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Slow Down or Accelerate Learning?

By Gustavo Ramirez, Guidance Counselor / Education Consultant
Over the last 12 months, through this column, I have suggested positive ways to reach out to slow learners (“Difficult Students”) to bring them into the mainstream and help them advance in high school. Nonetheless, school administrators and teachers, whether consciously or unconsciously, continue to stigmatize and label low-scoring students by placing them in slow and remedial categories at school. Unfortunately, instead of challenging and enhancing a student’s academic growth this practice merely slows it down. Lowering expectations for students is not how schools could provide the best educational and learning options to all enrolled students — both slow and advanced.

High schools in Belize, and throughout the world, address the day-to-day education of at risk or remedial students by drastically slowing down their progress at school. Examples: Provide them with a curriculum that instead of 4 years takes 5 or more years to complete; give them “easy” work to do; keep them several paces behind the regular classes; provide them with classes that use lower-level textbooks; require that they complete many dull, boring, and repetitive exercises everyday in English and Math. Unfortunately, when we resort to using these “slower” type educational practices with students who score way below-average (failing) in PSE entrance to High School examinations, we actually undermine their future success. A much more challenging approach to educating these students in their first year of high school would prove more advantageous for each student and for the entire nation. Education, after all, is a major national concern because educational failure in our schools has damning social consequences.

To bring extremely low-scoring students into the mainstream at high school requires that we build on their strengths and talents, not on their weaknesses. Moreover, we need to continuously offer them incentives to succeed. Unfortunately, if we keep thinking of at-risk or slow students as in need of repair or defective they too will think likewise of themselves! We educators will work best with these students once we accept that the students themselves are not defective; rather, the situations in which they find themselves are defective. What needs to be changed and improved are not the students but rather the environments in which they live. Defective situations that create “slow” students in high school are plentiful, and include: poverty, exposure to repetitive inadequate education techniques used in previous schools, abusive parents or living conditions that do not provide adequate learning environments. (Parents: Be involved, not difficult!) Introducing slower students to high school by providing low-level, repetitive and dull English or Math classes defeats the very purpose of trying to accelerate their low academic progress.

Homeschooling might be an answer for some, but certainly not for “slow” students who do not live in adequate learning environments nor have access to any, except when at school. Homeschooling in such cases would only be throwing time and money to the wind. I strongly believe that the best way to educate students who live in at-risk situations is by first viewing them as students with the same potential and characteristics as all other students. We educators, and more so the parents and the community, need to respect the need these students have for love, support, and affirmation that all young people do. Integral to understanding their ways of learning (or not learning) is recognizing the many experiences they bring from home. We educators do not carry magic wands that can automatically reduce students’ risks of failure or make the parents participate in their education. Nonetheless, rather than limit and restrict at-risk or slow students’ learning, we can continuously try to fulfill their curiosity, desire to learn, and imagination by offering them challenging and accelerated classes, not slow and repetitive or boring ones.

Author’s Note: I salute the dedicated teachers and school administrators in Belize who put so much time and effort into trying to help at-risk students learn everyday at school. I invite readers, in Belize and abroad, to share thoughtful and positive suggestions on how to educate at-risk students, and bring them into the mainstream at school. I respect that opinions are as varied as waves in the sea; however, the logical evidence and data to back them up should not be as slim as the chances of winning a million dollar lottery prize.

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