An old friend provided me with a wonderful opportunity. She’s the Middle Level Director for a city in the South. I’ve been doing workshops for her schools and teachers for about 14 years. A couple summers ago, I worked with the teachers at two schools that have high populations of at-risk and hard to teach students. I introduced the teachers to several strategies for reaching these students. The following winter, I returned to the district and got to spend a day at each of the schools. I was able to conduct classroom observations and focus groups at the schools.
Surprisingly (at least it was an “aha” for me!), I didn’t see out of control classrooms or bad teaching. What I did see was order and a lot of competent (and in some cases outstanding) direct instruction.
Even so, I often only saw about half of each class “engaged” (showing signs of being on task) and, in conversations and focus groups, teachers indicated that many students don’t care, won’t do the work or study, and there isn’t much support from home.
One teacher called this “lazy disease.”
But maybe it wasn’t just laziness or home support. Maybe, for some kids, how we teach doesn’t work for them. Any parent with more than one child knows that they learn in different ways. Why do we expect our students to all learn the same way?
This helped me realize that some students need more than direct instruction.
The teachers also unknowingly provided me with the answer to the question, “When do you know that you need to do more than direct instruction?” The answer: “When the students don’t care, won’t do the work or study, and there isn’t much support from home. When they have hard to teach students.” Simple, right?
I think that maybe direct instruction isn’t enough for these students because it focuses more on the content than on how students might learn it. We are often quick to get frustrated with hard to teach students exactly because we covered the material and they didn’t learn it.
And yet shipping companies, such as UPS, would never think to say that they “delivered” a package if a customer did not receive it. It might be accurate to say they left the package on the porch, but it isn’t “delivered” until the resident actually gets the package. Dewey puts it a little differently:
Teaching may be compared to selling commodities. No one can sell unless someone buys. We should ridicule a merchant who said that he had sold a great many goods although no one had bought any. But perhaps there are teachers who think they have done a good day’s teaching irrespective of what people have learned. There is the same exact equation between teaching and learning that there is between selling and buying. (Dewey, 1933, p. 35-36)
Underserved populations, including underachieving students from all learning styles, career aspirations, cultures, and socioeconomic levels deserve a quality education.
It is not surprising that improved instruction, which involves students in meaningful, engaged learning, is viewed as a remedy to the growing concern over the high social and economic cost of large numbers of disengaged and at-risk youth. Identifying practices which help these diverse populations learn well is a step toward creating an educational system intent on serving all students. Finding out what motivates our underachieving and hard to teach students will help inform and equip teachers in the struggle to lead all students to academic achievement.
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Chicago: Henry Regnery.