What are the Barriers To Learning?

When students have trouble learning, we turn to medication for help. But before we go there, how much have we thought about the underlying barriers to learning? For example, could their eyesight be preventing them from seeing the classroom board clearly? Do they have ADHD or are they bored? And most important, what is the effect on learning of being hungry, poor, or an outcast in our society?

Intergenerational Poor

One of the most overlooked and under-represented reasons for student disengagement with learning is the disadvantageous condition of poverty. 41% of students in city schools are in high poverty neighborhoods (NCES). Before the child ever reaches the classroom, their brain is not ready to learn. The outcome of being poor is at root a lack of choices, a lack of food, a lack of privacy and a lack of self-respect. Imagine not being able to feed yourself well enough so that your brain can attend to real learning. Instead you are learning where there might be more food, or learning how to manipulate others for food, or dropping out of school because you are too weak to sustain yourself in a learning environment.

Cognitive barriers

In an article by Fisher & Frey (Sept. 1, 2021), in ASCD, two recent pieces of research (Donovan & Bransford [2021], How students learn; History, mathematics, and science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Academy Press) and Chew & Cerbin, [2020]. The cognitive challenges of effective teaching. The journal of Economic Education), help Fisher & Frey organize their thinking around nine areas of cognitive challenges which are then listed in a table with suggested teaching responses. From students who don’t see the purpose in the topic, to student fear and mistrust, to misconceptions, transfer of learning, and selective attention, the authors describe common problems that teachers face every day in every classroom.

Teacher Clarity

The teacher responses suggested are focused around explaining the value of learning, creating reflective assignments, using initial assessments, advance organizers and study skills, to increasing teaching clarity. In each instance the idea that is conveyed to students is that their barriers to learning are normal and that teacher clarity about spotting each barrier can help learners overcome their barriers. I would add that this is the deeper level work of teaching and learning—spotting student learning barriers would go a long way to employing the correct teaching approach for each child.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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