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Volume III Issue III

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Resistant and Reluctant Learners

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


In the workshops I lead as an ASK Group Senior Consultant, a question which comes up quite often is, “What do I do when a student refuses to do any work?” This question often comes from a new teacher who has not yet developed the knowledge and skills to stimulate and challenge students and keep them actively involved in the learning process. But this question is not exclusive to novice teachers. Veteran educators also encounter resistant or reluctant learners who do not put forth effective effort or readily assume responsibility for their own learning; these teachers, too, struggle with what to do in such situations.

Jon Saphier, President of Research for Better Teaching (RBT) and author of The Skillful Teacher, wisely says that the better we can identify the cause of the behavior, the better we can plan our interventions. Given that children enter school with open minds and intrinsically motivated to learn, we have to figure out what interferes with the learning process. Clearly, something happens along the way. Often student efforts or behaviors are not productive or perhaps even recognized and they become what we call “unmotivated” when they repeatedly fail. With repeated failure and discouragement, they eventually dismiss the school setting as “not for me” and they act out, tune out, or drop out.

Principals must constantly be focused on keeping student learning as the unwavering goal of every teacher. By monitoring classroom achievement data on a regular basis, the principal has a clear picture of which students are lagging behind. We know that what gets monitored by the school leader gets attention in the classroom. So when we engage teachers in conversations on a routine basis about strategies to engage students, especially those who are not learning, there is a greater likelihood that teachers will expand their repertoire of behaviors that will encourage and support student learning. We must establish the expectation that teachers never give up on a student and that every teacher must continue searching for that undiscovered ingredient that will turn a student around. We must create the conditions for collaboration and expect teachers to work regularly with their peers to learn new ideas and fresh approaches to working with students who are resistant or reluctant learners. Just for the ASKing! this month is focused on ways to help teachers teach students who do not seem to want to learn.

Create Safe, Non-threatening Learning Environments. Classrooms must be places that are physically and psychologically safe. There is no room for sarcasm, put-downs, or embarrassment. Eric Jensen notes that students who feel emotionally or physically threatened will either withdraw or lash out. Spencer Rogers writes, “There is one thing that students of all socio-economic status, cultures, ethnicities, abilities, and genders have in common. They are all human learners with the same core emotional needs. These essential emotional needs drive all student behavior and motivation to learn. When students’ emotional needs are not met, they are unable to focus on learning and unwilling to monitor their behavior so that it is appropriate to the learning environment.” If students do not feel that they are a part of the classroom learning community, they find other groups or “gangs” in which they do feel welcome.

Attribution Retraining. Bernard Weiner, psychologist, provides guidance with his work on attribution theory. He points out that many people attribute their success or failure to the difficulty of the task or to luck. These people are making external attributions because of habit or a belief that they have no control over the events in their lives. Others who believe that the controlling variables in their lives are their own ability and the effectiveness of their efforts make internal attributions and can monitor and adjust their effort to increase the level of their success. Many students, and adults, need to be engaged in attribution retraining so that when they make external attributions a teacher, parent, or friend responds in a way that says, given that you see the world that way, what might you do about it. As children approach adolescence, they are more likely to believe that others succeed because they are smart rather than as a result of effort. As educators it is important that we notice the attributions students make, not argue with them about their perceptions, but rather listen and respond in a way that helps them notice when their efforts pay off. We need to explicitly tell them that the work was difficult and that we realize the effort it took to accomplish the task. Avoid saying, “This is easy and I know you can do it.” Instead say, “This is hard and your effort can make a difference.”

Build Relationships. An important teacher action in building relationships is for the teacher to greet students with a smile and in an upbeat manner as the students enter the classroom each day. These friendly interactions set the stage for the learning that will follow. Linda Albert writes in Cooperative Discipline that students need to feel, “connected, capable, and contributing.” It is important to remember that a student’s sense of self-efficacy is increased when he or she accomplishes challenging tasks. When a student is moving in the right direction academically, the teacher should put positive comments in writing. When the student struggles with new learning, he or she can always refer back to the written word and be encouraged to keep trying. As leaders, we need to help teachers build a repertoire of ways to help students develop specific learning strategies rather than nagging or scolding for past failures. This lets the students know that the teacher believes that the student is capable of doing quality work. It is also important for a teacher to consistently tell classes of students what he or she appreciates about them as a group. And finally, we need to encourage teachers to remember that our students are people first and students second. When students feel genuinely cared about, it goes a long way to eliminate any resistance or resentment that can occur.

Make Learning Achievable. Robert Marzano tells us that students are more likely to put forth effort when three teacher practices are in place. He calls the first practice task clarity. He notes that when students clearly understand the learning outcome and know how their learning will be evaluated, they will respond more appropriately. A second practice that he points out is that when students feel that the learning goals and assessments are meaningful and worth learning, they will work toward the goals. Thirdly, Marzano says that students must see their potential for success. Students are much more willing to actively participate in the learning when they believe they can successfully learn and meet the evaluative expectations. In order to further make learning an achievable goal, a teacher should provide physical models that represent examples of what the learning will look like. Research has also found that students are much more willing to work toward a goal when they have some choice in how they will demonstrate their learning. Students do not like feeling as if they have no control or say in what or how they learn. The choice must be meaningful to the student and adhere to the standard that is being taught.

Provide Scaffolding. In her work on differentiation of instruction, Paula Rutherford explains, “Just as scaffolding is used to support buildings during the construction process, educational scaffolding provides support systems for students during the learning process.” The number of scaffolding supports a teacher can provide is limited only by the teacher’s imagination and willingness to provide them. It is important for a teacher to establish a learning environment where students have access to a myriad of scaffolding supports and where it is the norm for any and all students to use the supports until they are no longer needed. There should be no stigma attached to a student using the available scaffolding. It is essential that all students have the basic skills to be able to accomplish what the teacher is asking them to do. Scaffolding can be as rudimentary as having instructional supplies available for students who do not bring them to class, extensive charts and exemplars posted throughout the classroom, and the acceptable practice of students working with a partner or in small groups as learning is in the formative stages.

Check out two pages from Paula Rutherford’s Why Didn’t I Learn This in College? entitled Dealing with Unmet Expectations. Print out these pages and use them in a faculty or team meeting as the focus of a discussion about how to deal with unmet expectations and help more students be academically successful.



Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Resistant and Reluctant Learners.” Just for the ASKing! March 2006. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2006 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.