Every Student Wants to Learn, We Just Need to Teach Them

Apr 17, 2019 12:00:00 AM

by Afrika Afeni Mills

Anyone who has spent time around young children knows how curious and wonder-filled they are. When my son was 5, we'd drive around and he would ask about the meaning of every road sign. I mean. Every. Single. One. It prompted us to buy him a book about road signs to help him learn more about them. I still have fond memories of him shouting, "Daddy, watch out for deers jumping out!"

This memory brings to mind a comment I hear from some teachers far too often, "Those kids don’t want to learn."

Truth be told? In my early days of teaching, I thought and, to my shame, said the same thing to students. I distinctly remember a day when I was very frustrated with what appeared to me to be my students' lack of focus. I instructed the students who wanted to learn to sit in the front of the class, and the students who didn't want to learn to go to the back of the class. I had oppressive ways of interacting and being with my students that I needed to recognize and unlearn.

How do we go from being familiar with the insatiable curiosity of children to thinking that they are no longer interested in learning? Do we stop to question the origin of this perception? Instead of blaming students for what may appear to be their lack of engagement, we should have the humility, vulnerability, wisdom and professional maturity to recognize and admit our own need for further learning and development. We need to ask the following questions whenever tempted to think of students as not wanting to learn.

Who doesn't want to learn?

Which kids are we referring to? For me, it was the students I had a hard time relating to, and who didn't learn like I learn, or how I felt like teaching. There was always so much to learn and do, and it just felt simpler to stick with teaching approaches that felt natural for me instead of adopting a new mindset or way of being. But that was my problem, not my students'. There was so much for me to discover about other ways of learning that were beneficial to me and my students. I just didn't know it yet.

They don’t want to learn what?  

Is the content I'm engaging my student in relevant to them? Does it feel purposeful? When choosing literature to read, have I taken my students' strengths, interests, experiences or background into consideration, providing them with both windows and mirrors? Are we connecting their math content to learning about U.S. currency from a social justice perspective? Are we connecting their science content to studying about food deserts and clean water? Do we avoid challenging discussions, or integrate topics like freedom, power, misperceptions about the continent of Africa, equity/equality, homelessness, #BlackLivesMatter, climate change, stereotypes and the history of enslavement into our instruction as Liz Kleinrockdoes with her third-grade students?

We didn't all learn about these topics when we were students in the grades we teach, or even in our teacher-preparation programs, but there are so many resources available to support us personally and professionally—books (including audiobooks that we can listen to while commuting and doing chores), webinars, documentaries, podcasts and resources shared on social media. The Strategic Educational Research Partnership has many open education resources of high interest. My favorites are WordGen Elementary, WordGen Weekly, Social Studies and Science Generation units of study which incorporate word study, debate, readers' theater, writing, science and math.

They don't want to learn how?

When I think about teaching approaches, it reminds me of love languages. We tend to communicate love to others in the way we like to have love shown to us.

For example, I've loved words ever since I can remember. I wrote my first poem when I was 5. When my husband and I were dating, and even in the early days of our marriage, I wrote him so many poems and letters, and he bought me flowers every Friday for a while...until he realized that I didn't like receiving flowers. It turns out that his love language was receiving gifts whereas my love language was words of affirmation.

We kept missing each other because we weren't communicating in the ways we both needed. I think the same is true for teachers. We tend to teach how we like to learn, but we are most effective when we learn about our students and connect with them with content and in ways that are interesting and meaningful for them. For example, you can ask yourself, "Do my students have regular opportunities to engage in project-based learning in which they get to choose topics to explore, celebrate and contribute to their communities, and show what they know in a variety of ways?"

[pullquote position="right"]I don't believe that there are students who don't want to learn.[/pullquote] We need to equip ourselves to engage all students in learning experiences that are considerate of what they'd like to learn and explore, and how they'd like to learn and grow. They'll let us know if we ask. We just need to learn how to listen and respond.

An original version of this piece appeared on Better Lesson as "What Do You Mean When You Say 'Those Kids Don't Want to Learn'?"

Afrika Afeni Mills

Afrika Afeni Mills is Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with BetterLesson. She works with teachers, coaches and administrators to transform instructional practices and empower all students to thrive. A former teacher, administrator and prominent thought leader, she has been featured on podcasts discussing the school-to-prison pipeline and white fragility and co-presented Required Reading Reconsidered and Interrogating the Curriculum at conferences across the U.S. Afrika holds a master's degree in elementary teaching from Boston College's Lynch School of Education, where she graduated first in her class. Afrika believes that all teachers can be motivated, engaged, dynamic educators and leaders when provided with the supports needed to create student-centered, culturally responsive learning environments that inspire wonder and creativity and nurture diversity, equity and inclusion.

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