Johnny Can’t Read (Because You’re Not Accommodating His Learning Style)

In my last blog, I wrote about a school work experience coordinator who was a self-confessed under-achiever in high school. My own adult kid recently mused that she didn’t apply herself in the slightest in school, either. Neither spoke of these experiences with any recrimination of others. They just weren’t into the whole going to class and studying thing.

This doesn’t lead me to a conclusion that schools are always blameless when students don’t fare well. Both Jack and my kid have offered some pretty cogent critiques of public education. But their comments also carry a good measure of something that is, in my humble opinion, far too rare in recriminations of education systems: an accounting of personal responsibility on the part of the student.

Failure to Teach? Failure to Learn?

A few teachers out there may relate to this story once recounted to me by an elementary school teacher: Little Johnny (he never gets old) is working beneath his potential and making a royal attention-hogging pain in the ass of himself in the classroom while he’s at it. When Johnny is confronted about his behaviour, he tells his teacher: “You’re not teaching to my learning style.” Seems Johnny is a “kinaesthetic” or hands-on learner, and long division practice in math class isn’t doing it for him [1].

So my question is this: To what extent should Johnny’s failure to learn be recast as his teacher’s “failure to teach?”  This might sound like I’m out to defend the status quo in terms of how children are taught in schools, or to wag a finger at Johnny for being more, errr… “active” than his fellow students. Not at all. There is much room for improvement teaching, for kids and adults alike. And Johnny, bless his heart, isn’t the only kid out there who really freaking hates sitting still [2].

My concern is, instead, that Johnny has, at his tender age of whatever, already acquired the lingo and wherewithal to shift the responsibility for his learning to someone else. What’s worse is he probably got it from his parents, and the well-intentioned teacher who assessed his “learning style” in the first place. What’s even worse than this is that everyone in the game has become well versed in an officially sanctioned vocabulary and set of beliefs about education that consistently rob students of much of the responsibility for their own successes and – hey sorry, life stinks – failures.

You Can Lead A Horse to Water…

There seems to be genuine confusion about whose job it is to actually do the learning. My basic contention is this: earnest efforts to provide quality teaching seem to have obscured the other half of the successful learning equation: a willing and committed student with a work ethic.

Perhaps this statement seems obvious. It’s in the “lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” vein, right? So when it comes to the accepted state of affairs in education I’d extend the analogy this way: You can lead the horse to water and he will drink if he likes the water, if the time of day is right, if he likes the way you look, and if you give him an apple before or after or during the exercise. Unless it’s a Tuesday.

All of this might be well and good if there were some general acceptance that if the horse doesn’t want to drink… well we’ve done what we can. He’ll drink when he’s damn good and ready to. Similarly, if you accept this logic, some people – kids and adults alike – are either unwilling or unable to learn. This may or may not change depending upon their life circumstances, their maturation process, and a host of other contingencies one can’t start to imagine. This recognition and acceptance might locate some of the responsibility for learning in the hands of those who are supposedly to benefit from it.

Blaming Educators

In both K-12 education and my own world of post-secondary education, instead of looking at students’ individual efforts and motivation, it’s common to blame the hell out of the teacher and the institution when students fail to “achieve.” In public education, this usually takes the form of teacher bashing. In higher education, it manifests in the growth industry of college level remedial education. Both trends are anchored in an underlying belief that if a student hasn’t learned, it’s someone else’s job to create just the right learning environments and strategies to “fix it.”

There are at two significant problems with this belief. First, it yields a weak focus on the structures and conditions outside of education systems that flood schools, colleges and universities with kids who can’t or won’t learn [3]. For example, schools and teachers are pummelled when kids fair poorly, despite overwhelming evidence that socioeconomic status and parents’ education are the key determinants of school success. Schools and teachers have no influence over these factors. In post-secondary education, grade inflation and adult remediation accompany expanding enrolment in post-secondary education, yet there is scant examination of the conditions that thrust non-academic students into colleges and universities.

The second problem accompanying the first is a weak focus on the individual, and by extension the parents that raise him or her. Teachers regularly lament that lack of parental support and involvement makes their work more difficult. “Helicopter parents” may be even worse; some actively blame teachers and schools when their kids don’t do well. Twenge and Campbell’s (2009) work on narcissism in college students has its challengers, but has resonated widely among educators and cultural observers who identify an increasing sense of entitlement among youth who consequently think they should succeed in school without trying too hard [4].

So the deal is that the “education system” generally, and the teachers/instructors who face students on the front lines every day in particular, get it with both barrels: they are blamed for the social ills that make learning tough, but also bear the brunt of what I would argue is a declining public discourse around the individual responsibilities that ought to accompany loud and frequent defenses of individual rights and entitlements.

I wouldn’t argue with anyone who points to social and economic conditions that make it hard to succeed in school. They play a strong and undeniable role. Further, I have little patience for the (usually wilful) sociological blindness that breeds the kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” arguments that would happily kick the likes of Little Johnny to the curb, no questions asked. I do however believe the balance of responsibility for learning has shifted much, much too far, such that kids and the families are armed with an arsenal of strategies to blame everyone but themselves when education is not a great success story.

I just wonder why kids and parents are not made “accountable” in the way that teachers and institutions are. All the money and effort in the world to improve “learning opportunities” cannot succeed without the will, on the part of the individual, to try, learn, sometimes fail, and then try again. Further, there are important life lessons in trying hard and still being average [5]. Not sure where or when these have taken a back burner.

Talk Back…

Do you think that students, generally, feel more “entitled” than they used to? If so, what’s causing it? Love to hear your thoughts… Please comment below!


Notes and References

[1] For an explanation of learning styles (“learning modalities”), see this discussion by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. Or if you prefer an audio-visual modality (hah!) check out this YouTube explanation, resplendent with awesomely cheesy stock photos. For teachers: Willingham is clear that a rejection of learning styles theory is not justification for teaching in a uniform way that does not recognize students’ differences. Differentiating instruction is good; it’s just that differentiating by learning styles isn’t the way to go.

[2] I actually have the same problem myself. I don’t know how I’ve survived three hour graduate seminars, seriously. Recent observations that women now make up the majority of higher education students, and that girls consistently outperform boys in K-12 education have led to questions of whether schools structurally disadvantage boys. Here’s a thoughtful article on the topic by Janice Wallace: What about “What About the Boys?

[3] Critique here is almost always endogenous, that is, it focuses on “inside” conditions, like the teachers, or the schools, or the stuff kids learn, or the testing systems: basically anything that happens, in this case, within the walls of schools or universities. “Exogenous” or external conditions might include, for example, kids’ constant exposure to mass media, growing social inequality, or the decline of well-paying jobs that do not require higher education. All of these conditions, again, are outside of or “exogenous to” educational institutions but have a profound inpact on them nonetheless.

[4] For quick overview of Twenge’s work and some fun stuff about self-aggrandizement in song lyrics check out this NY Times article. It’s important to note that the “evidence” of an increased general sense of entitlement on the part of students is not rock solid. As Greenberger et al. (2008) note, much of the evidence is anecdotal. Nonetheless it is commonly cited enough to warrant further investigation. (See Greenberger, Lessard, Chen & Farruggia (2008). Self-entitled college students: Contributions of personality, parenting, and motivational factors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 1193–1204. Here’s an uptake of Greenberger et al.’s research: Student expectations seen as causing grade disputes, (New York Times, 2009).

[5] Ask me about my 10K and half marathon times, for example.



  1. Being academically challenged, I would like to know what you suggest? Especially since most kids can’t recognise their own learning difficulties and behavior challenges.
    An interesting note, being adopted and now knowing my birth family, I tend to see that we all share the same academic challenges. I think both parents and teachers need to work together, with patience and dedication, to help out such students. Having a scheduled routine does help too.
    What do you suggest, Laura?

    • Hey Teresa, thanks for taking a minute to comment! 🙂

      If I was going to boil it down, I’d just argue that regardless of academic ability, a sense of responsibility and a good work ethic will carry one far. Unfortunately, emphasis on grades and achievement tends to downplay the values and “good character” that I think ought to matter more.

      I did like Willingham’s caveat (see footnote #1 above) that good teaching still requires sensitivity to students’ unique interests and strengths, and I agree with you that parents and teachers need to work together to help kids reach their potential. I just hear from too many teachers that lots of parents are absent until there’s a problem, and some parents do indeed expect their kids to get special treatment. Fortunately there are also some great parents out there!

  2. Your “Little Johnny” story also brings up another issue that may arise from the sense of entitlement junior high and high school age children develop: the transition from high school to university. In a high school setting, Johnny may be able to use his learning style as a crutch or excuse in high school, but he will most likely not be able to carry on this way in a university setting. In first year university he will be thrust into five classrooms with five different professors and five different teaching styles. He may also have gone from a class of thirty to a class of two hundred, depending on the faculty. Johnny will be expected to adapt to each of these five teaching styles… indeed, his academic standing depends on his ability to adapt. One professor may use power point, while another may lecture while his/her students take notes. One may encourage class discussion, while another speaks without interruption from the beginning of class to the end. One professor may assign only standard sized papers, while another may include creative projects or presentations. Etc. My point is that an average student at university will experience multiple teaching styles over the years and they will be expected to sink or swim in that learning environment, regardless of whether or not the professor caters to auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners. Students who rely on this excuse in high school, rather than on perseverance and hard work may find their first semester of university to be nearly impossible.

    I myself have had one or two professors who seemed woefully inadequate at conveying the subject material, but instead of curling up in a ball of frustration and blame, as I might have in high school, I had to find a way to teach myself the material and make it make sense for me. Self-reliance is absolutely crucial to success in university, at least in my experience.

    • Hi Sarah,

      Thanks! I thought about your comment when I was talking to my daughter and her friend today about how some kids hit the wall in their first year of university because they’ve managed to cruise on smarts in their K-12 years. And hey… sorry you’ve got a couple of sucky profs! 😉 But I think that adapting to the people you run into is indeed an important life skill that will carry you far! Good luck with your studies!

  3. Being a teacher, a parent and an administrator I absolutely agree that students, teachers and families must share the responsibility for teaching and learning. As cliché as it sounds…it really does take a village.
    I think statements such as ‘educators have little or no control over SES or parent education’ are problematic. While we cannot directly influence these factors, we can positively impact the lives of these children. Coleman`s report of 1966 asserting that teachers and schools have influence over only 15% of student success has been {thankfully} challenged in more recent years. Cuttance (1998, pp. 1158-1159) concluded that 60% of the variation in student learning lies between classrooms or between schools. The remaining 40% is associated with the student him/herself or to random influences. This study suggests that it is imperative that educators and families work together in order to have the greatest possible impact on student success.
    As educators, we have the ability and the moral obligation to challenge opinions and actions that perpetuate inequity for students from low SES or marginalized minority groups. I think that the goals of education are misplaced, and are disadvantageous to students of low SES and minority groups. We {sadly} judge the worth of children based on how they perform on standardized tests, and then we judge the teachers and schools the same way.
    It would be far more meaningful and advantageous for all students if we took a long critical look at what we are doing in school to perpetuate inequities that preclude success for certain groups of children.
    It’s dangerous to assume that we have little or no impact over how certain children will perform in school. If ‘Little Johnny comes to school and we’ve already decided he can’t/won’t succeed because of his background, then he can’t or won’t succeed.
    Rather than expending effort deciding where the blame shall lie, let’s work towards removing inequities and working with families and the community toward success for all students.

    • Thanks, Theresa, for your really thoughtful response. I’d stand by my case that schools really *don’t* have any control over the lives that students have outside of school, but this doesn’t mean that schools have no control over how they *respond* to these conditions! I think you add a really important point here: that schools mustn’t give up on kids who face challenges. I also agree with you that the “blame game” is ultimately fruitless, but I do get frustrated when schools and teachers are not supported. Teachers know “it takes a village,” but not everyone recognizes that the well-being of our kids is a collective responsibility.

  4. Your comments are refreshing and very true. I was raised in poverty and told by my parents that I was stupid so I was late in attending university because, for a long while, I believed them. My mother died when I was 9 months old and my childhood can only be described as abusive and grim. I was a single parent for 14 years. I finished my BEd after becoming a single parent and my Masters after my children were raised.
    In short, I have had lots to overcome but as one of my friends once said, I have an unending capacity for joy – and hard work. I appreciate that this is the life I have been given and it is completely my responsibility what I make of it. A good work ethic and no whining (and counseling!) can overcome so many challenges. All three of my children have strong work ethics, good lives, and loving relationships. We are close and we love and laugh a lot. My oldest son has three children and my grandchildren are being raised to take responsibility for their behaviour and that includes their learning.
    Once, when my daughter came home and asked me to go into the school and get her out of an in-school suspension, I agreed that I would go and deal with the problem. I went in, found out what she had done and let the principal know that I did not think one day was a sufficient consequence for the way she had treated her teacher in front of her classmates. I insisted on a week long in-school suspension and said that I would drive her to school and pick her up from the principal’s office at the end of the day so she would have no contact with friends. She lost her phone, her computer and all contact with friends for a full week. I wish I could say she never again showed disrespect for her teacher in front of her classmates but I can’t. I can say she never again asked me to get her out of consequences she had earned with her own behaviour. To this day, she recounts this story as one of the experiences that taught her to take responsibility for her life. She learned that it is okay to have feelings of frustration with her learning but never okay to treat others with disrespect and that one has to deal with consequences when one crosses that line. She learned to ask for help with math and offer other students help with writing because that was her strength.
    As a teacher, I have seen so many great parents who raise their children to value respect, responsibility, honesty, caring and hard work. I have also seen parents who make excuses for their child’s behaviour and/or lack of work and that is sad because it creates a disability of character that is hard for the child to overcome as they grow into adulthood. It handicaps the child and impacts the community as the community deals with the consequences of a citizen who has not been given the backbone and character every adult needs.

    • Hi Catherine,

      So pleased to hear from a couple of teachers on this topic! Thanks for sharing your story. Sounds like your kid eventually figured things out, eh? 🙂 I always marvel at how some people just seem to be *born with* a strong work ethic, but it’s equally important to find positive ways to cultivate it, in school and at home.

  5. Pingback: Johnny Has to Read to Compete in the Global Economy: A Follow Up « My So-Called Career

  6. Pingback: Why Johnny STILL can’t read « Verbum Sapienti

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