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September 1, 2021

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Why Do Students Disengage?

Instead of assuming students “don’t care,” investigate the barriers they may be facing.
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Instructional Strategies
September 2021 Fisher Frey header image
"Taylor isn’t motivated." How many times have you heard that about a student? It’s an explanation for lack of progress that, unfortunately, looks past what might be getting in the student’s way.
"I taught it. They didn’t learn it." This comment betrays an uninformed view of how learning happens. We have long known that a transmission-of-knowledge model, where students passively receive and then reproduce information, isn’t how learning occurs.1
"They just don’t care." This kind of reasoning reflects a lack of understanding about the importance of relevance and purpose for learning as a foundation for building from known knowledge to new knowledge.
Too often, we ascribe student barriers to learning in sweeping terms without looking closely at causes. That makes it impossible to see what we might do to make a positive impact. Better to flip the script and examine what’s getting in the way of learning, realizing that there are cognitive barriers to effective teaching.

Engagement Tip

Explain the value of learning, increase students’ ownership of it, and explore the habits of minds and mindsets to strengthen engagement in the classroom.

Nine Cognitive Barriers...

Drawing on extensive research on how students learn, Chew and Cerbin2 proposed a framework for understanding what might be getting in the way of being able to teach a student effectively. These barriers don’t only block students; they represent roadblocks to our own effectiveness. Figure 1 shows the nine cognitive barriers to learning, as well as teaching strategies that aim to overcome them.

...And How to Surmount Them

You can increase the precision of your teaching by aligning your efforts with the barriers you perceive in students. When confronted with a student who isn’t making expected progress, resist the urge to focus on outward behaviors alone. Learning struggles that manifest through similar behaviors often have far different root causes. Rather than simply attributing the behavior to disengagement, find out from the student what’s getting in the way. Talk with the student about where they’re having difficulty—and what’s helpful for them—with questions like:
  • Tell me about a time when you learned something you were interested in learning. What did you do to help yourself?
  • What’s an idea, topic, or project you’re doing right now that really interests you?
  • When you make plans, how do you carry them out?
  • What do you find to be easy about school? What’s more difficult for you?
  • What learning strategies would you recommend to a future student taking this class?
The idea is to keep the questions open-ended so the student can give you insight into how they perceive themselves as learners. In addition, the student’s responses can tell you about whether any ineffective cognitive habits and dispositions are getting in the way. The insights you glean from the conversation can inform your teaching responses.
In the video accompanying this column, 4th grade teacher Sara Ortega of Chula Vista Elementary School ­District in California holds a ­follow-up conference with a student whose comments about her learning had given Sara a glimpse of her student’s problematic mental mindset, a barrier that could undermine a teacher’s effectiveness. The student seemed to have an externalized belief that it was solely because of the teacher that she’d improved her reading. Sara discusses this with the student to increase her sense of agency, empowering the girl to see her actions as key to reaching her goals. Making these actions explicit will help this girl continue to enact them in her future learning.
September 2021 Fisher/Frey Figure 1

Becoming Barrier-Spotters

Let’s promise ourselves to not rely on simplistic explains of complex learning barriers that students face. When confronted with outward signs of disengagement, let’s dig further to find out what’s getting in the way. Effective teachers are strength-spotters who notice what each child brings to the learning community. The best teachers go further to be barrier-spotters—and teach intentionally to remove barriers that can slow student learning.
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Show & Tell: A Video Column / Why Do Students Disengage?

9 months ago

Meet Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey!

Join ASCD and Doug Fisher / Nancy Frey for our Virtual Bootcamp: Gradual Release of Responsibility Framework, July 18, 2022.

End Notes

1Donovan, M. S., & Bransford, J. D. (Eds.) (2001). How students learn: History, mathematics, and science in the classroom. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

2Chew, S. L., & Cerbin, W. J. (2020). The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The Journal of Economic Education.

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