George Lucas Educational Foundation
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It's easy to say that students lie to teachers all the time. Frankly, everyone, including teachers, has a lie in them, and these untruths keep the schooling process rolling along. When adults say, for instance, that they develop rules with the students, chances are that students often develop rules that teachers already thought of anyway. Or, when adults say that a student can't use the restroom during certain parts of the day "Just because," rather than "Because the hallways is crowded, and I don't want you distracted from the lesson in the classroom,” that's just one more micro-fib in a collage of fibs that we tell children.

But my push today is to talk about the lies that students tell, specifically the ones that keep them from growing into the best students possible.

"I Can't Do This!"

This statement is perhaps the worst possible offender, and we have layers to this that we ought to unravel. If students say it often enough, they can prevent themselves from giving an honest effort toward learning the material. The student gets to fall back while the teacher explains and re-explains the material, which might have gone from a more implicit, constructivist explanation to a straight-up "This is what you do!"

Thus, it also works as a signal to the teacher that, perhaps, the student can’t learn the material. The teacher, human and serving 30 students at a time, will focus away and leave that student to his or her own devices rather than insisting, "Try your best." The teacher might stay away from the student, hovering over and hoping that her or she will come back into the fold again. The student often won't.

The discussion around "I can't do this" can be broken down into three general levels:

  • They genuinely don't understand the material.
  • They've had a long day and just don't have the energy to work any more.
  • They have a situation at home that currently distracts them.

There are levels to "I can’t do this" that don't get discussed, either. The current discussion around lack of effort focuses on "grit," the cure for lack of effort -- and with good reason. Paul Tough's book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and The Hidden Power of Character gives you a sense that he believes, with the right level of effort and conditions that help translate effort into success, any child can overcome his or her disposition.

Yet for some, the argument has taken a twist to mean that, rather than trying to address structural and pedagogical issues in our schools, we ought to focus only on the attitudes espoused by our students. If they try hard enough, that argument goes, and if they work longer and harder than their peers, they too will surmount the incredible odds against them and acquire a proper education.

To an extent, I believe this, as I am a product of a poverty-stricken neighborhood. I was fortunate to go to good public and private schools (including Head Start) throughout my formative years. With enough effort, I made it out of the hood -- only to teach in a neighborhood similar to the one where I used to live. My teaching reflects this, too. I have high expectations for my students, and I keep in mind that I should ask questions before getting emotionally bent out of shape around a student’s lack of compliance with the assignment.

Strategies for Comprehension

Thus, here are some solutions for the student who says, "I can’t do this!"

1. Ask why before all else.

Don't just ask, "Why?" and let the answer linger. Often, the student will just say, "Because I don't." Your next question could be, "What part do you get?" Once you reach the point where they're unsure, ask follow-up questions from that point onward. Push for them to answer questions rather than listen to your personal line of reasoning out the material. If they can vocalize the process and demonstrate understanding before you take them through it step by step, then let them do it. And keep asking why in the meantime.

2. Give breaks within reason.

Some of my students just need a genuine break. This isn't about being soft, though I try not to run my classroom like a jail. If adults constantly bombard them with speeches they call lessons, then these students have had an entirely passive experience of education that doesn't allow them to think for themselves. If you see a student who looks tired or has a hard time concentrating, firmly ask him or her to take a break just to breathe. Letting students take a small break might energize them again.

3. Make modifications to how you teach and how they learn.

The push for higher standards, rigor and accountability often means that our students' humanness gets pushed to the wayside in some classrooms. We try to force students to see the material the way we estimate that a test-maker would, rather than developing lessons that work for as many students as possible. For instance, instead of using definitions from the textbooks, let students create explanations for the words. These explanations should come as close as possible to the definitions that you would create.

4. Teach students the art of the good question.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I do believe in smart questions (and not-so-smart questions). We ought to teach students how to ask questions that clarify, expound or enhance meaning. Students ask a lot of questions, and we ought to encourage them to get in the habit of questioning. Yet, we can differentiate between asking a question that adds value and a question that doesn't.

All together, this means we can only control our own actions as educators in the classroom. We can teach students to persevere. We can teach students to work harder, and to see the fruits of their efforts in the learning they do. We can ask them to translate these attitudes to their lives overall.

We as educators must also keep in mind the vast personal experiences they bring into class, especially if they don’t get what we're trying to teach them. Sometimes, there are a lot of things they're not getting for reasons we can't imagine, and it's our job to provide sustenance in the meantime.

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Jose, great post. I agree with your reasoning, and I think some of your strategies sounds excellent. Another lie that I hear often is 'I'll try harder next time.' In some cases, students seem to say this just to get teachers of their backs - they have no intention of trying harder. I think that this is not because they don't want to, but for most of them it is because they don't know how to. They don't have the skills necessary to do better - that's where I think we, as teachers, need to come in.

Diana Brace's picture
Diana Brace
Adult Literacy Educator, Atlanta

Great piece. I always appreciate how you balance the need to work toward institutional change while still working for change on an individual student basis. We can do both.
"Why?" asked with a sincere, inquisitive look, is my favorite tool. A lot of my students haven't experienced that level of interaction with a teacher before. They're sometimes startled. Yet, it opens up a conversation and shows that I expect them to think about how, what, and why they learn.

Greenfield100s's picture
6th Gr Core LA/SS teacher

Clarify vs Stagnate

I am a big believer in there are no stupid question, only paths to understanding the material being presented. Yes, some students do test what can be considered stupid (quantity over quality) but my non-answers to those questions assist them in realizing that they won't get to hear their voice.

I've found answering the student's questions with clarifying questions of my own give them the opportunity to explore the material in ways they were never prepared to in previous grades.

DaveInLA's picture

Agreed. Great piece. I had a student scream to me last week, "I can't read!" when I asked him to read the first word of a list of adjectives. I didn't ask him, "Why?" But I did ask him to read another word on the paper. When he said, "The" I said, "Oh, you can read. Now let's try this word again."

I also like his suggestion for student-defined words.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

There's a big piece here about mindset. I love the power of adding the word "yet" to the end of these kinds of statements. When students learn that hard work will get them to their goals, they hav e a real shift in attitude.

Anna Adam's picture
Anna Adam
Digital Learning Specialist and one of The Tech Chicks

One thing my husband has always pushed with our own children and then with his students that I think is very powerful is not allowing kids to stay, "I can't." Instead they can say, "I'm having trouble with," or "I need help with" but they don't say they can't. Just that one little switch not only puts them in the frame of mind that they may just have to work a little harder on that topic/project, but as the teacher or parent, we don't feel the exasperation of the "can't" and actually feel more like you want to help overcome the obstacle. If a student just "can't" then there's no sense in helping. But if they have trouble with, then you are more inclined to want to help them get past that. All semantics but words are powerful.

Great post!

Aaron Herm's picture
Aaron Herm
Teacher at Phantom Knight School of Opportunity

So glad this was said. I think it's important to add the word "yet" to these statements and remind students that's why they're in school! That three-letter word creates a mindset shift and reassures students that your classroom is safe space to make mistakes and learn.

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