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Beyond I'm No Good At

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Elementary and secondary school teachers are often frustrated by their students' tendency to put learning labels on themselves that limit their horizons and sap their motivation and achievement. Students, even very young ones, label themselves "good at math and science'' and think that means they're not good at social studies, English, or other subjects that emphasize reading and writing. Other students wear the "good in language arts'' label and are convinced they "can't do math.''

These attitudes are especially frustrating because current research on cognition shows what many teachers have known for a long time--learning skills do not, in fact, come packaged by subject area. There surely are individual differences in learning styles and learning preferences, but there aren't two kinds of brains. The kind of intelligence needed to decode words and sentences is not that different from the analytic skills needed to make sense of symbolic notation in math and science. To cite one little-publicized example, the best predictor of mathematical achievement in college is not high performance on the numeric section of the SAT exam alone, but a high combined score on both the numeric and the verbal sections. Properly motivated and trained, students who like and do well in high school social studies can master advanced algebra and trigonometry, foreign languages, and chemistry. The reverse is also true.

How can teachers get rid of these labels and help students come closer to using all their skills?

First, we have to understand where these learning labels originate. Many students believe skill differences are inborn, zero-sum (the better you are at history the worse you are at math), and unchanging. But I'm convinced self-labeling comes mainly from stereotypes students pick up from their parents and from society, powerfully reinforced by students' performances on tests. The solution? While teachers alone cannot change society, they can ensure that their classrooms do not reinforce the prejudices students bring with them to school.

Teachers have several powerful tools for communicating what they believe and what they value: the assignments they give in class, the attitudes they have toward different subject matter, and perhaps most importantly, the tests they use. Teachers need to be mindful that not all students will think about a particular subject in the same way. Some are sharpeners; their minds gravitate toward the facts. Others are levelers; they prefer generalization and analysis. But that does not mean that either group can't do well in both science and language-skills classes.

To reach both sharpeners and levelers, history teachers must make explicit that "facts'' and "analysis'' are equally valued in history courses. Moreover, all students in history and social studies, both those who "like science'' and those who don't, should be required to include technical developments in assignments and tests along with political, economic, and social change. Too many history and social studies teachers believe discussions of technology should be left to science teachers, even though advances in science, mathematics, and technology have contributed to the richness and to the dilemmas of modern life.

Although science and mathematics cannot dwell exclusively on "why'' questions, these subjects are surely more than technique and knowledge of facts. Science and mathematics teachers need to make clear that thinking deeply about the basic ideas in these fields is just as important as solving textbook problems. Modern scientists know that many of the most interesting scientific questions have no single right answer. Such questions have a place in the science curriculum, and they have a place on science exams. Teachers should invite their math classes to discuss mathematical ideas and to answer questions about mathematics (perhaps in short-essay form) on their exams.

Teachers are role models, too. The teacher who advertises "I was never good at.....'' communicates that no amount of interest or curiosity can overcome some ingrained, though imagined, lack of talent. Besides, teachers needn't be ignorant of anything for very long. We have one another to talk to and learn from. And we owe it to our students to tell them about our recent and not-so-recent forays into other people's fields.

I have designed an inservice workshop for teachers in which the participants, instead of discussing pedagogy in general, role-play an instructor and her students. If the workshop participant who acts as the instructor is a science or math teacher, we have teachers of the humanities and social studies act as students, and vice versa. The instructor must teach a lesson that has been difficult for her to teach in her regular classroom and that will challenge even her workshop students.

The rewards of such workshops are several: All the participants discover what their students are learning in classes and disciplines other than their own. The volunteer instructor gets valuable feedback on how to communicate to students who are not "dumb'' (we insist on this distinction), but different from herself. Lastly, many leave the workshop having crossed one personal disciplinary divide of their own.

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley describes a "dystopia'' in which education is neither necessary nor desired. In the interest of efficiency, Huxley's society presorted embryos--"Alphas'' to "Epsilons''--for nonoverlapping adult tasks and roles. In our society we are less draconian. But as learning labels take on more and more significance, and performance expectations further diverge across disciplines, we need to educare (Latin for "lead out of'') our students, not just out of ignorance but also out of the limits they impose on themselves.

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