How many “poker chips” do your students have?

In a previous blog, I discussed my strong belief that IQ is a false measurement of intelligence. Perhapds I should have clarified what I believe to be a very good indicator of a students educational progress.

Attitudes and behaviours will, to a large extent, dictate a students personal development while in school or college. For example, almost every student I know who has professed to be “too stupid to do maths”, has clearly indicated their unwillingness to re-engage in the learning process due to fear of failure. In almost every case, I have been able to develop that persons maths skills. Also in each case, it has been necessary to resolve underlying self-esteem issues in conjunction with gradually introducing new maths skills.

The Poker Chip Analogy

I remember some years ago being told this story by a very experienced teacher, which I would like to share with you, and which might help explain this:

Imagine a typical classroom. Sitting next to each other are two students. Each have very different social backgrounds. Student “A” comes from a secure and loving family. He is well fed, well dressed, encouraged to participate in sports by his parents, and is allowed to express himself and strive for success. He is confident, self assured, and willing to take risks in order to advance his education and knowledge. This student could be described as “owning a large stack of poker chips” relative to hiw self-esteem. When teacher sets a question to the class, this student will be more than willing to risk that he has the correct answer, even if he is not entirely sure. After all – what is the worst that could happen? So, he will put his hand up and give the answer he thinks is correct, thus using up one of his “poker chips”. If he is right, then he gets congratulated, earning him more chips. If he is wrong, then he has lost one chip. But, no matter – he has many more to gamble and no harm is done.

Student “B” may come from a broken home. Perhaps a problem family where he gains little encouragement from his family or peers. Surviving each day is a struggle, and due to domestic issues and instability, his academic performance is poor. This student has little self confidence and is not optimistic of the future. He is not encouraged to strive for success and, because of his poor grades, thinks he is less intelligent than others in his class. As a result, he has a very small stack of poker chips to gamble, relative to his self-esteem. Perhaps he even has only one. When teacher sets a question to the class, the risk for him is too high. Even if he thinks he knows the right answer, he will still not put his hand up. He decides that if he is wrong he will lose his poker chip, and the loss of this single poker chip would have a very substantial impact on what remains of his self esteem. So, better to be quiete and let others take the risk.

The end result is that although he clings on to his little pile of poker chip, but never gets the opportunity to win more.

And that, I think, is my job as a teacher. I need to ensure that I identify those im my group who demonstrate these behaviours. More than any other thing, I need to make sure that every student leaves my lessons with more poker chips than they came in.

It is NOT my job to take poker chips from any student.

If we spend time building self-esteem and encouraging risk-taking within the classroom, then we help students understand that there are no stupid questions and that the most important learning always comes from the mistakes we have made.

Extra focus should be placed on encouraging and congratulating even the small achievements of those we have identified as low in self-esteem. Then, when they have enough, perhaps they will be willing to gamble a few.

Until next time…

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