You know what I’m tired of hearing and reading? Not everyone can learn X. Where X is some subject–often science or math or sometimes music or painting. It is a damaging statement. It’s a statement that kept (and sometimes still keeps) women, minorities, and those from impoverished backgrounds from pursuing certain fields because they’ve been told or gotten the impression that people like them aren’t good at X. You don’t have to say this out loud for students to know that that’s what you think. They can feel it in the way you’re reluctant to respond to their questions or you chastise them for not already knowing or you privilege certain other voices in the room.
Almost every article I read that discusses research in education ends up with comments to the effect of, “It’s not worth trying this, because not everyone can learn the subject you’re trying to teach.” It’s depressing, because to me, that means we should just give up as educators. Why teach at all if you can’t try to reach everyone?
Now, do I think that some students achieve higher levels in certain areas than others? Sure, but that’s not because they can’t. It’s because they’ve chosen not to. Someone who chooses not to go beyond Pre-calculus because they’ve found a love and talent for historical research should not be considered bad at math. They’ve just gone down a different path. Knowing that learning takes effort means that students can choose whether to put that effort in.
Do some students seem to pick up things more quickly? Certainly, but everyone develops and learns at a different pace. Brains are complex organisms. Concepts may not be sinking in because students aren’t ready for them or maybe because their brains are busy working on social or family problems. There’s only so much brain energy to go around and learning takes a lot. Something major going on in a student’s life can prevent them from being able to take in and process new information.
If you find yourself thinking that not everyone can learn X where X is the subject you teach, think about how you would feel if someone told you that you couldn’t learn something or you could never be good at something. Would that make you feel good? Would it make you inclined to want to learn anything? Is that a classroom environment you’d want to create?