Slow isn’t the same as stupid

Stupid is not the same thing as slow, writes Ben Orlin, a high school math teacher, in Slate. When a teacher describes a student as “slow” or “weak” or “struggling” or “behind” or “low,” each word “embodies different assumptions about the engines of success, the nature of failure, and how students’ minds operate.”

Orlin prefers to see students as “struggling,” swimming valiantly against the current.

Every night of ninth grade, (Monica) slaved over her homework, barely sleeping, fighting against the rapids, straining to tread water. I admired her tenacity, and did my best to throw her life preservers—test corrections, tutoring sessions, extra credit. In the end, though, it wasn’t enough. She failed my geometry class, and the rest of her subjects, too. (She passed freshman year the second time around.)

. . . But some students just don’t care. Math strikes them as pointless, or impossible, and they’re perfectly content to surrender to the river without a fight. David, for example, didn’t struggle at all. He eyed trigonometry, decided it wasn’t for him, and promptly failed . . .

Students know when teachers think they’re too stupid to learn, Orlin writes. “Even if we limit our usage of words like dumb to the conspiratorial privacy of the faculty lounge, kids can tell. Such judgments seep into our interactions with them.”

About Joanne


  1. Sometimes it’s obvious when a student *can* do better but chooses not to, or cannot do better at all. That’s a small percentage of the time. Most of the time I have no idea if the student is capable or not, which is why I limit myself to describing the *outcomes* and not the motivation or effort or intrinsic value of the student.

    “Currently, Mr. and/or Mrs. Jones, your child is not meeting the minimum standard. He/she has not turned in any assignments, and that could be a contributing factor to the low quiz and test grades.”