Let’s Take Out the “Can’t”

Although we may not be able to fly…we can still try

One of the behaviors I have been observing and experimenting with is the desire for children to educate me on what they can and can’t do. “I can’t do math.”, “I can’t run.”, “I can’t spell.” Maybe there was a time when they really couldn’t do these things. Maybe they hadn’t learned the numerical values, or they had a broken leg, or they hadn’t yet learned their alphabet. Fine, that works. But by the time they get to junior high school and have had exposure to math and reading and possess perfectly able bodies, it is difficult to understand the “can’t” attitude. This “can’t” language they use to describe their situation is what holds them back.

I sometimes go into the younger classes to work with students in math. I remember working with a third-grade boy who insisted that math was dumb and boring. I watched him as others enjoyed the work. After some time he wanted to join in, but I realized he did not know his basic facts. (He still used his fingers for simple addition and subtraction.)  He had transferred into our school and somehow managed to hide his secret. This is so common even in the older grades. Most times, I find that students use the words boring, stupid, and dumb to show us what they don’t understand.

They find it difficult to communicate things such as: “I don’t know my math facts.”, “I am not in physical condition.”, “I tend to transpose letters when reading or writing.” etc. What they want me to understand is that they have given up trying to do these things out of frustration. They have “self-diagnosed” and come to the conclusion that the patient (the math student etc.) has a terminal illness or has died (of frustration) and cannot be revived.

Through experience and experimentation I have learned that the place to begin with such a patient (student) is by asking them to pay attention to their language. Language reflects and reinforces the attitude which is detrimental to learning. They need to take “can’t”, “dumb”, and “boring” out of their vocabulary. As a teacher I can say to a student: “I will only fail you if you don’t try. I need to hear you say that you are trying”. Every student who I’ve said this to has agreed. It hasn’t been easy for either of us, but it has worked. Students want to succeed, and my job as an educator is to offer them the clues they need to succeed.


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