Teaching Opinion

Let’s Focus on What Learners CAN Do, and Plan From There

By Starr Sackstein — March 15, 2019 3 min read
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Deficit models don’t work, yet we are traditionally trained to see learning through that lens.

“What don’t students know?”

“How can we help students know what they don’t know?”

“Let’s focus on the bottom third.”

The trouble is that the students in this group are used to being unsuccessful. We focus too heavily on what they can’t do and not heavily enough on what they can.

If we want students or adult learners to be successful, we must start from what they are successful at and build from there.

Creating dynamic strength models allows all learners to be successful. It sets up a system where they are accustomed to being capable and confident and therefore more readily likely to take bigger risks in deficit areas.

Let’s face it, if we don’t feel good at something, we may try to avoid it. This isn’t only true of students. Learning new things that we don’t think we are going to be good at, we are almost trained to find reasons for why we can’t do it.

Something I have noticed lately and, upon reflection, have seen it throughout my career, is as teachers we blame students for a lot of the challenges we ourselves face. It’s ironic that we are easily able to point out these deficits in our students’ learning but somehow miss that we are acting the same way.

This is true of relationships as well ... the older I get, the more I realize how much like my mom I am in so many ways and also in that I have the opportunity to both recognize and adjust and continue to grow in areas so that I can be a better version of me.

Students deserve us to see the whole picture. When we make assumptions about what they can’t do and what they can do and then only provide opportunities that fit in that small context, we rob them of the chance to stretch and prove to themselves and to us that they CAN do it.

Every learner has incredible potential and what’s funny is a good deal of it usually not yet recognized. So until we try, we simply don’t know what we will be able to do and what we won’t. Add to that paradigm the chance for continued practice in a variety of ways, and now we increase our ability to be successful exponentially.

Granted, not every learner is starting at the same place and not every learner will end in the same place. It’s going to take some longer than others and it will look different for yet others more.

So how can we increase opportunity in our classrooms?

  • Build learning experiences that allow students to choose how and what they are learning. Regardless of their age, allow them to be a part of the process.
  • Elicit student feedback throughout the learning process and listen to it. It’s not enough to ask; we must listen and then do something about what we learn.
  • Plan lessons and projects with the attitude that your kids can be successful at whatever you are asking them to learn. Try to predict where they may struggle and why and put some scaffolds in place to pre-empt any unproductive frustration.
  • Accept that there will be productive struggle, and that’s OK. We can’t keep giving students all of the answers. This doesn’t help them learn, it hurts them.
  • Celebrate growth wherever and whenever it happens in the process. You don’t have to wait for kids to be finished to recognize what they are doing.
  • Put structures in place that allow students to see their own growth. Whether reflecting regularly, collecting portfolio pieces, and/or peer reviewing, students should be able to recognize their growing efficacy.
  • Learning is messy. Keep the feedback you provide in the positive and help students see possibilities instead of their own deficits. Areas of need are more opportunities for them to grow. If we reframe how we look at these areas, challenges, if you will, then we can challenge up and keep on growing.
  • See things as students do. Don’t diminish their struggle, but also don’t let them wallow in it. We need to help build student confidence so that they feel good about making mistakes and seeing that as a chance to improve.
  • Always make sure students know what the success criteria is first, so they know what they are shooting for. Wherever possible, involve them in creating the success criteria. This should align with learning targets on a regular basis. Success should never be a surprise.

Learning isn’t easy, and we all have our challenges. Rather than assume our learners can’t, giving them boring learning opportunities or watered-down versions of the learning, provide rigorous, engaging experiences and watch to see how much all students will grow.

What is the way to get struggling students engaged in the learning? Please share

*Photo created using pablo.com

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.