Don’t Wait For That Point

A few months ago, I read the following from the HUMANS OF NEW YORK photo blog.

“My high school wasn’t very challenging. I never had to struggle. I was 15th in the class. Section leader in my marching band. Top of this. Top of that. Where I grew up, not too many people go to college out of state. So when I got accepted into West Point, I assumed that I’d continue to succeed. But I finished my first semester with a 2.5 GPA. Not only was I barely surviving, but I felt like I was trying as hard as I could. I started thinking: ‘Am I dumb? Can I even do this?’ My second semester I had a physics teacher named Major Bowen. He was honest with me about my faults. He told me that I needed to get more sleep. And that I had poor time management skills. But he also told me some nice stuff. He said that I was a good student to have in class. And that I was definitely smart enough to succeed. It’s nice to hear that stuff when you’re surrounded by so many naturally talented people. Major Bowen showed me ways to become more efficient. I started using calendars. I started studying in groups. I began tutoring people in calculus, because teaching is the best way to really learn a subject. Six weeks into the second semester I got my first test back, and it was an ‘A.’ It was a ‘90,’ but it was an ‘A;’ It was like: ‘Oh, wow. I can do this.’”

I hear this often but without the happy ending. For many students, school comes easily to them. But we hope all students reach a point where school is challenging because that’s where learning and growth take place. So many students are intellectually able to do the work but their poor executive function skills hold them back from actually successfully doing the work. That’s why it is so important to model, encourage and actively instruct executive function components early in a student’s school career. The fact that they can remember the homework or when the test will occur doesn’t add to their grade or their learning. At some point there will be many assignments that will be too complex to simply hold in memory. At some point students will be required to know and sequence steps of an assignment that cannot be completed the day before it is due. At some point knowing how to determine priorities and changing patterns based on teacher feedback will be essential. And waiting until that point arrives to develop the skills is not a recipe for success.