As an educator, you can absolutely help struggling learners to succeed in terms of the lessons you’re trying teaching today and the challenges they’ll face tomorrow, 10 years from now and beyond. You can help make sure that kids have the tools they need to not only walk across the stage and confidently accept that high school diploma, but to accomplish anything they set out for themselves in the coming decades.
Let’s begin our discussion by looking at some numbers. According to one recent study, approximately 1.22 million students repeated a grade between kindergarten and high school during the 2014/2015 school year. Interestingly, a full 76% of these were general education students who had not been previously identified as having a disability or learning impairment of some kind. Similarly, the National Assessment of Educational Progress from the United States Department of Education revealed that a large number of high school seniors who graduated last year were actually unable to read at a 12th-grade level. To make things worse, one out of every four couldn’t read at even the most basic level.
Yet the most critical thing to understand is that for many students, their struggles don’t end once they graduate. Many students who struggle academically also go on to struggle throughout the rest of their lives in a wide range of different ways. However, they certainly don’t have to—at least, not anymore.
It should come as no surprise that the answer to all of this begins and ends with two beautiful words: “great teaching.” All it requires is a bit of essential perspective. In other words, you just have to keep a few key things in mind.
The Art of the “Useful Failure”
One of the side effects that often comes along with being a struggling learner is a constant sense of frustration. Such students experience failure after failure and feel like there is nothing they can do about it. Therefore, one of the most important steps you can take to help struggling learners succeed beyond school involves teaching them they aren’t powerless. In fact, there is something they can do about their failures. In short, they can learn from them.
The term “useful failure” shares a lot in common with the old phrase “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” It ties into the idea that every failure is really a valuable learning opportunity. All we need do is learn to recognize it for what it is and be willing to take advantage of it.
Failure, both in educational environments and in the workplace—can be a good thing because it teaches us resilience. We ultimately learn how to accept failure and come back stronger for it. It increases our knowledge and, as a result, our ability to make more effective decisions in the future. It also increases our motivation—if we try to do something once and don’t succeed, we can and should want to come back and try harder next time.
All of this is essential not just to a struggling learner, but to who that struggling learner will become later on in life. As an educator, your goal is not only to teach students about the art of the useful failure but to turn them into people who don’t fear failure at all. Instead, they welcome it.
Collaboration is King
Another one of the most important ways that you can help struggling learners to succeed beyond skill involves teaching them the importance of collaboration as early as you can. Indeed, this is something that accomplishes two major benefits essentially at the exact same time.
First, it creates a supportive and nurturing environment where everyone in a classroom can be a teacher. Many teachers, particularly of younger students, find it difficult to make sure that every last pupil gets the attention that he or she needs to excel academically. Creating lessons that both encourage and demand a higher level of collaboration lets students not only help themselves but also one another.
Likewise, collaboration is something that will be incredibly important as students graduate from school and enter the workforce. According to one recent study, a full 86% of employees who responded to a survey cited a lack of collaboration as one of the chief contributors to workplace failures. Another study revealed that 39% of surveyed employees said that people within their own organization did not collaborate enough on a regular basis.
The need to collaborate won’t just help struggling learners by allowing them to tap into their peers. Ultimately it’s something that will only get more important as time goes on.
Every student is a little bit different, and students struggle to learn for wildly different reasons. But simply acknowledging this is one thing—actually doing something about it is another matter entirely. This is in large part why personalized, intimate learning environments are so critical. They help play to a student’s natural strengths, regardless of what they happen to be. In this way they build confidence that allows them to meet any challenge they face.
Personalized learning itself can take many forms. Sometimes, educators need to adapt the scope of their lessons based on unique assessments of the existing knowledge, skills and any gaps of the students their working with. Personalized hints or prompts can also be helpful, as they are yet another way to play to a student’s existing strengths and use them to everyone’s advantage. It almost always involves adapting the complexity or presentation (or both) of a particular piece of content based on how a student is capable of learning.
It’s also something that research shows doesn’t just work, but works incredibly well. In 2015, for example, a study was conducted that encompassed 11,000 students at 62 different schools across the country. It was revealed that those students who were exposed to personalized learning made greater gains in areas like math and reading than students in more traditional classrooms. Not only that, but the longer the students experienced personalized learning the greater those achievements actually became.
But the true benefit of this in terms of life goals is that personalized learning doesn’t force a student to try to absorb material in the way that works for “everyone else.” There’s no-one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Instead, it teaches them more about how they like to learn in a way that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
In the End
In the end, the biggest way that you can help struggling learners is to instill within them the types of lessons that will stay with them long after their time in the classroom has ended. Boosting their academic confidence to the point where they can’t help but excel during their educational career is important, but it is one small part of a much larger story.
At some point that educational career is going to end and when that day comes, they’ll need to remember more than just lessons about trigonometry or the fall of the Roman Empire. By playing to their strengths using methods like those outlined above, you’re ultimately doing more than just empowering them academically. You’re giving them a rock solid foundation that they will use to slowly build what will become of the rest of their lives. Ultimately, you’re giving them the most important benefit of all in terms of your relationship with your students as an educator. You’re giving them the tools necessary to believe in themselves, letting them enjoy success in the world beyond school for years to come.
None of this would be possible without great teaching, which is why educators are—and will always be—such a pivotal part of the society that we share.
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