Schools and reasons some students fail to learn

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There are many reasons that schools fail to teach certain children. There is also plenty of blame to go around. The school system and educational road-map is rigid and may not work for all students. There is also much evidence that the system itself is racially and/or gender biased. Parents also play a huge role when it comes to education. Uninvolved parents beget unmotivated children. Drugs, alcohol, and parental abuse often prevent the student from being in a safe emotional place.

Even with a great teacher and terrific parents, the outcome is not always ideal. Neurologic, cognitive, and emotional problems can place the child in a tailspin preventing significant progress. Identifying and mitigating the most serious issues is not an easy task. However, instituting brain-based learning elements into the classroom can help to alleviate or lessen many of the roadblocks to learning.


Even the most perfect and enriching learning environment will fail to teach an unmotivated student. Educational research has identified two main classifications of motivation - intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation evolves from a desire to master a topic because of its innate interest, for personal fulfillment, gratification, or to achieve a more complete knowledge of the subject. Conversely, extrinsic motivation is created by the desire to perform and succeed for the sake of accomplishing a definite result or goal. Students who are very grade-oriented are extrinsically motivated, while students who seem to genuinely enjoy their work and take sincere curiosity in it are intrinsically motivated.

Despite the abundance of research on the subject, the task of motivating young minds remains a challenge and an art that is difficult to master. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut formula for motivating students. Many aspects affect a particular student's motivation to learn and to succeed: interest in the material, judgment of its applicability, basic inclination to accomplish, self-esteem and self-confidence, along with fortitude and endurance. Also, not every student is motivated by identical ideals, wishes, desires, or wants. There are many students who will be motivated by the endorsement of others, some by meeting or exceeding personal goals or challenges.

Motivation can be encouraged by incorporating proven techniques in the classroom. Setting goals and expectations, de-emphasizing class competition and grades, showing enthusiasm, creating relevance in the lesson structure, establishing the perception of choice, instituting incremental increases in the difficulty of the material, and providing timely, positive feedback will encourage intrinsic motivation. According to Jensen, "[t]he intrinsic source for learning motivation is ideal for many reasons, the most obvious of which is that even without the artificial controls of a classroom environment, students will continue to achieve" (Jensen, 2008, p. 118). Offering rewards, although effective short-term, will not provide for the intrinsic motivation necessary to develop effective critical thinking skills of the lifetime learner.

Goals and Expectations

Maintaining high but realistic expectations has a potent effect on a student's performance. Students should believe that success is possible yet challenging, and educators should help students establish achievable targets for themselves. Failure as a result of setting impractical goals can dishearten and frustrate students. Ensuring that learners are aware of exactly what is expected of them will also support effective goal-setting.

De-emphasize Grades and Competition

Emphasis should be on knowledge and wisdom rather than grades. Eliminating complex systems of points or credits, or using grades to influence behavior outside the academic realm (for example, lowering grades for missed classes). Instead, teachers must assign ungraded homework, stressing the pure intrinsic value of doing the work well, and help students keep track of their progress. Classroom instructors should not create intense competition between students. Competition invokes anxiety, which can impede learning. Avoiding public criticisms of students' efforts and remarks or actions that set students in opposition against each other will benefit all students.

Show Enthusiasm

Enthusiasm, like laughter, is infectious. Bored and apathetic teachers negatively influence student behavior. Usually, an instructor's eagerness comes from personal confidence in their own ability to make a difference, passion about the material and a sincere pleasure in teaching. Because teaching is an art, not everyone is cut-out to be a teacher. Burn-out is a major cause in the lack of enthusiasm. To regain passion, an educator should recall what attracted them to the line of work and bring those aspects of the subject matter to life for the students.

Create Relevance

To create relevance a teacher should work from students' strengths and interests. Then provide illustrations, case studies, or assignments that connect the course content to students' interests and real-life knowledge. Keep in mind how the subject matter and objectives can help a student achieve their academic, career-oriented, or personal goals, and frequently remind the students of these connections. According to Jensen relevance is achieved when you "use the power of family history, stories, myths, legends, and metaphors to help make learning relevant for students" (Jensen, 2008, p. 180). It is unwise to assume that what is relevant to the student falls in line with what is relevant to the teacher. Therefore, lessons should be approached from many different angles to achieve relevance to all students.

Incorporate Choice

"Participation and motivation are boosted by inclusion, ownership, and choice and are impaired by autocratic insistence and tight control" (Jensen, 2008, p. 117). Whenever feasible, let students have a say in selecting what will be studied. Provide students with options on the subject of written papers or other assignments (but not on tests). Allow students to decide between two destinations for a field trip, or have them choose which subjects to investigate in greater depth. If viable, include optional or different units in the course. Flex-time, or allowing the student to decide what to study during a particular time block, is an effective method allowing the students to have ownership of the classroom.

Increase Difficulty

Students are motivated by success. Increase the complexity of the material as the semester advances. Allow students greater opportunity to succeed at the beginning of the semester with less advanced lessons. Once students gain confidence that they can succeed, material should incrementally increase in difficulty. If assignments and exams include questions that are easy as well as more difficult questions, every student will have a chance to experience success as well as challenge.

Provide Frequent, Timely Feedback

Give students feedback as promptly as feasible. Return tests and papers without delay, and compensate success publicly and immediately. Give students some hint of how competent their work is as well as clues to improve. Rewards can be as minimal as a public acknowledgement of their achievement with an indication of why it was good, or mentioning the names of contributors. Both positive and negative comments influence motivation, but research consistently indicates that students are more affected by positive feedback and success. Praise builds students' self-confidence, competence, and self-esteem.

Identify Bias

To realize success in a school setting, it is imperative to not only be familiar with students, but to also affirm them. Tackling bias in an educational situation can help a teacher put into practice effective coaching tactics that promote a constructive learning environment. Establishing the types of bias in the school system is crucial to the success of the instruction and understanding.

Racial Bias

Ethnic or racial bias in the school setting entails bias related to the student's culture or language. Ethnic bias is typically a result of the certainty that racial differences indicate supremacy over another race. Ethnic bias is frequently evidenced by a variety of disciplinary methods for addressing behavioral problems. Ethnic bias can be circumvented by discussing ethnic diversity and assisting students in understanding who they are and how that relates to similarities and variations among cultures and races.

Gender Bias

Gender bias in school can be characterized by how males and females are treated differently. In the class setting, boys and girls may read the same textbooks and have the same instructor, but might receive different results because of gender bias. Bias based on a child's gender may include being called on more or less often, being held to different standards of behavior and being provided diverse opportunities. Gender bias may be confirmed by the types of questions boys and girls are asked, the subjects that certain students are persuaded to pursue, and whether or not the child receive a sense of validation.

Eliminating Bias

Teachers should attempt to identify areas of bias in the classroom, whether it is to be found in the curriculum, within themselves or in the way they engage with students. Teachers must make an effort to understand and acknowledge all students, their backgrounds, and how they gain knowledge. It is essential to focus on grammar to be sure that the instruction can reach diverse students. If a teacher is unable to identify sources of bias in the classroom, it may be helpful to have other faculty or staff members observe the classroom dynamic, as well as collect evaluations from students and parents.

Poor Parenting Issues

Poor parenting can be caused and in turn, can cause a variety of issues. The most common types of ineffective parenting are uninvolved parents, abusive parents, parents who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, or absent parents. Many of these conditions will co-exist in the ineffectual parent as one condition may cause or exacerbate another. The overall effects of poor parenting cannot be completely overcome in the classroom however, a teacher armed with knowledge, compassion, and good technique, can provide a student with the tools they need to succeed.

Uninvolved Parents

All teachers have experienced the frustration of attempting to involve parents and achieving insignificant responses. Teachers complain that parents do not come to conferences or school open houses, check homework, or answer notes. This leads some teachers to conclude that parents do not care about their children's education. While it is true that the emotional problems of a few parents may be so great as to prevent them from becoming involved with their children's education, most parents do care a great deal. This caring is not, however, always evidenced by parent attendance at school events. There are a number of reasons why these parents may not become involved, and teachers need to consider these before dismissing parents as uninterested.

For many parents, a major impediment to becoming involved is lack of time. Working parents are often unable to attend school events during the day. For other uninvolved parents, school was not a positive experience and they feel inadequate in a school setting. Parents may also feel uneasy if their cultural style or socioeconomic level differ from those of teachers. Some parents who are uninvolved in school may not understand the importance of parent involvement or may think they do not have the skills to be able to help. Even parents who are confident and willing to help may hesitate to become involved for fear of overstepping their bounds. It is the responsibility of teachers and administrators to encourage such parents to become involved.

Abusive Parents

Abused children can have a myriad of issues that will prevent a child from having success in the school setting. There are many types of abuse and adults who come into contact with children on a professional level, are required to learn to detect and report suspected abuse. However, the affects of abuse might continue for years or even decades once the abuse is stopped or the children are removed from the abusive situation. Therefore, a teacher has to be aware that some of the children in the classroom will have come from an abusive or neglectful situation, and will have additional roadblocks to deal with.

Learned Helplessness

There are many things that a teacher can do that will assist children coming from an abusive situation that will also be good for the other students as well. Abused children often acquire a condition called learned helplessness. According to Jensen, children who suffer from learned helplessness have lost the ability to make good choices because they no longer see a connection between their actions and the consequences. This typically occurs when children have lived in a situation where high stress and trauma were common and they had little or no control over it (Jensen, 2008).

The classroom environment is key to all learning, and providing an organized, emotionally safe space is even more important to at-risk students. Teaching optimism, how to express emotions positively, and allowing the students to participate in lesson plans or organizing classroom activities, will go a long way towards reversing learned helplessness (Jensen, 2008).

Mental and Physical Deficiencies

Children, like adults, have a range of mental and physical abilities that make teaching to an entire classroom challenging on the best of days. The American's with Disabilities Act, guarantees that all children, including those with disabilities, have an equal opportunity to receive a quality education. Once a meeting has been held with the parents, administration, teachers, and any involved medical personnel as been held and necessary accommodations made, teachers need to do their best to provide as much inclusivity as possible for the disabled student. Most brain-based learning techniques are suitable for students of any ability level.

Elements of Brain-Based Learning

According to Jensen, "[b]rain-based education is the engagement of strategies based on principles derived from an understanding of the brain" (Jensen, 2008, p. 4). Because we are organic creatures, we do not work or learn the way a machine would. What this means is that formal instruction, efficiency, and order are not the best ways for human to acquire knowledge. Humans learn best by doing in an environment that is emotionally safe and sensory-rich.

Learning Environment and the Senses

The brain needs to be stimulated for optimal learning. Learning is best achieved in a rich and stimulating environment. All five senses can and should be involved in this stimulation. Sight is the most important sense involved in focusing the attention of the brain. The use of movement, color, and contrast in the classroom will assist in capturing this attention and facilitate learning. Equally important in the sensory department is the sense of hearing. Music, reading aloud, and varying tone and inflection while speaking can both stimulate and provide new connections in the brain. The sense of smell can provide a subtle inroad into emotions and mood. Different scents are known to relax, stimulate, or elevate the mood. Experimenting with different scents could provide an interesting teaching moment.

Touch may be the most critical sense involved in the learning process. Since humans learn best in a "hands-on" environment, students are best served by being allowed to construct models, draw maps, take notes, and physically handling objects. Schools need to be "experiential" for optimal learning. Experiential learning occurs when students are placed in a situation where they think and interact, and learn in and from a real-world environment. While traditional teaching and learning is typically teacher-directed, content-driven, text-oriented and classroom-based, experiential learning involves active participation of the student in planning, development and execution of learning activities. For experiential learning to occur within the classroom, the instructor must use strategies that simulate or incorporate real-world situations.

Physical Activity

Physical activity is a required component of the learning experience. Frequent physical activity provides for the overall health of the student and reduces the risk of chronic diseases. Exercise improves the body image of the student which enhances self-confidence. Also, aerobic activity stimulates new connections in the brain, increases blood flow and oxygen levels, and causes a chemical reaction that stimulates the cognitive ability of the brain. Physical activity will also help to alleviate stress and dispel excess energy which most children have in abundance. Finally, exercise can be used to reinforce lessons taught within the classroom. Young children are quick to pick up counting when outdoor play includes games where counting is required, such as the number of outs in baseball or adding up points in a game.


The future of America depends on the quality of our schools and the education that they provide. Current government policies will result in reduced staff, reduced resources, and larger class sizes. Further emphasis on reducing costs will favor lower paid and therefore less experienced teachers. Shifting populations, increased diversity, and greater numbers of socio-economically challenged students will further tax under-appreciated teaches. In a misguided effort to balance state and federal budgets, music, art, physical education, and after-school activities will be gutted. This will put an even greater emphasis on the K-12 classroom teachers to incorporate these subjects into lesson plans that have been overly focused on core curriculum test scores. Understanding the hallmarks of brain-based learning will be critical for educators to achieve acceptable outcomes in the education of the American populace. Without an effective restructuring of the school system, U.S. children will continue to fall behind those of other, equally developed countries. America is at a crucial crossroads and unless we are successful at providing a quality education for the next generation of voters, we can only expect a continual decline in our standard of living.