Hitting the Learning Wall

Barriers to Learning

Have you ever hit a learning wall with a student? Perhaps more than one? Learning is a complex, interactive process. One cannot simply open up an individual’s head and pour in knowledge. All learners must integrate new knowledge into their existing schema and experiences. To do that, they must be engaged. They must be able to see or glean a connection between whatever new concept is being taught and what they already know. In other words, they must construct knowledge.

Obstacles to learning may manifest differently with different students. Teachers have to navigate thoughtfully in order to guide students toward achievement.

The practical question is: What does a teacher have to do to overcome such barriers?

  • Part of the answer lies in student engagement. Without it, any lesson becomes dust in the wind.
  • Part can be controlled by determining how, what and why we assess.
  • Part lies in the strategy of instructional scaffolding, that is, designing accessible learning activities.

Learning wallNever take student reluctance to learn as a personal affront. Rather, it is a learning challenge to be met and sometimes re-thought.

Teaching the strategy of “not yet”

Mindsets are the habits-of-mind and the frames-of-reference we carry within ourselves. This is as true for adults as it is for students. The most popular beginning point in exploring mindsets is to understand the difference between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets.

Carol Dweck of Stanford University helped conceptualize the role of mindsets in learning. One of the key concepts she promoted was the art of not yet: When a student struggles for mastery, but underachieves it, it is not a failure. Rather, they have not yet mastered it. Getting students to internalize that message is an essential part of scaffolding instruction and improving student achievement. They employ a growth mindset. Students who can persist, or show grit, make better lifelong learners and problem solvers.

The following animation offers an engaging introduction to growth mindsets.


Building classroom engagement requires freshness and novelty, but not necessarily in the way one might think. Just as an actor practices his or her lines before going onstage or in front of a camera, so must the teacher build a lesson plan before starting getting in front of students. Preparation allows engagement to flourish.

Student voice and choice

One barrier to learning engagement may result from lack of student voice and choice. Just what do voice and choice for students mean? This Edutopia article gives a great overview, and it links to seven short films that explore the theme.

How do we remove barriers to learning

Teachers only have indirect control over student learning. They do, however, have control over what they assess, how they teach, and classroom activities. I discovered the animation below when I was reading an article called Barriers to Learning created by Brandy Antonio. I was struck by the common sense approach to having a teacher focus on what is going on in multiple factors we often forget to assess or take into account.


Assessment drives learning in that it focuses our attention on what students need to learn, and what to teach. Although the curriculum often sculpts our lessons, it is essential to know our students: what they know and what they do not know. We also need to understand their interests because that helps determine engagement. Check out these student interest inventories for some useful ideas.

Overcoming barriers to learning is never a simple process, but it is feasible. It requires a growth mindset. The power of not-yet applies to teachers as well as to students.