While teaching in California, I had a unique teaching assignment: Honors English 9 and Reading 10. So my school day went from thinking about how to hold "high-achieving" students to a high level of challenge in an honors environment to actually doing the same thing for "underachieving" students in a remedial environment. I loved the challenge and experience of watching non-readers become successful readers, writers and speakers while also pushing the higher performing students to stretch themselves to reach greater heights.
At times though I was discouraged by the underachievement of all of my students, as well as by my colleagues' messages about them. Colleagues told me to be happy with the honors students work when I KNEW they could do better. Or to accept the Reading students sub-par efforts when I ALSO knew they could do better.
Some Honors students and parents felt like I didn't understand that their students were the smart ones and thought they didn't require a true challenge. They just wanted a large volume of homework and readings so it looked like they had a hard class. They didn't want the thinking to actually be hard.
Some Reading students and parents wanted me to know all about why their students were already trying as hard as they could. They wanted work provided at their current level and hoped it would help them "pass" their other classes.
Both groups had the issue of, "Look, calm down. We are this kind of student. We will do work for you, but don't go thinking you are going to help us change very much." Which of course is the very moniker of a fixed mindset: "You can learn something, but you can't change your basic amount of intelligence."
I never felt like there was any reason for me to judge or to be particularly impressed with any student - in Honors or in Reading. My role is to ensure that students move forward in their learning and education. If we are distracted too much by accolades for success or shame for past performance, then we are not maximizing our time together.
Now that I work with many educators and schools to help them develop growth mindset cultures, I notice that in some schools, both higher achieving and lower achieving students are allowed to be under-achieving. But both groups can do so much more! When we allow people to move through school and life like this, we create adults who are underachieving...and who are unhappy. Without an idea of how to learn things at a high level, how to push themselves, and how to contribute with impact in the world - many adults feel lost and unfulfilled.
If my role as teacher is to ensure students are learning every day, then I can't spend too much time worrying or making a big deal either praising you for what you did before I met you, or for mourning your loss of time and achievement. Look, I'm not going to be impressed or depressed by where you started when you arrived in this classroom. My expectation is that you know that you're here to work. What I'm most interested in is how much have you learned today.
Here are three ways that we can coach other people and coach ourselves to tap into our inner drive, stop accepting underachievement, and help people grow.
Coaching Underachieving Learners: Three Moves for Educators
Address Belief: Teach that the brain gets stronger when we learn - that is what "smart" is.
Our brains are made up of a network of neurons, connected by trillions of connections, called dendrites. When we take time to learn new things, our neuron and dendrite connections grow, resulting in a smarter brain.
When we teach the above, show people videos of what that looks like, and walk them through related reflections and action plans, it has a marked impact on their motivation and achievement. (Blackwell, et al 2007) Beliefs affect our behaviors. Why put in a lot of effort and practice if you don't believe that it makes a difference? In that case it feels like a fool's errand. However when you understand those efforts matter, you are more likely to engage effectively and learn.
No matter where you are on any trajectory, you have the potential to improve. If you are living, you can be growing!
How to Get Smarter: Teach how to learn more.
When we truly believe that all people can learn from where they are, then we choose to explicitly teach strategies in addition to teaching content. In one class students claimed to be trying to do their math homework - they "just didn't get it". So the teacher and I (I was the instructional coach) asked them what trying looked like. Turned out, it looked a lot like staring...staring at their homework. While listening to music, texting, eating, and sometimes babysitting siblings.
So we did a playful exercise with them about what the two scenarios look like. One that cracked them up with lines like: "Open your math book. Stare at it, now stare harder. Is that trying?" Then moved to another way it can look: "Open your book to the assigned page, pull out your notes from this week, and compare your notes to the assigned problems for tonight. What do you notice?"
We went on to explicitly teach, and practice in the classroom, methods for study, for self-assessment of content, and how to ask a question upon return to class. And because students learned HOW TO LEARN MATH, they improved in math content.
At same the time, let's be sensitive to the Zone of Proximal Development or that Goldilocks spot where the work is not too easy and not completely outside of the learners stretch zone. Choosing proximal goals and helping students work towards those effectively will help chronic non-learners experience that feeling of success.
Meta Cognition: Teach reflective process behaviors that result in transferable skills.
People who improve pay a lot of attention to their process and their current state. Real pros will video tape themselves, ask for feedback from other highly qualified people, and seek out new strategies constantly on a path to continuous growth. We can teach our students to do the same so that they learn how to be a learner.
Being reflective in this way comes from having an internal locus of control. So reflective questions focus on self and process - things we can change in the interest of improvement. Here are some great questions to model for students, provide some classroom practice with, and to use to continue to grow as an educator:
Where am I going wrong?
What is working for me?
What can I learn from others?
How can I improve my work?
What do I do when it "gets hard"?
What is my next step outside of my comfort zone?
People on a path of continuous growth wake up every morning alive, excited, thinking about the day's goals and strategies, and full of hope for the next experience. It's an incredible way to live life. And it can be learned. So let's stop accepting the trend of underachievement and coach people to reach ever higher levels of intelligence, talent, and skill.
What are your thoughts on learners who are under-achieving? Use the comments below to share!
About Emily Diehl
Emily Diehl is Director of Professional Learning for Mindset Works. She works with K-12 educators, school leaders, and parents in helping to develop agency and life-long learning. She has contributed many lessons and experience to Mindset Works’ programs. You can reach her on Twitter @EmilyADiehl