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Instruction That Works With Reluctant High School Students

by Mazin A Heiderson

posted in Reference and Education

Syndicate This Article
A 2013 Gallup Poll found that about 45% of high school students are not engaged in school. Disengagement significantly lowers achievement. This is especially true of urban and rural youth. While there are school remedies, here I want to focus on classroom instruction that makes a difference.
Give students control over their learning. Allow them track their own progress using simple lists and graphs. This empowers and motivates students. Allow students to check the answers to their own multiple-choice quizzes and tests. That way they get immediate feedback on answers. How many people would keep bowling if they didn't see the results of every ball tossed? Control creates interest, trust and ownership of learning.
Focus your classroom on short-term goals. Long-term goals have little meaning for students marking time until they can jump ship. Short-term goals are within easy reach. They are visible. And they are built into the learning activities themselves. No one playing a game or a sport worries about far away goals. They attend to the game. We need to pay close attention to our actions to do them well.
I prefer instructional practices that don't rely on will power or a positive attitude. These don't exist in disengaged students. Instead, I recommend passive learning (acquisition) as the starting point. Acquisition relies on exposure, oral language and listening. Students absorb knowledge. We learn our first language that way. There is no teacher and no curriculum. Parents merely speak to their baby, who is totally ignorant of any human language. By listening and watching, the child acquires the native language.
The easiest way to use acquisition is to show short videos on various subjects. This builds background knowledge. Another easy and worthwhile practice is to read aloud to students. Don't test and don't ask question. Just read with expression and leave it at that. The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease is a great resource for this. Most elementary teachers do this already. But it is rare among secondary teachers. I know a successful history teacher who read chapters of the textbook to his low ability students with great results. Listening comprehension is far and away the strongest language skill for students till about 9th grade. And for many, written language never overtakes oral language. Why not use student strengths rather than their weakness to help them learn? After all, it is about learning, not "got-you!"
An effective practice is to use the power of imitation. Seeing and imitating is as old as the Old Stone Age, 100,000 years. Painters, weavers, potters, cooks, electricians and engineers use it still. Ask students to copy good examples. Copying is not cheating. It is a "passive way" to internalize a skill. We are social creatures. We learn from one another. Social skills are nothing but copying the words and actions of others. We call them "customs." They are the cement of society.
Finally, the teacher should adopt the stance of a coach. It works better than the stance of teacher. A traditional teacher acts as evaluator and judge. A coach is a helping ally, not an adversary. He or she wants his charge to excel. A coach uses hints to help the learner excel. Moreover, the coach is on the side of the learner. There is no such thing as the "winning coach of a losing team." Both are on the same side.
Disengaged students have lower academic achievement. But we can reverse this at the classroom level. Use instructional practices that engage reluctant students. These include acquisition, reading aloud to students, imitation, and coaching. These produce good results. And they benefit all students.
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