Mrs. Bees Reads About Shut-Down Learners

January 27, 2010 at 4:37 pm 7 comments

Shut-Down Learner book cover

About two weeks ago, I went to the public library looking for books that might help answer some of the “teacher existential angst” questions bouncing around in my head. (That, and a paranormal romance that was just too embarrassing to actually purchase.) One of the books that caught my eye was a slim volume called The Shut-Down Learner: Helping Your Academically Discouraged Child, by Richard Selznick.

I took it home in the hope that it might provide some insight – and tools – for me as I try to connect with some of my more discouraged (and discouraging) students. Sure enough, the shut-down learners (SDLs) that Selznick describes are frequent inhabitants of my classroom. I have to return the book this afternoon, but I found it helpful enough that I wanted to talk about it here in case it might come in useful to my blog-friends as well. If this sounds like some of your students (or your children) please go check out or purchase Selznick’s book. I think you’ll find it worth your time.

Identifying Shut-Down Learners in Your Classroom

Male SDLs in your classroom will likely be easier to identify.  They’ll be the kid who tries to hide, who slouches, avoids eye contact, and will do anything to keep from being called on. They act up in class, decline to do their work, and end up with single-digit grades in your class. They’ve often been labeled as ADHD. More male students than female tend to be SDLs.

Female SDLs are tougher to identify. They often exhibit “teacher-pleaser” traits: pleasant, friendly, helpful, vivacious. They’ll probably end up with higher grades than their male counterparts because they appear to be “trying.” They’ll often work overtime to fit in or seem more like the popular girls.

SDLs seem unmotivated to learn and become disconnected from the classroom activities. They exhibit extreme dislike for reading and writing, and seem to gain nothing positive (intrinsically or extrinsively) from their school experience. This often manifests as anger toward the school system.

These students are often diagnosed (wrongly, or incompletely) as ADHD.

What’s the Real Problem?

Selznick calls SDLs, especially the boys, “Lego kids.” They tend to have excellent visual-spatial intelligence, and will spend hours doing complicated kinesthetic tasks. They score very highly on tests where they have to discern graphic patterns. Because these skills are emphasized in the earliest grades, SDLs may be initially identified as gifted.

The underlying problem for SDLs is very low linguistic-verbal intelligence. They have severely underdeveloped vocabularies, and significant deficiencies in reading fluency and/or comprehension.

After the first year or two of school, opportunities for these students to shine with their visual-spatial skills decrease while demands on their linguistic-verbal skills increase. They can’t keep up, and then they can’t catch up. Suddenly, the gifted kindergartner is the below-average third-grader, diagnosed with ADHD by a rushed doctor, but medication can’t make up for fundamental holes in language acquisition.

By high school, you have a student who is completely overwhelmed, desperately behind, and (sometimes irrevocably) shut-down. They feel stupid and unable to do the things that seem so simple to other students, so in an attempt to shield themselves from these feelings, they either disconnect entirely or attempt to camouflage their deficiencies through excellence in sports and socialization.

What’s the Answer?

Parents and teachers look at a SDL and tend to believe that the problem is a lack of motivation. No amount of motivation, however, can overcome the fact that the student simply lacks ability. (Selznick has a terrific metaphor for this, wherein he compares SDL learners to runners with heel spurs.) When efforts to motivate the student inevitably fail, the adults in their lives get frustrated and angry. Negative reinforcement exacerbates the problem as the student feels punished for something they can’t control. Understanding that a student truly can’t rather than won’t is a key thing that parents and teachers can do to help these students.

The curriculum is another major obstacle for these students, and Selznick suggests something potentially radical (but, to my mind, pretty intriguing). Selznick suggests that SDL students will not thrive under the regular curriculum, because their language acquisition is so impaired. He recommends a more remedial curriculum for part of these students’ education – instruction that will help them overcome the worst of their deficiencies so that they can achieve their adult goals and have confidence.

The other part of their curriculum should have a heavier focus on those areas in which SDL students can excel and have confidence – classes that utilize their visual-spatial and kinesthetic intelligences.

That translates to something akin to vocational/vo-tech education, which I imagine could raise some eyebrows amongst some educators. I’m of the opinion, though, that we’re doing our country and its youngest citizens a stark disservice by minimizing vocational and practical education. Not all students will be college graduates, and if we don’t have people who are expert welders, electricians, mechanics, plumbers, and carpenters (not to mention hairstylists!) what will happen to our world?

Selznick’s recommendation isn’t trying to compartmentalize SDL learners or say that they can’t achieve a “white-collar” future. The fact is, he shows, that many SDLs are happier in jobs where they can work with their hands. They have confidence and success, and tend to excel, because this is where their natural gifts lie. (Re-reading this, I feel uncomfortable, as if I’ve written something racist, bigoted. I need to dig into that reaction a little bit – I guess I’m more conflicted on this subject than I thought! Looking forward to readers’ thoughts.)

Minor tangent: We’ve created an artificial hierarchy, I think, of “good jobs” and “bad jobs” based on whether you wear earplugs and a toolbelt or a suit and tie. I would argue (and I’d bet Selznick would agree) that there aren’t bad jobs, just jobs that are bad for certain people, and that a vocation that brings you satisfaction and lets you make a living is good regardless of the uniform.

Anyway…. You can get an autographed copy of The Shut-Down Learner for $11.95 through the book’s website, or you can find it for the same price through Amazon (with used copies as low as $3.58). You can even preview the book for free by requesting the first chapter here, or look for it at your local library.

Disclaimer: I’m not affiliated with Selznick or the book publishers in any way, and am not getting compensated in any way for this post – just wanted to share a good find with other teachers.


Entry filed under: IDEAS AND TOOLS, REVIEWS.

It Really is a New Semester My Students, If Mutants

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. OKP  |  January 27, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    You haven’t said anything bigoted at all. If we subscribe to the idea that a job done well, a job that brings something necessary to the world (or can help people, etc.), and that a person enjoys is a good job, then it doesn’t matter what the job is. There must be some sort of cultural shift about what kinds of work we do and if the works done well or satisfies the worker.

    The pendulum is swinging towards practical abilities; I continue to impress upon my college-bound seniors that their degrees are simply pieces of paper that proclaim their potential and their intent to be productive in the world — they are not ends in and of themselves.

    Thanks for the post.

  • 2. Rachel  |  January 27, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    I really like the ideas you present in your summary. I’ve often thought that we are being unfair by having one accepted graduation path for our students. Even the tech/practical path requires a significant emphasis on those linguistic-verbal courses. If a kid wants to go into HVAC, do they really need 2-3 years of foreign language? Like you, I’ve felt a slight twinge when expressing these ideas in the past because I don’t think my fellow teachers always agree. But I don’t think we’re being bigoted. We’re not forcing our students onto a college track because it’s the “accepted” route. Perhaps the teachers who insist that everyone should go to college are being bigoted, because for some reason, they don’t view tech/vocational programs as acceptable.

    Now, I don’t know that I completely agree that with SDLs, it’s always a matter of “can’t.” I think with the proper amount of encouragement and direction, any student could do the work required of him/her. Honestly, the times a student fails my course, it isn’t because s/he struggles with verbal skills, it’s because s/he just didn’t do the work. With even a moderate degree of effort, I think most students could get at least a C. After all, “C” means average, right? And aren’t most people “average”? I think we also need to change our expectations for those students. Encourage and support them with passing grades, but recognize that there ARE some things that they truly can’t do, so they won’t ever produce the work that your A student will. So don’t just give the kids who got 100% a pat on the back – give the kids who did well for their own abilities positive feedback, too.

  • 3. teachin'  |  January 27, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    I think a lot of your portrayal of Selznick’s points sound very valid, though I wonder if it’s an oversimplification (at least to some extent) of reasons for kids being SDLs – I have trouble picturing them all being that way just because they’re so kinesthetic and so not linguistic. You’ve got me interested in reading the book, though!

  • 4. Mrs. Bees  |  January 27, 2010 at 10:43 pm

    Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad to hear that I didn’t totally stick my foot in it.

    In response to some of your points – this explanation of SDLs is definitely a bit of an oversimplification, mostly because I found myself retelling the entire book and decided that I ought to back off and let Selznick do it. Selznick is also really careful to point out that there’s no simple answer to this issue.

    And Rachel – there are DEFINITELY plenty of kids, IMHO, who WON’T rather than can’t. I’ve been feeling really discouraged about them. This book helped me see that at least some of them, though, may have reasons for their defeatist attitudes that I can actually address.

  • 5. Kit  |  March 5, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    We need more teachers like you. I am very impressed and proud.

  • 6. Dr. Richard Selznick  |  May 17, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    So nice to read everyone’s comments.

    Yes, The Shut-Down Learner can be a bit simplifed. Too be honest, I find parents overwhelmed so often with these issues (which too often are unnecessarily complicated) that I try and do my best to explain issues to parents in ways that they can get their mind around them. Hence, The Shut-Down Learner.


    Richard Selznick

  • 7. J Miller  |  January 19, 2011 at 7:33 am

    It has recently been realized that my son (a senior applying to college and dealing with not so great SAT scores) is a SDL. He was tested in 5th grade (2004) but unfortunately results were not properly explained to me and he plugged along. He is the easy going, draw no attention to me kind, and managed mostly Cs/Bs with occasional As in subjects that really drew him in. Has an older sister who excelled overall academically and while we did not compare we over-excused and did not pursue assistance for him. He never complained or made excuses and until SATs hit did we realize there was more to the story.
    We are now seeking proper assistance in reading for him – but just the knowledge that he has a different view and he really is amazing in his own right has made such a difference in his self esteem. I can’t help but feel if more teachers were aware of this information that the passed few years could have been so much more rewarding for him.
    It is never too late – and even in high school – Please follow your heart and don’t assume lazy, give them an opportunity to walk through a different door.
    I must also thank Ray Dass – the one person that has stood by my son and encouraged him and helped us get to this point of realization and information. Thank you Dr Selznick for your book and Mrs Bees for sharing it with your peers! Please continue to spread the word – It is so important!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

The Bee’s Knees

This is the teaching journal of a student first-year second-year THIRD-YEAR (!!!) English teacher. I am writing this blog as a reflection for myself, a way to keep friends and family updated, and a sharing-ground between other educators online. I love comments!

I am striving to maintain anonymity on this blog so that I may more freely interact with my fellow edubloggers. If you know who I am, please help me protect my anonymity in your comments. I use pseudonyms or initials for everyone I write about to preserve their anonymity as well.

%d bloggers like this: