Why Do Teachers Have to Work So Hard to Make Students Learn?

Imagine the feeling of riding a bicycle on a warm, sunny day; you are coasting along with a gentle breeze blowing through your hair that is perfectly refreshing. Suddenly, you are jarred from your enchanting daydreams as you begin to feel a drag. You start pedaling harder. From what you can see, the road ahead appears flat, but your legs confirm that you are on an incline. You push harder and harder, but only go slower. You are clearly fighting gravity.

Teachers feel this same tension every single day. They are working harder and harder, but are clearly feeling the drag. They are tasked with more things to do, document, and correlate every day. Their extended efforts never seem to be enough as students become more apathetic and their performance continues to dwindle.

Many people are quick to blame technology, but that is not the root cause of the problem. In fact, if channeled correctly, technology can be a very empowering resource for students. There is something much more significant going on.

The “New Initiative” Train

In an effort to fix the problem, school districts and education departments usher in new “initiatives,” designed to improve instruction and “finally” make things better. These initiatives are mapped together with new curriculum standards so teachers can have “air-tight” plans when they enter the classroom.

These initiatives revolve in cycles, usually every 1-3 years. Teachers roll their eyes as the new one marches in because they know that This Year’s Initiative is the same as Last Year’s Initiative; the only difference is the terminology. They are identified with various proper and common nouns. Some “classics” include Maslow’s Hierarchy and Bloom’s Taxonomy. More recent evolutions include “VAK” (visual, auditory, kinesthetic), 21st Century Skills, or Marzano’s Nine Essential Instructional Strategies.

Why These Initiatives Don’t Work

There is nothing wrong with any of these theories or strategies. I use most of them to create lessons and curriculum, myself. However, at best, they only address 50% of the problem! They only provide perspectives and tools for teachers to deliver content. They do not teach students how to process that content: how to consume it, analyze it, ask questions, or make decisions about it.

For Example…

-Maslow tells teachers that students need to have their basic needs met in order to be in the green zone of learning. This is important for teachers to know, but do we teach students how to deal with physical and emotional challenges that prevent them from reaching their optimal state of learning?

-Bloom taught teachers to recognize different levels of learning. But, do we teach students about these different levels…let alone how to get into “high gear” learning?

-Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles (VAK) are important for teachers to understand so they can provide instruction and assessments in a variety of modalities. However, VAK only confuses students; they can identify their preferred learning styles, but there is very little students can do about them because they have no control over the assignments and tests they are required to do.

-The 21st Century Skills Framework is, well… confusing. The following is a description from the p21.org website:

The Framework presents a holistic view of 21st century teaching and learning that combines a discrete focus on 21st century student outcomes (a blending of specific skills, content knowledge, expertise and literacies) with innovative support systems to help students master the multi-dimensional abilities required of them in the 21st century.

I’M confused! How can this possibly empower students?

-Marzano’s Nine Essential Instructional Strategies are filled with great strategies for teachers, such as encouraging teachers to use “nonlinguistic representations” (aka “symbols”) to represent relationships. However, students should be taught that visuals are very powerful for the brain and coached through the process of making their own visuals, instead of having the visuals presented TO them. Otherwise, they are simply memorizing meanings of symbols (low-gear learning) instead of creating their own associations (high-gear learning).

What Is Our Objective?

Teachers are swamped with strategies detailing what they should do. They grow more and more overwhelmed as they desperately try to hone their craft, only to end up feeling defeated day after day. Is it any wonder? Everything they have been taught -every college class, PD session, and magazine article- suggests that they must do all of the work. Meanwhile, students are only learning how to follow directions by memorizing visuals, filling in the blanks on graphic organizers, and answering questions instead of creating them.

The Other 50% of the Equation

Teachers and administrators will always feel like they are slugging uphill until students are empowered to learn strategically. Study skills are the great differentiator because they are skills driven by students. They teach students how to learn, ask questions, and navigate their way through learning with high-level skills.

To be fair, there are some things labeled as “study skills” that are not student-driven, but I believe study skills should be exclusively about teaching students how to: think forward and set their own goals, create their own purpose for learning, organize their papers and supplies, learn strategically, and monitor their progress along the way.

Notice, none of these skills are about the teacher doing more work. It is time for STUDENTS to carry the burden of their own success. The best thing is, they WANT this responsibility. They thrive on a good challenge! They would love to be woken from their educational coma.


Students must learn how to develop their own questions and problem-solving abilities so they can be prepared for the real-world situations of being an employee, entrepreneur, or family manager. It is time to release teachers from the drag of pedaling uphill and give students a chance to feel the burn. They have been waiting for this opportunity!