Marie was 16 and attended the 5th grade of a High School. She was pretty and intelligent, but her performance was unsatisfactory in all subjects except sports and music. She was stressed, scared and suffering from growing up.
The main teacher, whom I had to replace for three weeks because of his complicated leg fracture, had warned me: You had to be careful with Marie, if she was not doing well or if something did not suit her, her father would call, a high-ranked, senior official in the city, who would threaten and put pressure on the teacher. This was very unpleasant.
In my first lesson in Marie’s class, I told the students that those who had problems in the subjects I was supposed to teach, German and French, could use these three weeks to ‘catch up’ with my help. Anyone who had problems in these subjects could contact me if they wished and we would see how we could solve the problem.
Marie came right away during the first break and told me that French was no fun for her (she put it a little less discreetly), that she had trouble with it, and that she hated everything. After a short conversation, we developed a strategy and a plan. Marie was to learn ten words in French every day in addition to the homework that had to be completed, only ten words, but learn them really well, orally and in writing. In class, she was to ask questions until she understood the problem or task. I would only call on her when she spoke up herself.
After a short time, Marie really blossomed and worked diligently and with great motivation. She was back on track again, had reconnected with the class in terms of work. Her performance, her grades and her self-confidence rose steadily.
After about ten days, my phone rang at 7pm in the evening. That, I thought, must be Marie’s father. It was him. Contrary to my fears, after greeting me, he immediately said, “Things seem to be going really well in class!” Rarely have I been more pleased about a parent meeting! Three weeks later, as I was about to leave the school with an armful of flower bouquets, the headmaster called me and offered me a part-time job.
After about 600 academics (500 lawyers and 100 professors) and a total of about 2500 interested people have read my repost of Professor Elsbeth Stern’s article “At least 30 percent of middle school students don’t belong at the Gymnasium – because they are not overly intelligent” in the last few days, I want to go into more detail on this topic.
In my experience as a teacher and as a learning coach, inadequate academic performance among students at High School in most cases is not a cognitive problem.
The conspicuous interest of academics in this topic shows me that these parents are concerned, or at least worried, about their children’s academic career.
A large number of possible factors can play a role in the underachievement of high school students:
– Lack of knowledge about learning strategies and techniques.
– Inadequate preparation for the new school type
– The why. Does the child have an idea of his/her dream job, his/her possibilities?
– Lack of motivation for the school material
– Lack of integration of the learning material into everyday life, family discussions and activities
– Tension with the teacher
– Temporarily overwhelmed by the new pace of learning
– Too little explanation or lack of preparation of the material by the teacher
– Knowing where to go for help if something is not understood.
– Multilingualism in the family
– The local language is only learned and spoken at school.
– High expectations of parents and family
– Disinterest and lack of support from parents and family
– Overprotected or left to their own devices
– Tension in the family, for example due to relationship problems of the parents, due to a sibling who needs a lot of attention for health reasons
– A move from another country or another region
– The child has trouble making friends in class or making friends, perhaps because he or she can be introverted, shy.
– Sometimes puberty is a time that is not conducive to concentrated learning.
In almost all cases, the problem can be solved quickly by giving the affected children support lessons or learning coaching for a while, where they learn how to organise their learning successfully, and how to learn more easily and sustainably, so that not only does what they have learned stick, structures, patterns and connections are recognised, but there is also some free time left for hobbies and leisure. Of course, there are children who prefer to work in a different way, more practice-oriented, perhaps also prefer to do handicrafts. Or perhaps they need more time to mature before they can engage in intensive learning processes.
A normally intelligent child who has an academic career goal in mind is capable of mastering the High School material without sacrificing all their free time for learning, if learning and free time are well organised. However, the willingness to deal with abstract, theoretical content is a prerequisite. Learning strategies and learning techniques must be learned, trained and refined. In this way, learning as a whole becomes a joyful and successful experience. Learning partnerships, for example, are a valuable further instrument of learning coaching.
There are gifted teachers who are able to introduce this to their students in an age-appropriate way. If this is not the case, parents must get active themselves or, if they do not have the background, knowledge and training, organise a coaching. This is a temporary support that can be reactivated if necessary as soon as learning problems show up again. Young people today are exposed to so many influences and demands that they sometimes need support at school, in personally critical phases, when a change of school or grade is imminent. If parents have gone through a High School education, this is an advantage for the children. But this does not mean that a child whose parents have gone through a different school career cannot also study successfully at a grammar school and later at a university. They just need more and different support. Sometimes they are even more independent and adept at acquiring knowledge and support, precisely because they often have to rely on themselves.
However, it is essential to make thorough clarifications before choosing an education, be it a High School education, a technical school or an apprenticeship: Which career aspirations, which occupational fields, which inclinations and aptitudes does the child, young person show? The most important thing is to choose a first profession that appeals in such a way that the training is successfully completed and that one may work in this profession for a while afterwards. This process requires a lot of time, commitment and attention from parents and educators.
Learning difficulties and poor grades are not necessarily a sign of a lack of intelligence, or a symptom that the child is in the wrong school. They can affect any student when different kinds of pressure come together. In my practice as a coach, I see a lot of unstable or disruptive school biographies. But even in such cases, a lot can be worked through and realigned in a coaching session. Our permeable school system in Switzerland is a huge advantage.