Using Students’ Uniqueness as a Learning Strength

To Sir, with Love” was released in 1967. In it, Sydney Portier played an unemployed engineer who takes a teaching job in a rough school. He has a classroom full of working-class “punks,” most of whom came from chaotic and/or dysfunctional home environments. The year gradually transforms the students and “Mr. Thackery” himself.

This was the first “modern” film that made a major social comment about what we do with kids in a classroom to foster engagement and excitement about learning. It also came on the heels of the now infamous Coleman Report (1966), which was largely a condemnation of public education and its outcomes.

So, here we are discussing the very same thing. How can we engage and excite students about their learning? Certainly, one of the most important and effective ways is to tap into each student’s uniqueness and to use that as a take-off point for their learning. Yes, this is tough, and yes, it will require careful thought and planning. But particularly with at-risk populations, who permeate every classroom, this is essential if we are committed to teaching all of our children, not just the BWP’s (bright, white, and polite).

Students Do Bring Strengths and Experiences to Their Classrooms

All students learn. They learn in their families, their communities, and in their classrooms. And every single one of them brings their backgrounds to school. None of them learns in exactly the same way – their unique histories are just theirs.

When Uniqueness Clashes with Standard Learning

 Students enter school with preconceptions, and they may clash with the curriculum itself or with the learning environment that has been established.

At the most simplistic level, an example of the work of Bransford, Brown & Cocking, in 2002 (How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School), suppose a child comes to Kindergarten with the notion that the world is flat. Why? Because he has seen a flat map of the world. That notion must be dis-spelled through new learning. If it isn’t, the child may learn to say the world is round on a test but never really internalize the concept. The concept really only gets internalized when the child can put it into some context and relevancy.

And so it is with any pre-conceptions that kids have about the world of learning. If they cannot put it into some context that is compelling and of interest, learning will not be “cemented.”

And this is where capitalizing on their strengths, interests, and areas of confidence comes into play. Teachers who are aware of these differences can reflect on how to use them so that all of their students can access content and skills.

Building on Student Strengths

There are student strengths that are not recognized or neglected in the traditional classroom. Kids in under-represented minority groups, for example, do have culturally relevant background knowledge that teachers can use if there is awareness.

If you have Muslims in your classroom, what do you know about their social attitudes toward schooling?

If you have students without strong memory and analytical skills, but who are wonderfully creative or possess practical skills, how are you're honoring those strengths in your delivery methodologies?

The key may not be so much to try to determine each student’s strengths, but, rather deliver a curriculum that incorporates the diverse strengths that may exist in any classroom – the analytical, the creative, and the practical thinkers.


OK. So, this is perhaps a “verboten” subject, but the literature says otherwise. Boys, especially those from minority groups, do fall behind girls in literacy achievement early. Also, the research shows that they never catch up.

According to a study by L. Sax, the following facts are presented:

  • This deficiency in reading and writing is a factor in the higher dropout rate for boys, especially black males.
  • The college graduation rate is also impacted. Girls have a rate almost 2X higher than their counterpart Hispanic and male populations.

Lower literacy rates for minority males just makes it too difficult for them to get good grades. And those who do make it tend to have lots of help. They get tutoring or use academic writing services like at BestWritingAdvisor, but enter the job market still less proficient than their female counterparts.

Many boys enter and remain in learning environments that are a good fit for the “sit still, take-notes, listen-carefully student…while they bring impulsivity, single-task focus, and spatial-kinesthetic learning…” things that are often seen by our learning institutions as “problems.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of methodologies today to accommodate these predominantly male traits – display formats, presentations, videos, and computers, as well as interactive learning activities. In fact, allowing students – all students – to incorporate digital technology in their learning and creation of presentations can deepen learning and mastery. This has been confirmed by the research of L. Sadik, as reported in the Educational Research and Technology Development Journal

Bringing Background Knowledge to the Classroom

Educational researchers long ago settled on the notion that, in order for students to learn something new, they must be able to connect it to some prior knowledge, if they are to master and retain that new knowledge. Teachers, especially at the secondary level, have plenty of opportunities to provide these connections by providing real-life experiences to students. Project-based learning at all levels provides these connections; service learning for secondary students is ideal; organizing school-based enterprises is another tool.

The idea is to actively engage students in their learning as well as allow them to make connections between learning and the real-world. Experiential learning is generally learning that is retained.

The delightful other effect is that students who formerly saw school as irrelevant and distasteful will begin to make stronger connections and commitment to school and learning.

Connecting to the Home Environment

When students enter a learning environment that does not recognize and value their family situations, no matter how foreign to teaching staff, the have an immediate disconnect. They are trying to navigate two completely opposite “worlds,” and one of them may easily be the world in which education and schooling are not valued.

Schools and school districts can help alleviate this disconnect by openly placing value on what each student brings to the schoolhouse and to work to establish connections with parents and community. As well, there should be a concerted effort to utilize any strengths and experiences that can be incorporated into the learning environment.

Giving all students a variety of experiences in the community (teachers too) can help to integrate minority populations. Taking a field trip into a largely Hispanic community, for example, touring churches and other community facilities and eating in an authentic restaurant can show Hispanic students that their cultures are valued. At the high school level, service learning projects which take students into these communities are particularly valuable, if they can foster cooperation among various populations toward a common goal.

Not Just for Minorities

Every child, no matter what his/her cultural, ethnic, or socio-economic background, has some strengths that, when tapped, can lead to better learning. It’s a tough job for teachers to identify these unique strengths and to lend them value in the teaching/learning process.

Fortunately, technology and the greater effort toward project-based learning can allow for greater uniqueness among students. Administering very short learning style inventories, providing lots of options, and sometimes just asking the right questions of the students themselves and provide teachers with actionable information.

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