Croskey’s Corner: Responsibility
Can’t Do? Won’t Do?
I used to teach high school psychology. In my class, we read The Art of Loving, written by Erich Fromm. In that book, Fromm wrote that love has four components: Caring; Respect; Responsibility; Knowledge. On Responsibility, he made a distinction between (1) respond-ability, or the ability to respond lovingly to someone; and (2) willingness to respond. I think these two aspects of this month’s Character Quality, Responsibility, apply to more than love relationships. Seems like they fit in a school setting as well.
My mentor, Warren McClellan, former principal at Loveland Schools, used to challenge our problem-solving team with the question of whether a student who was struggling in school was one who CAN’T DO the work; or was it more that he or she WON’T DO the work. “Can’t Do” asked whether the student had the ability or the skill required to succeed at a task. “Won’t Do” wondered whether the student was unmotivated, hung up by problems at home, or distracted by non-school interests. If a student cannot do the work, he or she is unable to respond successfully to the challenges of school work. If a student is choosing NOT to do the work, she or he is unwilling to respond for some reason which must be uncovered.
The distinction between Can’t Do and Won’t Do matters. Our special education system, while being renovated with Response to Intervention (RTI) and 3-tier approaches to serving students, still is set up for and geared to identifying “Can’t Dos.” The special education categories are pigeon holes which are pretty clearly defined and which suggest what is wrong with the student who is not Responding to regular instruction or previous Interventions. In fact, the whole RTI system is an exercise in monitoring Respond-ability. But these Can’t Dos are misidentified at times. In a world where we care more what surface behavior looks like than what “hidden” motives may exist, a person who does not respond to regular education approaches is, almost totally by definition, a “Can’t Do. But I have seen many students who seemingly lack the skill or ability in a subject, but are in fact withholding their Responses. Kids whose parents are going through divorces have withheld academic responding as they might have resisted toilet training or refused to eat in a different period of their lives. Why? To get a reaction from their parents. What do kids that age control? Not much besides their school work. So, what do they use to make their point, consciously or unconsciously? School work. How about kids who are depressed? They may not have the energy to respond. But it does not mean they do not know how to read or do math. Or anxious kids? School anxiety is real. Students who may easily demonstrate their academic skills in one environment freeze up when the pressure increases. Can’t Dos? Well, yeah, in a way, but only when their anxiety is high.
In addition, the children who are finally seen to be Won’t Do’s can really frustrate teachers. A Can’t Do is right in a teacher’s wheelhouse. You may have been taught to instruct kids in multiplication. If a kid does not know how to multiply, you can teach him. But if you’ve taught him to multiply, and he shows he’s “got” it, and he refuses or neglects to perform, you get frustrated. You want him to show what he knows. Motivating the unmotivated is tricky. It seems easy but can end up being more like teaching someone who is blind to see. The Can’t Dos either make us look like heroes because, if they succeed, then we have accomplished what others could not with them. Or, if they fail, we are only
another in the line of those who couldn’t turn the Can’t into Can. But the Won’ts will not easily release us. We often fail because other issues are the obstacle, not improved instruction. They walk away but do not release us of the guilt of failure.
Perhaps an answer for how to help Won’t Dos is to follow a framework that will help BOTH Can’t Dos and Won’t Dos.
Figure out the antecedents; what environmental factors does the student bring along which may promote or impede learning? For example, is she H.A.T.S.? (Hungry? Angry? Tired? Sick?) Does she have her basic Maslow needs of Safety and Security met?
What should we teach these students? Instruction must be active, relevant, and interesting. A motivating question for many is: If you don’t learn what is being taught, will you have to pay someone else to do it for you when you are on your own? Also, school learning often competes with other, more stimulating or more attractive possibilities. These may, nevertheless, not be safe. Offer students a substitute learning process which will also be stimulating, but safer!
Figure out how to teach what you want to teach. First, identify what you want the finished product (learner) to be able to do. Second, figure out what we would accept as evidence that students have achieved the desired end learning. Third, plan teaching which will yield the evidence we are looking for to prove that subject has been mastered.
Develop positive reinforcers. Behavioral contracts, extrinsic motivators, intrinsic motivators, any enticements which will encourage students to get over the hump which will get them to choose what you have to offer. Have a situational plan, a contingency, which will help the Tough Kids, who are distracted by outside forces, to be able to respond to your plan.
I don’t guarantee that you will always be able to tell the difference between Can’t Dos and Won’t Dos. But your use of the classroom management and motivation tools will help most students be Able and Willing to Respond.