Sunday, January 22, 2017

When Learning Doesn't Happen, Who's Fault Is It?

       When something goes wrong, is it your fault or is it someone else's fault?

       You're late to work, you fail a class, you break a shoelace, you gain weight, you run out of milk.  Small things and big things; they happen every day.  Are you the kind of person that says, "It's my fault." most of the time when things go wrong; or are you the kind of person who says (essentially), "It's someone else's fault." most of the time when things go wrong.

       Maybe this isn't a fair question.  Certainly there are times when it is my fault and times when it is someone else's fault.  You can't answer such an abstract question with a definitive answer one way or the other.  Well, OK.  Maybe so.  But surely you know someone who almost never takes responsibility for anything that happens in their life.  When they are late to work; it's because of slow drivers and red traffic lights.  When they gain weight; it's because other people are constantly offering them sweets.  When they lose a game of cards; it's because the cards weren't shuffled well.

       When middle and high school students struggle to learn in school; Who's fault is it?  Who is ultimately responsible for their learning?  Who bears the greatest ownership for whether or not they learn math and English and science?  There is no doubt that this is a controversial question.  This is a question in which any answer would have troublesome consequences.  Another way to ask this question is, "Do we blame the schools, or blame the students?"  Unfair you say?  Maybe.  Probably.  But this is a question that educators get often.  I am going to begin by looking at the extreme answers.

1) It's the student's fault

       This view says that students bear the ultimate responsibility for their own learning.  The teacher's job is to teach.  It is the student's job to learn.  If the student isn't learning, they should seek extra help; they should ask questions; they should try harder.  Middle and high school children aren't babies; they understand how school "works".  They should advocate for themselves.  It's their life.

       The problem with this view, in my opinion, is the question of age-appropriate responsibility that is given to students.  My father used to say that the trouble with kids is that they act their age.  In addition to learning math and English and science, students are also learning how to be an adult.  They are learning about making good decisions.  Teenagers need structure; they need guidelines.  Sometimes a student is struggling in a subject and doesn't know what questions to ask.  Sometimes students are afraid to speak up in class in front of their peers.  Sometimes students don't realize the ramifications of not learning.  While, of course we want our students to be responsible for their own learning, we can't expect an 11 year-old 6th graders nor a 15 year-old 10th grader to act like a fully responsible adult at all times.

2) It's the teacher's fault

       This view says, if students aren't learning, then the teacher isn't doing his/her job.  Teachers are trained to teach and to help students to learn.  The teachers went to college to learn how to teach and they spent two or more years as full-time, untenured teachers to learn "in the field".  If students aren't learning, then it's the teachers fault.

       The problem with this view, (again) in my opinion, is the idea that all students learn in the same way; or that teachers should be experts in all student learning styles after a couple of years of practice.  In fact, students are very, very different in their learning styles.  Some learn from only listening, while others have to listen and practice, while others have to hear it in a different way before they "get it".  Middle and high school students have varied past experiences in their education and teachers are always faced with students of varying abilities.  Some students don't speak up much and teachers have to find a way to understand how well they are catching on to the learning objectives without hearing (verbally) directly from the student.  And some students are burdened with problems at home that have priority over their education in the student's mind.


       So who's fault is it?  If we can't say it's the student's fault and we can't say it's the teachers fault (and we still have learning that isn't happening) then who's fault is it?

       We live in a world that loves to point fingers and loves to have clear, simple "right/wrong" answers.  We want to have a villain that we can point to; someone to blame; someone to yell at.  Everything is a soccer game with winners and losers.  We don't like complicated things, complex things.  These are too hard to understand and too hard to fight.

       Who's fault is it?  I think it depends on the person that you are.  If you are the type to take responsibility for your actions, then you probably lean toward the side that says students should be responsible for their own learning.  If you are the type to blame others and nothing is ever your fault, then you probably lean toward the side that says the teachers and the schools are to blame.  As for me--and as an educator--I take a middle-of-the-road view.  Sure we want students to be responsible, but teachers should do everything that they can to help students to learn.  It's not enough to just "teach".  If students aren't learning, teachers and schools should ask why.  They should take a hard look at these students and provide whatever help they can.

       I believe that our public schools are constantly concerned about students who struggle to learn.  Most of time, these students get the help that they need.  But sometimes they don't.  In the end, as with so many things in life, I believe that we have to work together to help our most vulnerable students to get the help that they need.  Learning requires a little struggling for everyone.  For those who can't meet this struggle, we should all be there to help them.

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