William James On How To Help The Kid That Gives Up

We all have (hopefully just) one: the student who shuts down.

Whether they make an initial attempt or not is unimportant.  The "shut down student" is inapproachable, frustrated, and somewhat defiant.  They've given up hope and insist they "can't do it."

Over 100 years ago, the same type of learner was described by William James:
"The teacher often is confronted in the schoolroom with an abnormal type of will, which we may call the 'balky will'.  Certain children, if they do not succeed in doing a thing immediately, remain completely inhibited in regard to it: it becomes literally impossible for them to understand it if it be an intellectual problem, or to do it if it be an outward operation, as long as this particular inhibited condition lasts."
How would perceive and internalize the situation.  Would you get angry or mad?  Would you be patient?  Would you place blame on the student or some extraneous factor?

How would James think about the situation?

"When a situation of the kind is once fairly developed, and the child is all tense and excited inwardly, nineteen times out of twenty it is best for the teacher to apperceive the case as one of neural pathology rather than as one of moral culpability."

James removes blame from the student.  The student is not consciously behaving this way, it is simply a result of the student's psychological being.

How would you proceed?  Would you remind the student of Dweck's work and say "you can understand the problem if you realize that your intelligence isn't fixed.  If you work hard, you'll get it!"  Or would you pull a page from Bjork's desirable difficulties handbook and say "this is what we call a desirable difficulty, trust me, you want this challenge!"

(I'm not, at all, saying that the work of Dweck or Bjork are unimportant.  I'm just having some fun.)

How would James handle the situation?

"The aim of the teacher should then be to make him simply forget.  Drop the subject for the time, divert the mind to something else; then, leading the pupil back by some circuitous line of association, sprint it on him aging before he has time to recognize it, and as likely as not he will go over it now without any difficulty."

Surprised that he uses distraction and deception?  Don't be.  James is a powerful thinker who truly understands the applications of psychology.

Tricking a student into working through a difficult problem is like getting your dog to take it's heart worm medicine.  The dog won't touch the pill by itself but you know it's necessary to keep your dog healthy.  So you use a little distraction and deception and  disguise the pill in a delicious piece of deli meat.  Everybody is happy: to dog got a little snack and you're taking steps to keep your dog worm free.

The solution posed by James is simple.  He suggests first getting the student's mind off the challenge as a way to calm them down and forget about the difficulty.  When the mind is calm, the teacher can then re-introduce the difficult idea, maybe dressed up as something else, quickly so the student doesn't have a chance to realize that it is the old problem disguised as something new.

It sometimes becomes overwhelming for writers to consistently report the newest and lasted educational best practices.  I believe it is worth taking a step back and considering simple ideas based on common sense.

Talks To Teachers On Psychology And To Students On Some Of Life's Ideals is a timeless, underutilized, educational resource worth your time.

Thanks for reading.

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