Our students are less resourceful than ever. What’s going on?

The Secret Teacher: We’re denying students challenge of learning to overcome obstacles

We create certain expectations in our students when we adjust what is required of them. Those same expectations cannot be met forever. Illustration: iStock

‘The ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties.” “Being able to deal creatively and effectively with problems.” “The quality of being good at finding ways of solving problems.”

These are just some of the ways of defining the “something” our students are lacking: resourcefulness. After three decades of teaching I find students are less resourceful now than they have ever been. Covid’s role in this is limited, so let’s park that chestnut and look at the bigger – and more worrying – picture, the picture that both predates Covid and will also long outlive it.

How we provide for students with special educational needs sends a message to all our students. They can be hawk-eyed when it suits them and they absorb every detail of how work is set, distributed, differentiated and adapted. They acquire ways of responding to the challenges they meet. Just the thing for students on the lookout for opportunities to offload work they find onerous.

At their age, being fully informed of all the details is irrelevant – what they see is that Billy or Bob gets an “easier” option, and they simply want that too. As adults, it is our job to ensure that all adjustments and accommodations are granted in accordance with the guidelines, and that each student is offered their own best shot at optimal learning and maximum achievement.


Across the board in Irish education, policies are very clear on our responsibility as teachers to provide for and accommodate all of the students in our care, whatever their particular needs.

Nothing less would make sense, and yet once class size, teacher to pupil ratio and the number of teaching hours per week are factored in, we must question how effectively any teacher can deliver this for every single student.

The goals and targets set for those with special educational needs will of course be adapted, and appropriately qualified additional teachers will be allocated time with those students. This in itself creates extra demands on teachers. Communication between the mainstream and special education teachers requires time, which is a good deal harder to come by in our profession than anyone outside it realises.

What if the increased demand on adults as a result of resource provision means the student is ultimately less rather than more resourceful? What if we risk conveying the message that we can outsource our challenges?

Much of this work involves students recognising when they are working at their peak so that they can develop a hunger for it

With this in mind what we communicate to our students – all of them – about how to respond to challenges urgently needs reassessing. Current policies lack emphasis on the student’s own role and responsibility towards learning.

Parental guidance and support is crucial to youngsters, and provision needs to be made in policies for how parents can consciously engage in dialogue with their children about learning.

Much of this work involves students recognising when they are working at their peak so that they can develop a hunger for it. Experiencing the delight that comes with rewards and success is what helps them along the way. This is how we allow them the time and space required to navigate their own path to a very particular sweet spot in the learning experience: the feeling of real achievement. The kind that involves bumps in the road and a need to overcome obstacles. Exactly the kind of experience which I believe many students are denied. It is all too easy for them to get off to a poor start in a subject and then write it off forever. Appropriately scaffolded work combined with the right doses of motivation works wonders and can lead a student down a very different road. Making it about what they already know and have already accomplished is vital. If we only focus on the gaps we nourish self-doubt, and the student’s inner self-saboteur soon takes centre stage. And with that their capacity to be resourceful dwindles rapidly.

We create certain expectations in our students when we adjust what is required of them

A student who gets the message that they need to be relieved of a particular learning burden will inevitably relax the corresponding learning muscle. Right now, based on what our current system values, decisions are taken to avoid unnecessarily overloading or discouraging the student.

When we value academic performance above and beyond all else, we have no choice but to protect a student from inevitable failure. Essentially, that is what we do when we lower the bar and make allowances. I’m not against this in principle, but what concerns me is that those allowances will not necessarily be made throughout their lives.

We create certain expectations in our students when we adjust what is required of them. Those same expectations cannot be met forever, and for that reason I would argue that we would better serve our students by making fewer allowances, especially in the early years. Let’s think bigger and outside the box, and place the emphasis in such a way that pupils experience learning without pressure for longer. We could leave them free to develop a broader range of learning muscles before putting any of them to the test. We could monitor more, and report less.

Young people imitate what they see. They model their behaviour on that of others. What we make possible for them and what we ourselves do are both influential here. We who are in roles that youngsters observe need to ensure that they recognise challenges as the massive opportunities they so often are. It is important to convey the language of motivation and excitement rather than discouragement and anxiety. This is what leads young people towards finding new ways and being creative. They get to exercise their problem-solving muscle and learn as they go.

Resourcefulness is most definitely an inside job, so let’s not encourage our students to outsource it.