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I am currently on my fifth solid day of doing things that I find difficult, scary, or boring. Two days ago, I called the cable company to set up my internet. This might not seem like a big deal, but I am terrified of phone calls — especially to strangers. Although I hate conflict, I engaged in a negotiation.

Another example: I pretty much live in my head. I work well in the area of ideas. Most of what I make tends to involve multimedia. I am not great at anything remotely kinesthetic. So, it was a stretch to put together furniture and to learn how to work a charcoal grill for the first time. Turns out getting the charcoal to light properly is harder than it looks.

I mention this because I often spend my time doing things that I love doing. I have carved out a life where I can do things I enjoy that challenge me only within the areas of my strengths and that fit into my personality. While this great for a career, none of my strengths work well for setting up a newly purchased home.

And yet . . .

This has been a reminder that some of the things I find so challenging are so easy to other people. Some folks can pick up a phone and call the cable company without thinking twice. Some people can put together furniture without reading the directions. Some people can easily navigate a new city without getting lost.

So, it has me thinking about school. Often what passes for a defiance is simply the natural reaction to doing tasks that are difficult, scary, or boring. Some students get queasy before speaking in front of a crowd. That’s how I get when I pick up a phone. Some students will get distracted and put off a reading assignment. That’s how I was about putting together an office chair. Some students are ready to be done with math after one problem. That’s how I was about scrubbing and oiling the wood beams in our kitchen and family room. (Incidentally, the house now smells like lemon drops)

The point is, it’s not always a rational decision. We are creatures of desire and creatures of emotion as much as we are creatures of cognition. So, when we think about “engaging reluctant learners,” it can’t simply be a series of logical reasons. I’ve never met a “reluctant reader” who doesn’t believe that reading matters.  I have, however, seen readers who were terrified, frustrated, and bored.

1. Focus on agency.

We can’t always give students choice. Sometimes the standards dictate that they need to do something. Sometimes they have a task that they need to do that they don’t want to do. However, we can honor agency. This means we allow students to choose their strategy for getting to a particular goal. We allow them to have a sense of control.

2. Be intentional.

It seems crazy that I would spend five straight days doing things that I hate doing. But I’m driven by this desire to make the move as painless as possible for my family. This purpose drives me to do things that I might not naturally love. So, I will bag the stinky trash that the last home owners left behind. I will call the customer service rep at the nameless multinational cable company. Because I know that in two weeks, we will all be together as a family and that vision drives me to do the uncomfortable.

This sense of intentionality is critical with students as well. I understand that I have to teach the standards. However, I don’t want teaching to have the mentality of “we’re learning this because you have to learn it.” I need to have a purpose for what we are doing and students need to see that. Disengaged students are often disengaged because a teacher disengaged. I want to avoid that as much as possible.

3. Understand the emotional reaction.

You know what I love about Home Depot? Nothing. I hate the excessive use of orange and the aprons that aren’t even remotely connected to cooking. I hate the factory style and the fluorescent lighting and the inherent shame that I’m somehow supposed to be better at this stuff because I’m a dude. So, when I didn’t know how to answer questions about a refrigerator (my standards are pretty low, with “does it keep food cold” being pretty much it), I was embarrassed to call my wife. I was impatient on the phone and I later apologized. She answered with, “No worries. You were stressed,” which is code word for, “you were scared.” And that’s what we both do for each other all the time as a couple.

So, when we think about reluctant learners, I think we need to have the same kind of approach to emotions. Kids are going to get angry and scared and anxious. They’re going to feel ashamed when they “should” know something that they don’t. They will get angry. They will tune out. They will literally shake out of fear. When we validate these feelings as teachers, we actually give them the permission to engage in difficult work.

4. Allow for mistakes.

It took me nine tries to get the charcoal to work on my grill today. Nine tries. I’ve seen people who throw a match at the charcoal and the whole thing lights up. It’s like magic. That wasn’t me today. Not at all. And yet, I learned that I can run a charcoal grill.

So, back to the classroom . . .

I think the biggest enemies to engagement is the risk-averse student. Often he or she looks lazy and helpless. But really, that student is terrified of messing up and gives up instead. As teachers, we can create longer periods of revision. We can switch to standards-based grading and do away with zeroes and averaging. We can embrace the idea of design thinking and the notion that each mistake is simply an iteration in a journey toward success.

For all the talk of grit, kids need slack in order to develop a growth mindset. They need the permission to screw up. The “success at all costs” mantra sounds great on a slogan but it denies the reality that perseverance often comes with permission. Some of the best bastions of creativity are “low pressure” places where kids can experiment and explore.

5. Remember that we are all at a different pace.

Years ago, my mentor said, “Never compare. You’ll either end up arrogant or in despair. Remember that we’re all on our own journey.” She was right.

Rocket science isn’t rocket science to the rocket scientist. Some people can’t read an entire novel in a week but they can fix a sprinkler system without resorting to a YouTube video. But the beauty is that we can all learn how to do things that stretch us beyond our comfort level.

As teachers, we can structure assignments that allow for a more personalized approach. We can embed intervention and enrichment. Every lesson should have a way for students to get help when they are struggling and a place they can go if they have already mastered it. Confused students disengage. Bored students do the same. But if they are all moving at their own pace, this is less of an issue.


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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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