What we see isn’t always what we’ve got…

Can we identify what do these two learners have in common?

Academically, they are both new learners.  AS is new to reading while ES is new to abstract reasoning and variable representation.

AS’s reading hit a plateau in late October.  She began to struggle with short vowels. 

  We practice with AS daily to improve her word recognition, her reading, and her confidence.  We applaud her work and praise her improvements.

ES’s use of variables to mathematically model a problem hit a plateau in early November with systems of equations. We offer ES the opportunity to practice every day, but does he?  There are so many more variables for ES than for AS.  ES has to choose to come after school to work with us one-on-one, or we have to require it.  Would he come for extra help if he knew that we were going to work from his strengths?  Would his confidence and self-efficacy improve if he knew that we would find his bright spots and work there?  He is very good at solving single-variable equations, and his written work is well organized.  If he knew that he would be praised for what he does well and encouraged for his attempts, would he be more receptive to additional practice and attempts?

AS is shy about reading in front of her peers.  Will they laugh at her; will they think she is not smart; what will happen if she makes a mistake?  Is this true for ES too?

How do we react to these two learners?  Some say “I taught this; they need to come for extra help if they don’t get it.”  Others say “We will do whatever it takes to help get this child over the plateau.”

Does the age/size/attitude/behavior of the child contribute to our response?  Should it?  When I look at the children that work daily with me, I see big kids, kids that look grown-up.  They are the oldest in our building, the leaders.  But, what should I see?  What if I could change my view?  What if I could imagine them as young learners seeking praise and bright spots?

We have started project to help us visualize where we are as learners.  An example:

We should see young learners working to understand math with variables; we should see learners that need praise and support.  When AS has some success and gets applause, she smiles and tries again; do our big kids?   When Annie is offered encouragement, she tries again.  This is her first day without her training wheels.

What if we offered mathematically-young students, no matter their age or size, the same level of support as we naturally offer AS?

How do we find ways to celebrate those initial steps in learning?  How do we offer authentic feedback and coaching that will promote success-oriented behaviors and a desire to improve?  How do we build confidence and motivation to attempt more challenging topics and ideas?  How do we remember what we see – a 6’4″ basketball giant – is not always what we’ve got – a young learner in need of support, confidence, and success?


  1. I love this. I want to find a way to do something similar with my physics kids. It now seems so clear to me that even some of our biggest kids in high school, sitting in AP classes, are still young learners in need of support. Thanks for helping me to further open my eyes to this.


  2. Thanks John. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. When I taught Calc Concepts, I worked with really big kids that struggled to learn calculus. Imagine looking at a 6’2″ linebacker senior and realizing that he is the equivalent of a 5th-grader when it comes to graphical representations. Think how difficult it is to draw a function from the graph if its derivative, and then add on to that a lack of experience and confidence. We need a way to reshape our view of the learners we are coaching. We need to find a way to say “try again, you are doing great; you can do it…just keep pedaling.”

    I will have more photos coming soon.


  3. Excellent visual and powerful reminder that we have to think in more complex ways about the learners that we work with. To see one’s chronological age is not necessarily to see their domain-specific learning age. Reminds me of Vygotsky’s ZPD – if we all could have “stats” that would pop up for us about where we are in our various domains of learning – which ZPD we are in for biking, for graphing, etc. Would make learning more transparent and less frustrating for many. It is our assumptions that often get us in trouble. Thanks for thinking of a creative way to help us see our learners in ZPD-age.


  4. The images of two learners, each at different stages of their “schooling” or learning, on opposite ends of the learning curve but yet similar in many respects, is very interesting. There is something about AS’s learning that is safe, secure, and nestled in the love of her parents. ES is out on the water, sailing without a rudder. That is he has support but the stakes are projected as being higher. There really are no do overs, unless he wants to repeat a grade. He is on the time clock, while AS has the freedom to fail, get up, fail, get up, and finally succeed with little time pressure (thinking about the bike riding, not the reading). Of course the reading is more high stakes for AS. Students could afford to take risks, fail, get up and try again if they were not under time constraints. I only have nine months to perform successfully.

    Some students learn to read when they are 4, while others read when they are 6. We don’t tend to worry too much and recognize a developmental difference. However, you have to learn Algebra 1 in 8th grade in 9 months or you may not be able to go to 9th grade. Pressure seems greater.

    This deserves our close attention and serious consideration when we think of what a safe and productive learning environment should look like.



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