Afrika Afeni Mills

BetterLesson Instructional Coach and Manager of Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning

Anyone who has spent time around young children knows how curious and wonder-filled they are. When my son was five, 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. In his Education Week article, Deconstructing Disruption in the Classroom, Josh Parker notices the same. 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 backgrounds 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 Kleinrock does 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 five. 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?”

I don’t  believe that there are students who don’t want to learn. 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.

Recommended BetterLesson strategies to explore:

Connecting with Students’ Communities

Creating an Inclusive Learning Environment

I Wish My Teacher Knew

Integrating Inclusive Content

Personalizing Learning With Genius Hour

Windows and Mirrors