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Supporting Your “Average” Students

February 19, 2018

by Nancy Weinstein

If you’re a teacher, you know there’s no such thing as average. The idea that students can be categorized as gifted, struggling, or “just average” is simplistic at best. The 10/10/80 statistic might be helpful for administrators, but it is useless in the classroom.

In this blog inspired by the work of Dr. Todd Rose, we explore why there is no such thing as average and offer 8 strategies to manage learner diversity in every classroom.

jagged profileIf Not Average, Then What?

As Harvard  professor Dr. Todd Rose explains in his book, The End of Average, “Every one of these familiar notions of [average students or average brains] is a figment of a misguided scientific imagination.” Instead, most every student has, what Rose calls, a jagged learner profile. That is, every student has relative strengths and needs.

These hidden skills, the cognitive skills of executive functions, reasoning, memory, and speed, are highly variable in any individual. They explain why some topics come easily while others are harder or take more time.

Rose shares the neuroscientific evidence that shows that a strength in one skill tells very little about strengths and needs in other skills. Yet schools usually look at strengths or needs in one skill and make assumptions about how a student will perform in every class on every day. Once labeled, any deviation is explained by subjective judgments about a student’s personality, often with loaded terms such as unmotivated, stubborn, careless, or very hard working.


What Every Student Needs

Instead of giving students a label, we need to give them what they need. Above all else, what every student needs most is to feel understood. They need adults to understand how they learn and provide them with the “just right” supports so they are able to overcome challenges. It is the lack of self-awareness of our jagged profiles that trips us up, causes us confusion, and makes us want to give up when learning is difficult.jagged profile

Equally important, adults need to teach students how to use their strengths.  When students rely on their strengths, they develop self-confidence, learn how to learn, and are far more likely to be successful.

Since cognitive skills are not easily observable, every student (and teacher) benefits from an objective learner profile that accurately identifies that student’s hidden strengths and needs. Even in the absence of objective data, adults must stop presuming what “should be easy” for some students or under-estimate the capabilities of others. Adult presumptions could easily be blamed for the increasing levels of stress in our top students and under-performance and disengagement from everyone else. Stereotype threat is a cultural reality as well as an individual one.

How to Manage Expectations of Students

Ideally schools would have individualized expectations and instruction for each student based on personal strengths, needs and interests. That’s not an easy (or arguably fair) task for a teacher who might have 200+ students in any given year. However, what can be done is dispel common misconceptions and replace them with a more realistic understanding of student needs.

Eight Fundamental Truths about Student Learning

  1. Just because a student is exceptional in one area does not mean everything comes easily. While top students need opportunities for enrichment in areas of giftedness, they often need help in other academic and social-emotional skills. Since their profiles can be disproportionately jagged, they might need even more support to understand and cope with the relative differences in their skills.
  2. Speed does not equate to knowledge. There’s a weak correlation between how quickly one understands and their capability. In contrast, there is plenty of evidence that shows that when students are given the flexibility to learn at their own pace, most will succeed. While time can be an unavoidable barrier, educators should remove artificial or unnecessary time constraints where possible.
  3. Just because a student struggles, does not mean he or she will always struggle. Learning differences or struggles in one skill or topic tell nothing about a student’s other skills. If a student has a learning difference, IEP or 504 Plan, that only tells you where the student will NEED support. It doesn’t tell you much about where the student won’t need support or will excel. The worst thing we can do for students is to underestimate their capabilities and not give them opportunities to succeed on their own when they are capable and comfortable.
  4. Never underestimate the importance of personality and behavior. By most estimates, personality and behavior account for as much of lifetime achievement as cognitive ability. But just as with cognitive skills, personality and behavior are jagged. To help students succeed, we need to support all aspects of personality and character, just as we need to support all learning skills.
  5. Everyone has hidden talents. As anyone who has attended a high school reunion can attest, success is unpredictable. Schools generally reward certain types of talents while paying little attention to others. However, success in many careers depends on the skills schools ignore. The sooner we identify and nurture all of a student’s strengths, the more likely students will succeed.
  6. Context matters. A lot. Dr. Rose devotes a lot of energy to this topic. When a student isn’t meeting reasonable expectations, it’s important to ask why. What else is going on in the student’s life, inside or outside of school? Is the topic of inherent interest; if not, could it be made to be? Is the information being presented in a way that best serves the student’s strengths and needs? When adults ask why, they are less likely to jump to subjective judgments about personality and behavior.
  7. There’s Never a Single Right Way. Creativity and flexibility consistently rank among the most important workplace skills, and yet most classrooms still permit students only one way to demonstrate mastery. If you’re looking for alternatives to the One Right Way approach, we recommend the resources of CAST-UDL. UDL provides guidance for how to teach in multiple ways and give students multiple means to demonstrate knowledge.
  8. There are No Shortcuts, Just as There are No Average Students. Learning is hard, and teaching, perhaps, even harder. With 10o billion neurons in the brain, how could we possibly expect to reduce students to three general categories? Or expect them to learn in one single way? When we stop looking for shortcuts for a journey that we know to be long and windy, perhaps the journey will be more successful and enjoyable.



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