A Tale of Two Students

Let me give you descriptions of two typical students and see if you can relate.

First Case

The first is an 8th grade boy in my math class. Veteran teachers know that classroom behavior is critically dependent on seating placement — where and next-to-whom a student sits is often an accurate predictor of how much learning will sink in. But with this kid, it doesn’t matter in the least. Front / back / side / middle / friends / no friends, he will not learn. Even if he brings paper and pencil, he won’t use them. [He showed up empty-handed to the last test.]

The best he can muster is a loose-leaf paper football, even if he is sitting right in front of me. Every so often, I catch him listening because he will raise his eyebrows as if to ask a question. [And no… he is not a gifted-talented student taking it all in and producing brilliant test results. In fact, he is about 4 levels below grade and has convinced himself there is no reason he has to even try to learn 8th grade math. It’s useless… even more, in his mind, it’s impossible.]

Admin has put him in the “Intentional Non-Learner” category. Apparently, this is not a Math-only attitude on his part. So off he goes to RtI-land, where we pump even more time and energy into his non-learning. [Translation: Teachers babysit him before and after school trying to get him to do some work. So far, no luck.]

Second Case

I have another 8th grade boy in my math class. Similar situation. Classroom location has no effect. He is highly skilled at disrupting class wherever he is. However, unlike the first student, he will actually take some notes and turn in some homework. Not all the time — but some times — he is at least paying a little attention in class. He copies the board work into his notebook, but he will not try to figure out sample problems on his own. When I call on him for an answer, he says he doesn’t understand. He just waits until me or another student gives the solution. Then he writes it down so his notes will look complete.

I know this is his MO because in group work, he hops from classmate to classmate asking for “help” and each one does another problem for him, giving the correct answer. But does he know how to do the math? Not a chance. This is a classic example of a D student who passes each year because he turns in B-grade homework and F-grade tests.

I have recently discovered that this is called “Learned-Helplessness.” This kid knows he can pass the class without really learning any math. [You should know — although if you’re a teacher, you already do know — that he successfully uses this technique in his other classes, too.]

He has acquired this skill through years of Academy Award-winning performances. Most teachers were easily on to him from about the second quarter each year, but institutional systems bogged down in steep bureaucracy dissuaded them from more rigorous action.

His mother on the other hand, believes he is an A-student and does not understand why he is currently failing my class. [Not long ago, I sat across the table while she lambasted me in Spanish for a solid 45+ minutes about what a terrible teacher I am who does not effectively communicate with students. Ugh.] I can only fall back on the dismal test scores and suggest that he work harder or find a tutor.

Intentional Non-Learners Are Born from Learned-Helplessness

If you  have worked up close and personal with middle school students, you have most definitely encountered both of these stereotypes: Intentional Non-Learners and Learned-Helplessness. Every school has some of each, even the most cutting-edge-leading-the-way educational institutions.

Honestly, my truest discouragement comes from what seems to be a higher than average percentage in my classes. It breaks my heart every time to hear a 12-year-old say: I’ll never be able to do math!

I think to myself: You’re 12! Who planted that idea so deeply in your brain that you see no way out of the hole? I get angry.

Intentional non-learners are born from learned-helplessness.

At some point, a student realizes that he truly does not understand the foundational math concepts. So he gives up — totally and completely — with the notion: I don’t get it. I can’t get it. I’ll never be able to get it. So what’s the use? I quit. School is worthless. I’m outta here!

I see it. You see it. We all see it.

“Preaching at” young people seldom works. I can lecture til I’m blue in the face about how they need to learn 8th grade math in order to pass 9th grade math when they get to high school where credits start to count on transcripts and diplomas. But like all the generations before them, firsthand experience is the only teacher that counts. [Sorry high school math department! Next year’s crop of incoming freshmen will be woefully lacking in Algebra 1 skills or higher level thinking. I tried.]

The huge question on the table for all educators is one we’ve been grappling with for a while:

HMW move from a learned-helplessness teaching mentality to motivating students to take responsibility for their own learning?

We have to stop giving all the answers to students and inspire their curious minds with questions that require some digging.

It’s really the only chance we have.