Helping Slow Learners: Implications for the Classroom (page 3)
What can we do for slow learners? The point of this chapter is to emphasize that slow learners are not dumb. They probably differ little from other students in terms of their potential. Intelligence can be changed.
This conclusion should not be taken to mean that these students can easily catch up. Slow students have the same potential as bright students, but they probably differ in what they know, in their motivation, in their persistence in the face of academic setbacks, and in their self-image as students. I fully believe that these students can catch up, but it must be acknowledged that they are far behind, and that catching up will take enormous effort. How can we help? To help slow learners catch up, we must first be sure they believe that they can improve, and next we must try to persuade them that it will be worth it.
Praise Effort, Not Ability
This principle should be obvious from the research I've described. You want to encourage your students to think of their intelligence as under their control, and especially that they can develop their intelligence through hard work. Therefore, you should praise processes rather than ability. In addition to praising effort (if appropriate), you might praise a student for persistence in the face of challenges, or for taking responsibility for her work. Avoid insincere praise, however. Dishonest praise is actually destructive. If you tell a student, "Wow, you really worked hard on this project!" when the student knows good and well that she didn't, you lose credibility.
Tell Them That Hard Work Pays Off
Praising process rather than ability sends the unspoken message that intelligence is under the student's control. There is no reason not to make that message explicit as well, especially as children approach upper elementary school. Tell your students how hard famous scientists, inventors, authors, and other "geniuses" must work in order to be so smart; but even more important, make that lesson apply to the work your students do. If some students in your school brag about not studying, explode that myth; tell them that most students who do well in school work quite hard.
Persuading students of that truth may not be easy. I once had a student who was on the football team and devoted a great deal of time to practice, with little time left over for academics. He attributed his poor grades to his being "a dumb jock." I had a conversation with him that went something like this:
DTW: Is there a player on the team who has a lot of natural ability but who just doesn't work very hard, goofs off during practices, and that sort of thing?
STUDENT: Of course. There's a guy like that on every team.
DTW: Do the other players respect him?
STUDENT: Of course not. They think he's an idiot because he's got talent that he's not developing.
DTW: But don't they respect him because he's the best player?
STUDENT: He's not the best. He's good, but lots of other guys are better.
DTW: Academics is just the same. Most people have to work really hard at it. There are a few who get by without working very hard, but not many. And nobody likes or respects them very much.
Academics is not always analogous to sports, but in this case I think the analogy holds, and for whatever reason, it has usually made sense to my students, even the nonathletes.
Treat Failure As a Natural Part of Learning
If you want to increase your intelligence, you have to challenge yourself. That means taking on tasks that are a bit beyond your reach, and that means you may very well fail, at least the first time around. Fear of failure can therefore be a significant obstacle to tackling this sort of challenging work, but failure should not be a big deal.
My first job after college was in the office of a member of Congress. I didn't see the Big Boss very often, and I was pretty intimidated by him. I remember well the first time I did something stupid (I've forgotten what) and it was brought to his attention. I mumbled some apology. He looked at me for a long moment and said, "Kid, the only people who don't make mistakes are the ones who never do anything." It was tremendously freeing—not because I avoided judgment for the incident, but it was the first time I really understood that you have to learn to accept failure if you're ever going to get things done. Michael Jordan put it this way: "I've missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I've lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
Try to create a classroom atmosphere in which failure, while not desirable, is neither embarrassing nor wholly negative. Failure means you're about to learn something. You're going to find out that there's something you didn't understand or didn't know how to do. Most important, model this attitude for your students. When you fail—and who doesn't?—let them see you take a positive, learning attitude.
Don't Take Study Skills for Granted
Make a list of all of the things you ask students to do at home. Consider which of these things have other tasks embedded in them and ask yourself whether the slower students really know how to do them. For older students, if you announce that there will be a quiz, you assume they will study for it. Do your slower students really know how to study? Do they know how to assess the importance of different things they've read and heard and seen? Do they know how long they ought to study for a quiz? (At the college level, my low-performing students frequently protest their low grades by telling me, "But I studied for three or four hours for this test!" I know that the high-scoring students study about twenty hours.) Do your slower students know some simple tricks to help with planning and organizing their time?
These concerns are especially important for students who are just starting to receive serious homework assignments—probably around the seventh grade. There is a period of adjustment for most students when homework is no longer "bring in three rocks from your yard or the park" and turns into "read Chapter Four and answer the even numbered questions at the back." All students must learn new skills as homework becomes more demanding—skills of self-discipline, time management, and resourcefulness (for example, knowing what to do when they're stumped). Students who are already behind will have that much more trouble doing work on their own at home, and they may be slower to learn these skills. Don't take for granted that your slower students have these skills, even if they should have acquired them in previous grades.
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?