No Nonsense Educator

Why Won’t He Do What I Know He Can Do?

We have all known a student who we believe can do something, but are frustrated when day in, day out they produce very little work or appear to be making very little effort to engage in the work we have assigned.

I have heard the following statement many times.

“He can do more than he is letting on.”

This statement is an indication that the teacher believes that that the student has skills that they are withholding or declining to demonstrate.  It implies that the lack of ‘performance’ is somehow based in a failure of commitment, motivation or effort on the student’s part.    I would like to suggest something.

If the student really can do something confidently, they will.

Now, I am not talking about the student who sits with their friend chatting about what happened at lunch and doesn’t complete classroom tasks. I am not talking about the student who drags their feet during the lesson and if you ask them to finish the work before they go out to lunch, does so to a high standard in about a minute and a half.  I am talking about the student who is genuinely pained and might even be distressed or shut down when they are asked to perform a task (often reading out lout or writing).  I am talking about the student who is the struggler. Someone who is desperate to fly under your classroom radar. Someone who will likely ask to go to the toilet every time you being a writing task and stay there for so long that you wonder if they have encountered some misfortune on the way back to your classroom.

You may have observed this student writing words with apparent ease in your phonics lesson or avidly ‘reading’ a book of their choice (likely a Treehouse or Diary of a Wimpy Kid book), but when it comes to participating and completing work in a lesson, their skills seem to dry up. 

In order to understand what might be going on with this student, let’s consider performance.   Performance doesn’t simply come about because someone has some skills.  It is made up of a mixture of competence and commitment.   In exploring these concepts, I am drawing on the work of Ken Blanchard in his book, Leadership and the One Minute Manager. This book is absolute gold for anyone who supports another person to develop in some way. It is designed for workplaces, but the concepts work for classrooms too.  

Think about when you develop your unit plans and outline your success criteria.  I like to arrange this into ‘I can’ and ‘I know’ statements so that it is really clear what is being learned. This helps me to use the appropriate pedagogical techniques to ensure that I am providing enough rehearsal and spaced practice for strong skill and knowledge development.  In literacy, these ‘I can’ statements might be:

  • I can decode words containing the initial code automatically
  • I can decode words with the ‘advanced’ code automatically
  • I can decode multisyllable words consistently
  • I can read a range of irregular high frequency words
  • I can write words containing phonics patterns that I have learned
  • I can write a range of irregular high frequency words
  • I can write a simple sentence on my own
  • I can write a compound sentence on my own
  • I can write a series of sentences about the same topic
  • I can use a range of vocabulary to connect sentences and paragraphs
  • I can think about what I am reading and retell what I have read in my own words
  • I can answer different kinds of questions about what I have read

  • I know that sentences must make sense
  • I know that capital letters are used at the start of sentences and proper nouns
  • I know what proper nouns and common nouns are
  • I know that punctuation makes me change my voice when I read
  • I know that punctuation can changes the meaning of a sentence
  • I know that prefixes and suffixes change the meaning of a word
  • I know what common prefixes and suffixes mean

This is not an exhaustive list, but gives you an idea of where competence fits in to performance in literacy.

The second aspect of performance is commitment.  This is often a value laden word that can trigger some people to be resentful.   I once had a colleague who refused to even discuss this idea saying that I was asking her to say that she was not committed to her job. It doesn’t mean anything of the sort.   Commitment refers to the confidence and motivation a person feels. I have the confidence to rework a duty roster, but my motivation to do so may waver a bit.  That doesn’t mean that I am not committed to my job.

In order to put yourself in your students’ shoes, think about a task that you avoid because you are not confident. For me, it’s reverse parking.  I reverse parked for my driving test (MANY moons ago) and have probably done it about 5 times since then. I will park 3 blocks from where I am going in order to avoid it.  Can I do this thing?  Sure. I did it for my test (and 5 times since) but do I feel confident and motivated to do it?  No way.   The reason that I avoid reverse parking is that I am absolutely convinced (in the irrational way that comes with feeling unsure) that when I start to reverse park, every person on the street is going to stop and stare. That if I mess it up, they will all notice and my failure will be on display for every man within a 2km radius to say, “See, I told you women can’t drive”.   Now, this is ridiculous.  My attempt at parking is not even a blip on anyone’s radar (except for the owners of the cars either side of the car space). They couldn’t care less what I was doing, except that that’s not how I FEEL. 

When your struggling reader or writer is resisting you it’s because they feel exposed and vulnerable. They are so scared that they are about to make a fatal blunder that they would rather sit there (and risk getting into trouble) than open themselves up to feeling like a useless failure.    These students are often told to ‘just try a bit harder’ or ‘apply themselves’, which is usually well-meaning, but most unfair.    Our attempts to motivate and encourage may even push the student into a fight/flight/freeze response that sees them upending tables, shutting down or ‘storming out’ of the classroom.

We cannot separate emotions and learning. They are interdependent and interrelated. In next week’s post I will talk about how we might adjust our expectations and support our students who are struggling in their reading and writing.   This is also the subject of my next Teach Along – Supporting Struggling Readers. If you would like to learn more about how to support the struggling readers in your class, click here.

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