Apart from those pupils with additional learning skills, there are still some pupils who do not achieve what the teacher knows they could achieve, but somehow they are held back. Sometimes these factors are clear; home circumstances, lack of self-esteem or non-acquisition of skills may be at fault. Equality is not about treating everyone equally but treating pupils according to their needs. Just as the MAT student needs to be stretched and challenged, those who have stumbling blocks to learning need extra help from teacher and school.
Sometimes, as teachers we do not know why a pupil fails to learn but clearly there are some generic reasons; they are often connected.
1. Resistance to learning – For whatever reason the pupil does not want to learn; they can’t do it and they won’t do it. This is often linked to past failure and rebuff. None of us likes to be with a group of people who all manage to understand a joke when we do not or who master a game, the rules of which confuse us. For a child this feeling of acute embarrassment can often lead to a rejection of education itself. Such pupils need to be given tasks to build confidence, belief from the teacher to foster self-belief and the environment where risk is rewarded.
2. Learning to be helpless – We have all done it. For me it was sewing. I knew that if I sighed enough in class and looked ever so grateful either the teacher or a peer would finish the job for me. I still do it over making tea – ‘I’m not very good at making the tea. You’ll do it so much better.’ Some pupils learn early that if they say ‘I can’t do it’, somehow this will get them off the hook until their mind-set is such that they really cannot do it. One way of tackling this is to encourage pupils to re-tell what they have to do or allow them only three questions. After that, encourage them to ask a peer and give set time scales for getting things done. Such pupils will often use questions as a means of fending off getting down to work. By allowing only three questions and when introducing the rule adding ‘Do you know the answer to that question? You are using up one.’ You can start to train a bit more independence.
3. Lack of a big picture – Sometimes the teacher may want to mystify the class until the purpose of an activity unfolds but there are other occasions when pupils cannot see the wood for the trees. Trust is key in this as it is important for pupils to know that their teacher does have a clear purpose in setting a specific piece of work and nothing is done just or the sake of doing. Objectives and purpose may be particularly important for such pupils but as trust develops so the degree of risk can develop.
4. Nothing in it for me – Pupils will not value education if they cannot see why they should. All kinds of reasons make us learn – curiosity, engagement, ambition, vanity, dreams of success or money, fear of failure, the joy of skills, love of our teacher or family, support of a mentor, love of a subject, creative wonder, competition and self-esteem. There are many more. The teacher looks to find a key which will unlock each pupil’s reasons to learn.
Learning is a journey and everyone follows the same path whether acquiring skills or knowledge. Firstly, we are introduced to or encounter new knowledge or skill. We feel that we will never master it – whether it is driving a car or solving an equation. In order to learn we try to connect what we need to know with what we know already, but only if we see the need to persevere. That could be for intrinsic reasons, personal to us, or extrinsic reasons, as in needing to pass an exam or please our parents.
To progress, we need to experiment and to practise, applying new skills and knowledge to different situations. At last, we are able to reflect on our learning and to put it to the test of everyday use. With learning at its best we will make that skill and knowledge part of who we are and what we can do in the world.
None of this journey can happen if we do not take the first step and undeterred by awkwardness or initial failure continue on the road to discovery and wisdom. As teachers, it is our job to make sure that everyone has a good starting point to set the journey moving.