Sunday, April 10, 2016

Reflections on "Reluctant Learners"

If we're not talking technology these days, we are talking about engagement and reluctant learners.  In a district twitter chat #byronedchat April 6, my colleague @nposh2117 challenged the group by asking us to define reluctant learners.  A great discussion ensued, but it left me thinking about those kids for the next few days.

I think education has fallen into a bad habit of trying to label a broad set of behaviors because people believe if you can label it, you can clearly "fix" it.  Several great colleagues chimed in offering their interpretations:  
@RockyChat3 aptly defined a reluctant learner as "someone who doesn't move thru a prescribed curriculum as expected...which is an awful def."
@JanelleGroehler offered "Ss who has difficulty or doesn't have confidence in their skills or knowledge in engaging in the curric."

The Twitter conversation moved to a more difficult conversation of our expectations, as teachers and as a system.  Real challenges were posed as to what role conformity plays in our perceptions of "reluctance" and if conformance is really the goal.  Do "good" students conform to our expectations and "bad" students not?  Or is our goal to help the students learn by meeting them where they are?

I responded that night, and still believe, that this term is applied to a wide variety of kids for a wide variety of reasons-too wide to "fix" with a single solution, even one as temptingly neat and tidy as to just "increase engagement."  I see kids who are "reluctant" for so many reasons that to label them all the same is a tragic dis-service.  In twenty years of teaching, I have seen "reluctance" in:
  • students with high intelligence
  • students with low self-esteem
  • students with learning disabilities
  • students with bad home situations
  • students with personal issues
  • students who cannot see their futures
  • students who hate school, the subject, me, or some combination thereof
  • students. period.
I believe in being proactive in all things, and reaching students is no different.  I don't want to respond to behaviors or performances after the fact and respond only to the symptom, not the cause.  I truly believe the key to reaching all learners is through relationships.  Once solid relationships are built, then keys to the real causes of a student's "reluctance" can be uncovered and only then can real solutions be sought.  It may be as simple as needing encouragement, a different why, a different presentation, or a whole new structure.  

We can't treat these kids all the same, there is no magic method, system, or technology to "cure" them, especially since many of them don't need "curing" at all.  They need teachers and administrators who care about students as individuals, who are willing to engage with students in dialogue about their learning, and who will take risks to ensure learning for every student.


  1. Thank you Jen for your post. I connect on many levels, but 2 particular areas jump out at me.

    Relationships: I think that we as educators must have relationships with our students. This does not mean that we have to be best friends with them, but it does mean their must be a connection of respect and empathy.

    Proactive: This is huge! I think society has trained itself be be reactive. I was having a conversation with someone today about airports and how reactive airlines are to threats. Educators must see it coming before it its and make the appropriate move to shift the situation into success.

    Nice work!!

  2. I agree that the definition of reluctant learners can vary depending on the perspective of the person giving the definition. My heart really feels that a reluctant learner is one that is willing to learn but not willing to take risks in their learning. I often think that the unwillingness to take risks comes from the fear of being laughed at or ridiculed. I think my way of thinking comes from working with students with disabilities. They are willing to take risks but needs lots of support and encouragement to make it happen.

  3. Really interesting blog post. I think you really have a great point when you were talking about "reluctant learners" not fitting into one category. It is a challenge to us as teachers, to try and figure what that reason is. And like you stated, getting to know them as a person, understanding some of their passions helps prevent some of the challenges from occurring in the first place and increases their learning.

  4. After an ongoing situation with one student, I am seeing the difference between a reluctant learner and a non-learner. At one level, it makes me really sad to see a student so deeply disengaged that graduation becomes irrelevant. However, it clarifies how much spark is still present in so many of my other students who put on a reluctant facade -- it is just a matter of figuring out that connection, and in some cases, being patient for students' good days to really cover some ground. One experience from today: a girl said "I won't need Geometry for nursing anyways", and my response was "I feel like you actually do". She then took out her phone and Googled it, and 15 seconds later mumbled something like "I guess you do" and started doing her work, fully re-engaged. It was the funniest thing to watch. But I would love to spend more time in discussion looking at ways to make those moments the norm through proactive planning. Excited to share a PLC with you next year!

  5. Jen, I am so glad you took this conversation and reflected upon it more deeply. This subject is one that seems to come up all the time just as you said you've seen it every year have a different definition or way of looking at it. I do love your idea of building relationships and would love to hear some of your ideas for us switching schedules next year. How do you build relationships within the block schedule? I have found it very difficult for me to build relationships with each of my students this year. I only see them for 47 minutes each day this year and have 100 of them. I am curious to know how I can be better at this for the next year going into a block schedule with less students? Any suggestions you have would be much appreciated since Andy is taking you into his PLC next year :(