247. Trying to Try

I’ve already written an article about effort, but I realized, yesterday, that there’s a little more to the issue. A teacher asked me about a child with whom I’d been working. She said, “Do you think he’s trying?” My answer was, “That’s a complicated question. I think he’s trying to try, but I’m not sure he’s trying.”
There’s often a communication problem between adults who think a child is trying and those who think he/she isn’t. People often have preconceived notions of what effort ought to look like, and when a child’s effort does not resemble the preconception, there’s a strong tendency to think the child is lazy. It’s simpler that way, and it takes some of the responsibility off the teacher: how can the teacher be blamed if the child simply isn’t willing to work?
I’ve often come across as naive when I’ve expressed my belief that all children try. I’ve seen incredulous looks in adults’ faces as I’ve argued that their children or students are doing the best they can. To an adult who is trying to teach a child who doesn’t seem to be trying to learn, it can be downright insulting to hear that the child is doing her/his best.
I don’t mean it to be insulting. When I give a child credit for effort, I don’t mean to take any credit away from the adult who is trying to teach the child. Distractibility, confusion, fatigue, and all the other obstacles to learning are real, and I believe that blame does not necessarily belong with either the unsuccessful child or the unsuccessful teacher. They’re usually really doing the best they can, and if they find something that could work better, they’ll try it.
At a certain point in children’s education, we expect them to take over. We expect them to map out their own plans for meeting the challenges we present. We try to start that early, and make the transference of responsibility gradual. Some young children have already taken over their own education, and do wonders no matter what others around them do. These children are fun to teach, and there’s a strong tendency among teachers to believe that those children are trying harder than other children. I don’t think so. While it certainly isn’t sensible or fair to scold a successful child for not trying as hard as other children, who may be struggling, I don’t think it’s fair to assume that either child is trying harder.
I don’t think my faith in children’s effort is blind faith; I think it’s simply practical. If you are willing to believe that a child is simply lazy, the child is quite apt to adopt that belief; it can be a self-fulfilling perception. On the other hand, if you assume that each child is using all the resources she/he can muster, teaching is not so much of a battle. It’s more of a quest – a search for the resources that will make success possible.

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