue it there, ultimately this was missing both the point of my critique and the student’s response. The first thing I considered when responding to the student was that he was obviously looking for something short, sharp and shiny to contain his world view. The second thing I considered was that I didn’t want to be negative, so my comment had to be chosen carefully. The third was based on my assessment of the student.

The student was a very positive, enthusiastic and creative person. When he said ‘no negativity’, he fairly obviously meant ‘positive, creative energy!’ He wanted a short way to express this but, as we are all prone to do, he focused on the antithesis and then negated it. Now, of course, by doing this he created an automatic contradiction in his own maxim. That’s why I checked to see if he was joking first because, as an ironic statement, it’s wonderful. My belief, based on initial reaction and his reaction to my comment, was that he hadn’t consciously realised that he was rejecting negativity with a negative. Now he has the choice to either be deliberately ironic or to be succinct and clear.

English is a funny beast. If I say “I don’t disagree with you”, it doesn’t always mean that I agree with you, double negatives or not. It’s also confusing for people with English as a second language because it appears very similar to “I’m not disagreeing with you”, when the two have different uses and, depending on your cultural background, very different interpretations. I choose my language, my idioms and my examples very carefully to make sure that I pitch myself to the current audience. This means that my classes in Singapore are run and presented slightly differently from my classes in Australia. Same knowledge. Same standards. Different presentation to maximise my efforts.

If you don’t know your audience, then your humour, your use of language subtleties and, especially, the use of sarcasm and irony can be missed completely and people won’t know if you are being exceedingly clever or if you’ve missed the point. If a student misses a subtlety, then do you think that they’ll always stick a hand up to check? Are they going to learn something incorrectly or miss a key step?

That, for me, is the Zeroth law of teaching: “Know your audience.” If you pitch yourself at the right level, to the right group, at the right time, you will be far more likely to pass on the knowledge in the most effective and useful way possible.

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