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Teach the Kids You Have

There is no substitute for getting to know every student.


I often teach in "troubled" schools and work with at-risk kids. I do so because the indomitable spirit and untapped potential of the children inspire me. Children reinforce my core belief in kid power and teach me a great deal about tolerance, resiliency and the human spirit.

Some teachers ask me, "What do you think of our kids?" The implication is that their children are damaged in some way. When kids create a body of work demonstrating their latent ingenuity and habits of mind, educators are quick to explain away such success. At times I'm accused of being a magic teacher. Occasionally educators notice that a particular topic interested students, or adequate time was provided, or a safe environment for risktaking was created, or sufficient materials were available, or the work was relevant, challenging or fun. Some or all of these variables may have contributed to learning, but the institutional response is to invoke theories for excusing sclerotic teaching practices. In other words, theories are employed to explain why student learning is aberrational.

Great educators are well versed in learning theories and have a huge bag of pedagogical tricks at their fingertips. Theory provides an invaluable context for understanding and articulating one's practice. However, way too many educational theories are used as diagnostic dead-ends that do little to improve the young people in our charge. Too often, such theories are used to excuse why students can't learn.

Multiple Ways In, One Way Out

When traditionally unsuccessful students experience success, some educators offer explanations like, "She must be a visual learner" or "He must be more kinesthetic." This refers to Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences theory, which demonstrated that everyone learns differently.

Educational theories are used as diagnostic dead-ends that do little to improve the young people in our charge.

Educators commonly apply Gardner's theory in one of two ways, both of which are wrong. They determine a student's dominant intelligence or learning style and then teach everything in that way to build upon a student's strength, or they teach nothing that way to develop other intelligences. Too often, the emphasis is on what the teacher does to the student as opposed to how to create the conditions for learning. Singing to a musical learner or drawing pictures for a visual learner confuse teaching with learning and shift agency away from the student. I often sense that schools tolerate various nontraditional learning styles but harbor suspicion that they are inferior to the classic "sit-down-and-shut-up" method.

Is a student defined by one learning style? Does that style apply to every task at any time of day and across all disciplines? Is "morning person" a learning style?

The problem with classifying students isn't the form of diagnosis; it is the idea that humans need to be classified at all. Do we really help children by taking them out of their old boxes and sorting them into new ones?

Our obsession with finding mechanistic explanations for human behavior is time consuming. We can spend time on diagnosis with little left for actually collaborating with students in meaningful learning adventures. Classrooms are not sterile laboratories where a change in one variable reliably predicts an outcome. Good teaching and learning are far more fluid, serendipitous and personal.

Differentiated Instruction

Districts spend a fortune hiring consultants to train teachers in differentiated instruction. However, it is dishonest and dangerous to acknowledge the obvious and then invent schemes through which kids are taught the very same skills and content in various ways. Teaching 10- year-olds to divide fractions is torturous and useless even if you sing, dance, chat or bake cookies while doing so. Such differentiated instruction too often focuses on what the teacher does, leaves the curricular content unchallenged, and forces kids to your destination, regardless of their path. That troublesome scenario represents the best case. Too often, failure to achieve an objective in the allotted time leads to lower grades or other punitive sanctions.

A teacher who reads, engages in professional activities outside of class, and knows each student will help them progress forward. Students grow when the adults around them dare to know them and cherish their individual gifts. When schools embrace theories dividing people into different piles, interest is maintained by inventing new categories. New intelligences are discovered. You can spend your career keeping up with the latest intervention strategy or excuse for failure. Alternatively, you can teach the kids you have.

Gary S. Stager,, is senior editor of District Administration and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate (