Why Smart Kids Fail

When I was in eighth grade, my mother returned home from a parent-teacher conference with my English teacher to report: “Miss Martin said you’d do fine if you would only apply yourself more.” Back then, “not applying yourself” was the term used to explain why an otherwise “smart kid” was pulling C grades (like I was) or even lower. Actually, English class was my only C, except for occasional C’s in math. But English was my strength, math wasn’t. So why wasn’t I succeeding?

Why smart kids fail is a complex topic, and I don’t want to oversimplify it. Just the fact that I was a 13 year old girl growing a half inch a month could be one explanation. There are children who have diagnosed learning difficulties, and those with emotional challenges like depression. This isn’t about those issues. It’s about a mismatch between a child’s learning style and the instructional style which causes a lack of engagement and motivation that eventually leads to failure, even for smart kids.

Learning style, as I use the term, is a function of personality and temperament that is inherent. Learning style shapes your perception of the world, influencing how you approach tasks and make decisions, what captures your attention, what energizes and engages you. It’s part of what makes you a unique individual.

Think of your learning style as you would “handedness.” I’m left-handed and just missed that era when lefties were forced by schools to shift to the right. (The message to kids: your brain is not wired correctly!) How are you wired? Try this now: Pick up a pen with your less-favored hand and write out your full name. How did that feel? Slow, awkward, frustrating? How’s the product look? Not exactly the Palmer method is it? Do you feel successful at this task? Do you feel smart now?

I found out decades after eighth grade that my style is what I call the PERSONAL GROWTH learner. Learning for me is a journey of self-understanding. Life is like a story (drama) unfolding, full of symbolism, darkness and light. Conflict-free relationships are important to my well-being. I will work in school for a teacher I “like” i.e., feel affirmed by. I am verbally and creatively talented, but I get lost in daydreams and my abstract ideas may not seem practical. That’s annoying to other learning temperaments, especially the PRACTICE style (Miss Martin). Her English class was ALL practice, repetition, routine.

The PRACTICE learner literally believes that “practice makes perfect” and sets off on a sequential path to skill mastery. Learning, however, must be grounded in experience. “How does this apply in real life?” is a question often asked. PRACTICE learners are made for school because schools are made by them. Just don’t ask them to think too abstractly—always be prepared with concrete examples. Sound like you or your child?

My husband is a PROBLEM SOLVER learner, always tinkering, experimenting, researching, and reasoning so doggone logically. Even more maddening is the way PROBLEM SOLVERs question authority! That’s not popular in the classroom or at the dinner table. And my friend is a PLAY learner. Fun to be around, but can we ever get serious? Does everything have to be like a game, or worse yet, a competition? Slow down and sit still! Read a book why don’t you?

We possess and use all four learning styles. But parents and educators, if you want to see smart kids SUCCEED, first and foremost understand your own preferred learning style. Otherwise, you might be creating an environment in which one style dominates, and some children can’t succeed unless they are made in your image. Our learning style doesn’t limit what we can achieve or the level, but it does influence the way we choose to go about it. If we don’t experience the freedom to choose our own path, at least some of the time, we might lose motivation and fail to achieve our full potential.

Take our free Learning Styles survey and register for a workshop in your area at www.talentprogramsolutions.org