5 Things That Prevent Students From Achieving Their Learning Potential

Tom Thorpe
February 23, 2022

Along with being certified in outdoor education, Thorpe presents regularly at local, national, and international conferences on English Curriculum, Technology, and Global Studies. He is Director of the REDI Lab program for Juniors and Seniors.

I recently asked a group of seniors in high school who applied and were accepted to join the REDI Lab at Colorado Academy how many of them would choose to go to school. The answers weren’t surprising; overwhelmingly these students loved learning and loved being part of a community, but these students wished they could show up to school differently and learn in a way that is representative of themselves: both the person they have come to know and the person they hope to become. When I ask colleagues similar questions about teaching or why they teach, many of them have similar grievances. What has happened that makes attending or working in schools unpleasant for so many?

When students, teachers, and administrators commute to school, all of us turn “that'' corner on the drive where our stomach churns and we fight the urge to turn around, and we all know what “Sunday sickness” is. Hitting those doors in the morning, students and teachers begin the process that has become fine-tuned over the years: we fracture our whole selves in order to safely enter and we put on the “emotional” armor worn specifically for the school day. Of course, much of this feeling is in response to social pressures and unmet expectations that come with the collision density around which schools are designed. Yet those in charge and those who design this experience, teachers and administrators, play the biggest role. We make choices and set the tone that teaching and assessment (or measurement) is done to students not with them.

The word “assessment” comes from the French word “assessoir”, which means to sit down or to take a seat. A hint of the original meaning can be seen in that root: teachers were meant to sit next to the student. While common teaching practices have wandered far, a shift is still possible. Schools need to prioritize designing and maintaining a culture of feedback by which, and in which, the partnership between teachers and students is re-centered on the student. This core shift, along with addressing the following five challenges, may fix education for everyone - students, teachers, parents/guardians, and administrators.

1. The college admissions process

Many students enter college every year terrified to learn all that they don’t know. Learning in our education model is scary, because the focus seems mostly to be on identifying deficits and filling gaps – high school students matriculate prepped to look for landmines of failure. And even prior to this, the college admissions process prevents students from achieving their full learning potential by forcing students to make decisions that are not connected to in-the-moment learning while they are forced to think about being someone they have never been before: a college student, learning and living without an established support structure. A student’s GPA creates the pathway for college choice and funding, but GPA does not have the space for students to choose what and how they learn best. Yet when they enter college they are expected to do this in classes, in residential life, and in making adult decisions. In short, the college admissions process does not prepare students for college or for life.

In elementary schools, students are encouraged to choose “just-right books”, they go through a process with a teacher to find books that are of interest to them and that fit their reading abilities, processing speed, and more. Part of the college admissions process demands that students abandon the “just-right way'' for them at that moment.

2. Perception of what learning and being a student looks like with no consideration of creativity

“It’s our belief that more creative, meaningful work emerges when we help each other undo the mindsets that limit us instead of hold each other up as creative individuals.”

- Sarah Stein Greenburg 

In the REDI Lab we believe that a human’s native language is creativity. In the beginning of the experience, students go through our process of unlearning to identify the ways in which their creativity needs to inspire their learning. This is difficult for some students, and easier for others. In many cases, unlearning becomes their project. For example, Sal wanted to make an amplifier for string instruments (he is a bass player) that uses wood to amplify the sound as opposed to an electric amp; however, fear interfered with his potential. He refused to play in front of an audience because he was convinced he was not good enough. This limited his ability to prototype and experiment; he would only play when he was alone, and that never happens in school, so his project stalled and never really took off. We know that creativity allows a learner to see multiple pathways to “undo the mindsets'' that interfere with meaningful, deep learning. For Sal, his process led him to a project of overcoming the fear that suppressed his creativity. 

3. There is little appreciation of emotions or nuance in learning

As an upper-level high school English teacher, I have a policy that I trust students will complete assignments when they have the time and when their thinking has evolved. There is always a student who gets nervous because they feel like they are doing something wrong by not submitting an assignment on a specific day or that they polish their work until it is unrecognizable to them. Student learning potential is prevented when students are forced to be one thing – an archetype or a fractured version of themself – instead of exploring all that they could be and all that they don’t know. In the REDI Lab, a chemistry teacher is also an entrepreneur and a designer and a math teacher is a dancer. None of us are only one thing, yet most schools encourage students and teachers to be one thing - a learner who is in search of the right answer. This results in students suppressing their emotions and the essence of what makes them human, and as a result limiting their learning potential.

4. Students are treated as empty vessels that teachers are supposed to fill, and teachers have the knowledge that students want and need

Students at the REDI lab are encouraged to drive their own learning.

Many teachers remember a grad school class or a professional development session where a well-intentioned facilitator pours water from a pitcher into an empty glass until it overflows. The demonstration is meant to help teachers recognize that students become overwhelmed to the point where they can’t learn anymore. Unfortunately, this also establishes a mindset that teachers possess what a student needs and that content is our expertise instead of recognizing that the knowledge that students crave is available to them more readily than we are able to deliver to them. The water pitcher and empty vessel vignette incorrectly puts the teacher at the center of student learning when we should be helping students find themselves in the center of their learning.

5. No agency or choice in what they learn

I am constantly challenging the fallacy, claimed by students, teachers, and parents alike, that learners are pre-wired to be better at math & science, STEM, or the humanities, and that a chemistry teacher, for example, is only good at chemistry. Why do adults act and teach in a way that encourages students to fit into preconceived stereotypes of learners? It hurts, it is detrimental, and it makes learning what a student does not know scary. Inherent in agency is trust - trust that students are curious and can’t escape learning and that teachers are professionals who can listen and break tasks into “digestible”, “bite-sized” chunks. Educators can practice their own agency to design elastic and responsive learning where students explore and experience to identify and articulate the best pathway for them to learn. At the core of student agency is buy-in and it's a tacit agreement between the learner and new knowledge that says, “I am ready, let’s do this!”. Student agency also creates an environment where students are allowed to show up as their whole selves.

Moving Forward

Earlier, I referenced that many schools offer learning that does not include enough experiments, following questions, and being curious. Learning oriented around these targets is messier, it’s harder, and it’s immensely more fun. We need this. The measurement and data collection in this type of learning is narrative, it’s visual, and it’s fluid. In other words, it's more human than the standards and assessment protocols that dominate this space. And we need this too!

Tom uses Unrulr with his REDI lab cohorts to develop and encourage student agency.