Sunday, August 3, 2014

Can't vs. Won't

A million years ago, when I was student teaching at Wiley Jr. High in Cleveland Heights, my co-operating teacher told me that there are two rules in teaching:

     1) Some students will not learn.
     2) There is nothing the teacher can do to change Rule #1.

Pedagogical reform reliably returns to the issue of Can. If we've heard it once, we've heard it a million times-- all students can learn (most recently with the addendum "to a high level of achievement"). And I do not disagree.

But our challenge is not Can. Our challenge is Will. And if we are unwilling to see the difference, we do our students a huge disservice even as we treat them with great disrespect.

I could probably learn conversational Chinese. I have a checkered past when it comes to learning foreign languages, but if I dropped everything else that I'm working on, really buckled down, and applied myself, I could learn to at least get by with at least some spoken Chinese, though what I would do with it I have no idea. But I've done a cost-benefits analysis, and I've concluded that while I could learn conversational Chinese, it's not really worth the time and trouble, and so I will not be taking on that project.

Because I am a grown-ass man, nobody gets too excited about my choice. Nobody finds me oppositionally defiant or learning disabled or just plain a problem. I'm just a person who made a personal choice about how to spend my time and effort.

But if I were seventeen years old, making the same decisions about identifying gerund phrases or understanding Hamlet or solving quadratic equations-- well, then We Would Have a Problem.

There's another helping verb that hovers unacknowledged over these discussions, and that verb is "must." As in the assumption that if we have a well-designed program of instruction being delivered by an effective teacher, well, then, the students must learn.

This assumption, embedded in so much reformster pedagogy, denies the students agency. It denies students the basic human ability to choose how to spend their time, attention, and effort. It treats them with the utmost disrespect, saying, in effect, "Well, of course, they will do as they're told. You just have to tell them correctly."

At its worst, this approach "creates" more defective students. After all, if I have a perfect instructional program in the box and it was unpacked and delivered by an instructor who did just what she was supposed to do, and the student still didn't learn, there can only be one explanation-- there's something wrong with the student. At least, that's the only explanation possible if I assume that the student is not a sentient human life form with the ability to make choices based on her own values and priorities.

Now, as a professional teacher, my job is to get students to choose to learn. I'm teaching high school students, so I face a different version of this challenge than my elementary colleagues. But for me, step one is to recognize that I can't make my students do anything, and they don't have to do anything. I can con, cheer, encourage, bribe, cajole, reward, punish, push, tug, trick, and sell them to get there, but at the end of the day, they will choose to learn or they will choose not to. And I tell them all this on day one, and it has been very successful for me, because the message they hear is that I will treat them with respect.

See, I think this is more than a pedagogical issue. I believe it's a moral and ethical issue as well. It is basic respect to treat other human beings as independent, autonomous entities. It is disrespectful-- I will even go so far as to call it evil-- to try to deprive other human beings of their ability to direct their own lives. Yes-- when you give people the freedom to make choices, they will sometimes make bad ones, but if you are not free to make bad choices, you are not free. Yes, there is a corresponding moral imperative to do all in power to help people make better choices, but there is a line, and we cross it at exactly the moment that we try to take other people's choices away.

It's not correct to say that students who are live in poverty or deal with a disability or come from an unstable home environment cannot learn. They can-- but they face obstacles that make the costs-benefits analysis more difficult, that make choosing to learn a less obvious or easy choice. Recognizing that is NOT "blaming the victim" nor is it "making excuses."  If we are going to encourage them to make sound choices, we have to understand what their choices look like so that we can show them choices that make sense, and arm them with the tools they actually need-- so that they will choose to learn. In some situations, we must also fight hard to make more paths available to them.

So we have a huge obligation to help students choose to learn and grow into their best selves. And we have a huge obligation to recognize their freedom, their ability to make use of their free will. Isn't the ability to make good choices one of the core abilities we want to foster in schools? And how does one learn to make good choices, if one never practices making choices?

A system where the individual students don't matter, where they have no choices, where they are simply pushed through a process like toasters on an assembly line, a system, in short, that assumes that students must be compliant and that they have no power to choose-- that is an immoral system. As invested as we may be in the students' outcomes, their lives are not ours to control.

We absolutely need to recognize that all students can learn. We also need to recognize that whether they will learn or not is their choice, not ours. How far we will go to help them choose well is our own choice, our charge, our responsibility.It's our job.


  1. Wow, Peter. I think this your best post yet, and that is saying quite a lot.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for articulating this so well!!!

  3. Best yet seconded; and that is saying a whole lot.

  4. Wonderful. This is such an important message to remember as we embark on a new school year. First, engage and inspire. Next, teach.

  5. AGreed! best and should be shared. I've said that I can inspire but can not motivate. Motivation, like discipline, comes from within. I went to night school for my edu degree (after my BA) and was in class with many who were in their 30's, 40's and 50's. Many conversations centered around that they had made poor choices when they were young and didn't value school as they should. Many said that nothing their teachers said would have made a difference. I have also had many students come back and admit that they hated me and hated learning and now they regret that. I ask what I could have done differently and almost all said that they were just stubborn kids and I had done a ton and they just didn't listen; because of many issues mainly at home.

  6. Note: I had to rewrite my comment because when I clicked the "Preview" button, my first draft vanished. This time I'll copy before I post.
    The deformers will never understand what you have so eloquently described. They think that by reason of their position, they know what is best. They lack self-doubt, and because of that, they do not listen. If a student was not doing well in my class, the question that had to be answered was why? Was there something I could be doing better, or was there something else that I needed to know about that student? The deformers never ask. They dictate, which is never a recipe for success.

  7. Peter, I have been thinking this for years but have been unable to articulate it, period. Your voice illustrates this troubling phenomenon beautifully.

    If the reformsters are right and we (teachers) demonstrate our competency by increasing test scores or our inadequacy by decreasing test scores, the message being sent to students regarding their academic work is that they play no active part; it's all on the teacher. I see this in my own classroom, with 8th graders. More students are approaching learning cynically, not really investing in their own education.

    Ironically, this corporate reform movement that gives such lip service to "choice" is actively removing choices from our students to the point that more and more of them stop caring about the great process of learning. I am not exaggerating when I say that this breaks my heart.

    Sadly, this phenomenon is barely, if ever, acknowledged in the "debate," and yet even if it were, the corporate reformers who control so much of the airwaves couldn't participate in a conversation about "can't v. won't," because so few of them have ever experienced it in real life, with real students.

  8. Absolutely, Peter. You have to respect the student, and one of the ways is to realize that it is their choice to learn. And that there are many ways to learn, and that each person learns in their own way. So many adults seem to think kids aren't really PERSONS, they seem to think they're, I don't know, some kind of sub-human, or a robot, or an empty box. But if the students feel you respect each of them as a unique individual, then they will respect each other, and (it may take some time), you will have a learning community.

  9. Thank you!!!!! You have amazingly put to words what I have been thinking/saying for years.

  10. I have been saying these same things (or some variation thereof) for the last 28 years. I'll continue believing them (and saying them) for however many more years I can muster here in the LA Mummified School District. Thank you for reinvigorating this optimistic skeptic with your consistently keen thoughts and concise, entertaining prose.

  11. Peter - Let me start with saying I love your posts. Yes that is to soften what comes next. i'd like to ask (and this is sincere with no hidden sarcasm) how you square this with students who are not neuro typical and who cannot learn from cause and effect? I'm think specifically of FASD although there may be elements of the same problems in other neurologically diverse brains.

  12. I am not a special ed teacher, but I think that for students with learning obstacles the difference between can and will may be more difficult to separate. I think in this case many times they want to learn, maybe more so than some neuro-typical kids, but they can become more easily discouraged and frustrated because they feel like they can't. That's why it's important, as Peter says, to give them the tools they need and to make more paths available to them. We have to help them play on their strengths and look for alternate ways for them to learn. Some kids can't learn as fast or as much or in the same way as others. Sometimes I wonder if there even is such a thing as "neuro-typical" or if there are just many personality and cognitive characteristics coordinated in different ways in different people. Not to mention different emotional factors and life circumstances that play a part. Which all means a factory, one-size-fits-all approach won't work. It doesn't mean each person is so different that each learns totally differently, but it means we have to understand cognitive learning theory to figure out what approaches work best with most kids but to also recognize other ways of learning and incorporate them for the students that need them. And for the students who for whatever reasons do not choose to learn that specific material at that specific time, maybe schools need to be set up differently to see if there are underlying causes that can be addressed.