444. What Can’t Be Taught

I understand that there is such a thing as talent – that some people learn some things so quickly and become so proficient that they seem to be in a separate league. I’ve sometimes heard admirers of these people say, “That kind of expertise can’t be taught; they’re born with it.” Of course, anyone who has known a newborn baby knows that babies are born without the impressive skills that are later sometimes called “innate.” Though the potential for greatness may be there at birth, it does take at least some time to develop that potential.
I’ve occasionally argued with people who have said that some people are “tone deaf.” Many of us teachers like to operate on the assumption that just about anyone can be taught just about anything. Facts can sometimes seem to contradict that assumption; a child who cannot hear any sounds is not likely to learn to distinguish a G from a G flat. And many teachers who have tried hard and failed to get children to learn certain concepts or skills find a certain amount of solace in believing that it just couldn’t be done.
Still, many of us don’t like to hear that something “can’t be taught.” We don’t like to be powerless, as doctors don’t like to yield to what some people call “God’s will.” We know disabilities and limitations exist, but it’s hard to face failure; if plan A and B don’t work, we look for plan C. Partly, it’s that we care about the children whose lives will be easier and/or more pleasant if they can learn what we’re teaching. Partly, it’s that we need to prove that we’re good at what we do. And there’s also the carrot at the end of the stick – the great feeling everyone will have if the teaching and learning succeed.
And so many teachers are reticent to say or think that there’s anything that can’t be taught to any child. That reticence can be just what’s needed; some of what doesn’t work can work if approached as if it can work. Positive thinking does have some power. But maybe there are some things that can’t be taught to some children; maybe the amount of effort required of both the child and the teacher is not worth the degree of success that’s possible.
It’s difficult to hear that a certain child is not going to learn what we’re trying to teach. Belief in people’s power to learn is pretty basic to teachers; many of us become teachers because of that belief. I’ve never been able to fully accept learning limitations; I’ve considered them temporary. As soon as a “limited” child got through the hard part, learning would happen. Or all I had to do was find the right approach.
Maybe it’s good for some children to have teachers who refuse to accept limitations. I’ve heard of and seen successes that were supposed to be impossible. But I’ve also heard of and seen children who seemed to be victims of some teachers’ refusal to give up; instead of teaching such children what they could learn, these teachers kept pushing children to learn what they couldn’t learn. So it depends.

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