When students try hard, but …

Do you have students who get stuck in their learning?

I’m not talking about being stuck on a particular problem. I’m talking about students being stuck in their learning. These are the students who “try hard” but constantly struggle. They find it difficult to grow and reach new standards each year. They always get the same results, never quite achieving what they aim for.

Often, these are the students who slowly fall further and further behind.

These are also the students who take up more and more of a teacher’s time. At first, we need to scaffold their learning. Then we need to give them extra support and “hold their hand” as we guide their learning. Eventually, it may feel as though we’re dragging them through the entire learning process – spending more of our energy helping them achieve, often at the expense of time with other students. We’re left feeling exhausted in the process.

"In the context of the Learning Landscape, these are the students who constantly get stuck at the bottom of a Challenge Pit. They take on Learning Challenges (and sometimes are thrown into a Challenge Pit!) but fail to get out the other side."

Climbing out of a Challenge Pit

How do we help these struggling students get out of a Challenge Pit and continue their growth?

For that matter, how do we help any_student get out of a Challenge Pit?

"In the Learning Landscape, pits represent challenges. But climbing out of a pit represents learning."

To successfully climb out of a Challenge Pit, we need to carry a repertoire of climbing (learning) tools, strategies and techniques in our backpack. The most skilful learners, the ones with the greatest Learnership who can climb the highest, have filled their backpacks with powerful strategies.

If students fail to climb out of a Challenge Pit, instead of pouring our energy into helping them out the other side (and doing some of the climbing for them), we need to fill their backpacks so that they can climb out on their own. We need to look inside our students’ backpacks to ensure they have the right tools for the job.

We must help them develop as skilful climbers!

Becoming a better climber

In the Learning Landscape, we refer to our repertoire of learning skills as Habits of Mind.

To help students visualise and understand how they become better learners, we keep our Habits of Mind in our backpack.

When we face a challenge, we reach into our backpack to find the right “tool” to help us climb out of the Challenge Pit. If the pit is more difficult than what we’ve encountered before, we won’t have the necessary tools. So, we’ll need to fill our backpack with new tools before beginning the climb.

It’s the teacher’s job to fill students’ backpacks with the Habits of Mind necessary to climb out of a Challenge Pit.

There’s no point setting students challenging tasks without preparing them first. Otherwise, we set them up to fail.

Teachers have a responsibility to identify the Habits of Mind that students will need to succeed at a challenge, then ensure they develop those Habits as an explicit part of the learning process.

Ultimately, we want students to leave school as highly effective learners with bulging backpacks that will enable them to tackle the most difficult of challenges. So, as skilful educators, we often set challenges specifically for the opportunity to fill a student’s backpack with the right tools.

"Filling your backpack is a key component of developing Learnership. It gives students the freedom to explore more of the Learning Landscape. With effective Habits of Mind at their disposal, they can set out to climb the highest peaks and confront the most difficult challenges life throws at them."

And this is what we recognise in the real world as Learner Agency: having a backpack full of strategies so you can choose your journey through the Learning Landscape. To act in the world rather than be acted upon. 

The students discussed above aren’t “struggling students”. They are students who are struggling because their backpacks lack the tools to climb higher. When we, as teachers, develop students’ Learnership by focusing on how they are learning, not just what they are learning, and fill their backpacks with the Habits of Mind, we empower them to continue their learning journey independently. (And we save ourselves time and energy otherwise spent carrying them out of a Challenge Pit!)

So, next time you see a student struggling to get out of a Challenge Pit, ask yourself whether you helped them fill their backpack before they got in.

Best Wishes,


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