What to do when a child’s readiness or ability to learn appears arrested
Inertia is a state of resisting change. In education, inertia can have both positive and negative aspects. How teachers and parents respond to inertia can have a lasting effect on students, individually and collectively.
Inertia can be evidenced in different ways
Sometimes, a teacher may seek to vary the teaching space by taking lessons outside of the classroom. However, some students may respond to a proposed change in venue by complaining. They might strongly resist the change, whilst others may be enthused and excited. Inertia can also take the form of a resistance to a new idea or new learning.
Complaints can be approached in various ways. Some teachers will simply ignore the student. Others will assert their authority, basically saying, ‘You will do as you are told’. Still others will encourage or cajole compliance. And, on the spectrum of responses, teachers seeking consensus may drop the idea of change as one or more students are not comfortable.
Inertia is not necessarily a negative trait
Sometimes the certainty of the classroom is the greatest certainty in a student’s life. In that context, inertia can be a shield to deeper vulnerabilities. When teachers hear only words they can do great injustice to a student’s true feelings and worries.
Inertia, or thinking that prefers the status quo to something different, provides an opportunity for teachers and parents to teach adaptability and resilience. Education, in this regard, is about learning skills for life. Learning to think flexibly, question assumptions and beliefs, or see issues from multiple perspectives, are crucial for successful living.
It is important for teachers and parents to articulate to students that different points of view can be disconcerting and psychologically challenging. This articulation normalises a conservative response to being open to new or alternative ideas and ways of thinking. This can reduce resistance that may be borne of misunderstanding, prejudice or fear. In a diverse, pluralistic community, country and world, adaptive thinking is a necessary skill for wise living.
Of course, there is a need for a set of core beliefs and values around which flexible and adaptive thinking can be built. Too much change does not give certainty or a sense a security.
The problem of procrastination
There is an important aspect to inertia that often paralyses the actions of teachers and parents. This is the inertia that is evidenced when a student seems to spend a lot of time studying but does not ever produce much work. It is common for some students to spend a lot of time in their room ‘working’ but for results to never change, or even go backwards. Parents can be confounded and teachers stretched to find solutions.
An aspect of this phenomenon can be observed in most classrooms. It occurs in very subtle ways. A student may have their head down, be silent and focused. However, as it turns out, the student is not actually doing anything academically productive. Sometimes, the student who is focused on their computer may, as soon the teacher make the slightest move in their direction, make a subtle movement of the fingers on the keyboard, which closes or minimises tabs. These tabs, if restored can reveal Facebook, an instant messaging program or other source of distraction.
In more traditional ways, inertia can take the form of a student picking up a pen as a teacher passes by. In the family home it can take the form of a student going to their room, ostensibly to ‘study’.
In each of these instances however, the inertia involves absolutely no academic work at all being done. It is important that this behaviour be both recognised and also addressed.
Possible strategies to employ
One way to address this form of inertia is to be still and witness the behaviour. Hold the student to account. Teachers and parents should ask these students to complete some work and show evidence of having done so.
Students find this very disconcerting as this often makes them accountable, often for the first time. Watching a student work can reveal that there is a lack of understanding, very low confidence and even a very deep fear of failure. On very rare occasions, inertia may be a product of laziness or distractibility, but more often than not there are real learning blocks that require understanding and support. It also requires attention, follow up, commitment and a desire for students to learn and do their best.
Fear of failure can paralyse action. Students who in early school years found academic success came easily can be confronted when the need for structure and discipline is required for continued success. Key skills that others formed in earlier years may have been missed as they were not necessary to learn then. This makes otherwise capable students feel a need to mask or hide rather than admit a struggle. A failure to address this inertia allows students to define success as evasion.