The two biggest reasons students struggle in school are that they either lack the prior knowledge or the soft skills they need to acquire and retain new information.
Students who lack prior knowledge usually don’t have the vocabulary and the experiences they need to help them learn. Without understanding the vocabulary and without the necessary experiences, they have nothing on which to “hook” the new knowledge. Prior knowledge is vital for reading comprehension and critical thinking and without it, students are at a serious disadvantage.
Students who lack soft skills are able to learn but the process of learning required by many classrooms mystifies them. They do not know how to take notes in a way that facilitates review, they do not know how to study from their notes, they don’t know how to ask for help when they struggle, they may not even know how to monitor themselves in order to recognize that they are struggling to begin with.
Unfortunately, most supports we provide for students do not address the root causes for student failure – lack of prior knowledge and lack of soft skills. Instead, we attempt to address specific deficits, work to help students complete particular assignments, or try to re-teach everything the student did not get the first time. But, if we wait for kids to fail before we intervene, we are setting them up for even more failure. That is because by focusing on remediation alone, students are constantly facing backwards rather than forwards. And, the more that they are backwards focused, trying to catch up and keep up at the same time, the more frustrated students become and the more hopeless they feel.
Waiting for students to fail before providing them with the supports they need also creates another problem. If students are having difficulty understanding a concept and you wait until the unit is over to go over that concept again, then they have to stop and re-start the study of the concept at the same time they are also being asked to learn new concepts. Waiting for students to fail before providing them with supports means that they have an even harder time learning because the instruction becomes disjointed.
Instead of asking how we can help our students catch up, we should be asking how can we make learning more likely the first time around? Stay tuned. In the next post in this series, I’ll show you how.