Why are some students hard to teach?

Two questions: Why are some students hard to teach? Does it matter? 

Working with children and making a difference in their lives are two major factors in drawing people towards school teaching as a career. Student indiscipline and teacher stress and burnout are consistently reported as factors pushing teachers away from teaching. Teachers report that the burden of paperwork, performance management, long working hours contribute to the stress.

The large majority of teachers cope with all this and don’t give up. Same hard-to-teach students, same paper mountains. Week by week and year by year they judge whether they can do the job or not, putting everything on the balance and coming up with the answer ‘I can do this.’ Is their survival a matter of judgement?

The large majority of students cope with school rules, teachers, growing up, getting things wrong and putting them right. Philip Wexler in is book ‘Becoming somebody – toward a social psychology of school’ (Publication Date: May 3, 1992 | ISBN-10: 0750700262 | ISBN-13: 978-0750700269) found that the work that children valued most in three New York high schools was that of growing up and becoming somebody. Despite all the distractions of  schooling, the hard work and the homework.  And yet given the same demands and rewards there are the ones who don’t thrive, who get into trouble but still don’t cooperate and often are removed from school. What’s the difference between a student who’s easy to teach and a student who is hard to teach? Are students making a judgement in balancing ‘being good’ with ‘becoming somebody’ and some finding it too difficult to do.

Recently (see Sept 14 2013 blog http://pedagoginthemachine.wordpress.com) Frank Furedi talking about ‘teachers’ real work’ “spoke about how there is an art to teaching, and said that ‘teaching is meaning work’ – that we each must seek to make meaning in our individual contexts. As such, pedagogical research should be organic. ‘What works for some does not work for others. Straight up lectures by some people can set the room on fire. All an RCT can do is tell us the difference between 2 groups after say a year. It doesn’t take into account contextual differences.’ He ended by saying that ‘the aim shouldn’t be research and evidence – it should be how to cultivate professional judgment.’

I’ll be the judge of that 

When I’m interacting with a student I am making judgments continuously, taking into account a whole range of factors and influences. You could call these pedagogical judgments. Similarly although I can’t know what the students are thinking, I can see the action they are producing, in cooperating, working hard and contributing or not. Each action represents a decision arrived at through matching what they are being asked to do with their values and beliefs – making a judgment in the moment. This unavoidably leads to the idea that both teacher and student are active agents in the learning process. Information as raw data might be neutral in value terms, but once it becomes classroom material both its distribution and reception are subject to the agency of the teacher and the learner. The seven times table didn’t project itself into my head when I was six, despite the fact we recited it as a class every day.  I was looking out of the window – the view was better.

In making a judgment we view the things being judged through the lens of our values and beliefs, whether we are judging something distinct like the geometrical similarity of two patterns or something indistinct like whether or not to pay attention to learning the seven times table. When Frank Furedi talked about the purpose of pedagogical research being to cultivate professional judgment, with technical, aesthetic, ethical, and virtue dimensions, in my opinion he is suggesting that the reflective teacher can be the researcher of their own practice. If this is true, it’s not good enough for a teacher to say, for example; ‘I’m an empiricist, I believe in objective truth and the positivist scientific method as the only way to arrive at it’, if they don’t open up their beliefs and values to critique. Holding to epistemic virtues* demands it, whether the critique comes from within or without.

Does it matter?

If as the results of some students being hard to teach ( or in others’ language; disruptive, disengaged, challenging, uncooperative or worse) is that teachers leave the profession and students suffer segregation and the harmful effects on their life course of exclusion from school, then it does matter. For individual school or academy chain managers it might seem to be productive to eliminate the hard-to-teach students, for the superficially fair and socially just reason that they adversely affect the learning of others, but the job of the epistemically virtuous teacher is to look beyond this structural excuse, at what to change to make a difference for all students, not just the easier ones.

What can we do about it?

It’s the subject of my next article: ‘Being effectual is better than being right.’


*Note: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemic_virtues

The epistemic virtues, as identified by virtue epistemologists, reflect their contention that belief is an ethical process, and thus susceptible to the intellectual virtue or vice of one’s own life and personal experiences. Being an epistemically virtuous person is often equated with being a critical thinker.

Note that in this context curiosity bears the modern connotation of inquisitiveness, in contrast to the medieval connotation of attraction to unwholesome things.

These can be contrasted to the epistemic vices such as:







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