Changing Habits: the “I can’t do it” syndrome.
I always rant on about how, with the right conditions and plenty of practice, anybody can become reasonably proficient, if not very good, at just about anything. But this week I began to have my doubts when my year 9s were given a reading assessment to do. Now, I don’t deny that this was a very challenging task. We’ve been studying a range of exemplary texts for a unit called “Language and Literature in English”. This is the last topic that students do in KS3 and it is designed to give them a good knowledge and understanding of the history of the English language and some of its most important figures and their works. By Christmas, we’d got as far as The Bard, having taken in Beowulf, Chaucer, Marlowe and several others along the way (edited highlights, I know). The task was to analyse and compare two or more of the texts that we had studied, a discursive essay if you will, and I dutifully gave them an example of a model essay that we marked using the criteria that I would be using to mark their work. They were given two lessons of prep time plus the week’s homework, and I circulated during lessons talking to them about their ideas and what they were going to write about. A few struggled initially – getting started is always the hardest part – but with a bit of discussion and a few suggestions they were underway.
With one exception. One student was completely adamant he couldn’t do it. So I tried the usual stuff – I sat with him for extended periods of time and explained in different ways what he needed to do. I gave him scaffolded questions to follow that he could simply work through. He’s been encouraged to try using drawings and images as well as words to create plans, which has worked in the past with creative writing pieces, but this time everything fell flat. When the assessment was underway yesterday I tried taking him out of the room and giving him an enthusiastic pep talk about how having a go is more important than worrying about getting it right, and about how rubbish I was at football when I was at school but would still play and have a go and occasionally do something useful, or how I’m always falling off my bike when I try to ride over wet roots but keep getting back on. But he just stood there grinning at me and shaking his head, telling me that he just couldn’t do it.
This is far as we got. Short of telling the kid what to write, I don’t know what else to do. But I still can’t believe that a student in year 9 can’t write ANYTHING about texts that have been read and studied closely in class. And I still firmly believe that this is more about habit and beliefs and a lack of self-confidence than an innate lack of ability. To give the kid credit, he’s had a very difficult upbringing and he is definitely not up to speed with his literacy skills, but the most worrying thing is that he genuinely believes that he can’t do things. Not that he can’t do things yet, or that he struggles to do them well, but that he simply can’t. In my opinion, our education system has created this individual. He’s been persistently told that he’s incapable of doing anything remotely academic and right from the start of his schooling he’s had people doing his work for him. No wonder he’s locked into this self-delusion of incapability. The most worrying thing is what on earth is he going to do when he leaves school? (Unfortunately the answer to that is probably self-evident).
So the question is, what can I do about this? I can’t just start waving Carole Dweck’s book under his nose and telling him he needs to develop a Growth Mindset. And it’s apparent that anecdotal stories of effort over achievement don’t inspire him with the confidence he needs. Short of spending lots and lots of time with him to try and change the way he thinks, which I simply can’t do, I really don’t have a clear solution.
One possibility is to ensure that there is consistency in the support this student gets across the whole curriculum. It’s imperative, now more than ever when he has little over two years of schooling left, that every adult that teaches him strives to foster independence and resilience in him. He has to be trained to know that he can have a go at anything. Nobody who works with him can take the easy option and do his work for him. Otherwise, in a few years, when people aren’t there to do everything for him, he will struggle and flounder clumsily through his life, while his peers go about building their futures.
The teaching and learning group that I currently lead is all about stretch and challenge. Last Monday was the start of a new cycle. I’ve written about this before: the group meets to discuss the topic and agree strategies to try in the classroom; a few weeks later we meet again to compare notes before sharing what we did with the rest of the staff. Over Christmas, I’d decided that I’d like our focus in this cycle to be on challenging our students to become more independent and resilient, to develop what’s being called grit. I’ve been at my new school a full term now and what I’ve realised is that, although the overwhelming majority of students are really friendly and welcoming and highly intelligent, they simply don’t possess the motivation and grit needed to excel. For a lot of these students, learning is not the main reason for being in lessons; rather, they see the classroom as another place to conduct their social lives. In The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall showed how different social and mental spheres co-exist in the classroom: students have their own individual mental world which interplays with the social world of their peers, which further interacts with the classroom world the teacher strives to create. I would argue that there are infinite more social worlds at work in the classroom that are constantly built, renegotiated, destroyed and resurrected by the interactions between individuals in the room. What we have to do as teachers is try to work with these structures and harness them to enhance students’ learning. Fostering resilience, independence and grit is the key to this.
So this half term our teaching and learning group will focus on strategies that help us to develop individuals that are self-reliant and mutually supportive. We’ve agreed on the following strategies:
- I’ve circulated some posters that we can refer to in the classroom when students decide they can’t do something, (one has the “brain, buddy, book, boss” sequence on; the other tells students to think of a question to help them out of a situation where they think they’re stuck)
- We’ll develop the habits of repeatedly proofreading and redrafting to further embed resilience (most of our students just want to finish a piece of writing quickly and then move on, rather than checking it carefully to make sure it’s the best it can be).
- We’ll share strategies that ensure all students read closely, actively and reflectively in most lessons.
- We’ll use “talk tokens” to ensure all students are involved in debate and discussion.
Clearly these are quite basic strategies, but what we are talking about here is initiating a culture change, and that can’t be done through a big grand gesture; it’s a question of gradually chipping away to undermine deeply embedded beliefs that have been built up over more than a decade. I just hope that we can get through to the student I referred to at the start of this post.