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Helping Slow Learners: Implications for the Classroom (page 3)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Jan 14, 2011

Catching Up Is the Long-Term Goal

It is important to be realistic about what it will take for students to catch up. In Chapter Two I pointed out that the more we know, the easier it is to learn new things. Thus, if your slower students know less than your brighter students, they can't simply work at the same pace as the bright students; doing only that, they will continue to fall behind! To catch up, the slower students must worker harder than the brighter students.

I think of this situation as analogous to dieting. It is difficult to maintain one's willpower for the extended period necessary to reach a target weight. The problem with diets is that they require difficult choices to be made again and again, and each time we make the right choice, we don't get rewarded with the instant weight loss we deserve! When a dieter makes a wrong choice or two, there is a tendency to feel like a failure, and then to give up the diet altogether. A great deal of research shows that the most successful diets are not diets. Rather, they are lifestyle changes that the person believes he could live with every day for years—for example, switching from regular milk to skim milk, or walking the dog instead of just letting her out in the morning, or drinking black coffee instead of lattes.

When thinking about helping slower students catch up, it may be smart to set interim goals that are achievable and concrete. These goals might include such strategies as devoting a fixed time every day to homework, reading a weekly news magazine, or watching one educational DVD on science each week. Needless to say, enlisting parents in such efforts, if possible, will be an enormous help.

Show Students That You Have Confidence in Them

Ask ten people you know, "Who was the most important teacher in your life?" I've asked dozens of people this question and have noticed two interesting things. First, most people have a ready answer. Second, the reason that one teacher made a strong impression is almost always emotional. The reasons are never things like "She taught me a lot of math." People say things like "She made me believe in myself" or "She taught me to love knowledge." In addition, people always tell me that their important teacher set high standards and believed that the student could meet those standards.

In considering how to communicate that confidence to your students, we return to the subject of praise. Be wary of praising second-rate work in your slower students.

Suppose you have a student who usually fails to complete his work. He manages to submit a project on time, although it's not very good. It's tempting to praise the student—after all, the fact that he submitted something is an improvement over his past performance. But consider the message that praising a mediocre project sends. You say "good job," but that really means "good job for someone like you." The student is probably not so naive as to think that his project is really all that great. By praising substandard work, you send the message that you have lower expectations for this student. Better to say, "I appreciate that you finished the project on time, and I thought your opening paragraph was interesting, but I think you could have done a better job of organizing it. Let's talk about how."

Thus far we have devoted all of our attention to students' minds, with only an occasional mention of their teacher's cognitive system. But obviously your mind is not qualitatively different from the minds of your students. Beyond tuning your teaching to their minds, can the principles set forth here improve your teaching?

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