This post originally appeared at Students at the Center: Teaching and Learning in the Era of the Common Core.
Have you ever sat through a difficult or dry lesson and were told by your teacher when you began to struggle that if you simply tried harder, you would succeed? If so, didn’t it sound like your teacher was saying, “If you just banged your head harder against this brick wall, you could break through!” You likely realized then what researchers have known for decades: that simply isn’t true. While effort is important when attempting work of any kind, perseverance in school is frequently depicted as a quality either a kid has or doesn’t have, as if the circumstances surrounding that student’s struggles were irrelevant. And far too often, teachers and others use concepts like perseverance to blame students from disadvantaged backgrounds for “lacking motivation,” when it is the learning environment itself that is largely to blame.
I’ve been thinking about this concept of perseverance because I recently had the opportunity to review the report, Equity in Competency Education: Realizing the Potential, Overcoming the Obstacles, by RAND authors and commissioned by Jobs for the Future’s Students at the Center initiative. I applaud the authors for tackling a tricky subject often glossed over and under-researched in the rush to advocate for competency education. Their treatment presents a broad and well-organized array of scholarship that highlights the enormous potential of competency-based reforms to elevate achievement and enhance equity. However, the paper raises a lingering concern: discussions of the concept of perseverance can easily devolve into a blame-the-victim ideology rather than an improve-the-context search for solutions.
Perseverance can be a seductive explanation of student failure due to the way it shifts attention away from pedagogical factors that may hinder students’ achievement and instead draws attention toward perceived deficits in students’ motivation. This effectively absolves adults of responsibility for students’ struggles. Given the culture of blame that surrounds the profession of teaching these days, it’s not surprising that some would seek shelter in explanations that deny culpability in student failures. I would argue, however, that to overcome academic struggles, it is the educator’s responsibility to teach the skills necessary for success and to present material using techniques that motivate students to engage. In this way, perseverance is less a prerequisite of learning and more a product of good teaching. (more…)