Doing Poorly on Purpose: Why Smart Kids Choose Not to do Well in School

doing poorly on purpose

As a teacher myself, I feel your pain when a capable student chooses — yes, chooses — not to perform well academically. Cajole as we might (and do…) to convince kids like these on the merits of academic accomplishment, many of them look at us with that blank expression of adolescence that speaks volumes in its silence.

What they don’t say are things like these:

  • “School is irrelevant to what I’ll eventually do in life, and we both know it. Tell me how linear algebra will help me become a better attorney.”
  • “If you really cared to help me, you’d let me test out of what I know how to do so that I had time to pursue stuff that is important to me.”
  • “The reason I don’t do the homework is that I’ve already proven to you through my class performance that I understand this stuff. Wouldn’t you be as frustrated as I am if you had to do such meaningless work every night?”

Green Dot Divide

More times than not, smart students who choose to do poorly on purpose have very good reasons for being disillusioned with their middle and high school experiences. And these students may be on to something. Research on gifted students and other high achievers has shown that many of them know 50% or more of the grade-level curriculum before it’s “taught” to them.

Given this, students who do poorly on purpose chafe at having to prove to their teachers’ satisfaction — not once, but multiple times — that they’ve mastered basic skills. The end result of this academic tug-of-war between students and teachers is, at best, a tie, where no one gets what they truly hoped to achieve, and, at worst, a student abandoning hope altogether and “letting go of the rope” entirely.  Of course, in the end, neither of these results is productive.

So what’s the alternative?

From my 40+ years’ teaching experience with adolescents who choose to do poorly on purpose, I can vouch for the following options as avenues of potential success. I call the plan, “Getting to A” — although the letter grade of A is welcome, it’s not necessarily the ultimate objective. Instead, these are:

 Autonomy

Helping our students engage in their own education by giving them some say in what they learn and how they show us they’ve done so.

Access

Allowing students to have the opportunity to learn at levels commensurate with their abilities, rather than using grade-level norms or prescribed curricular standards.

Advocacy

Guiding our students to become integral partners with us as they learn to become the best spokespersons for designing their own educational options.

Alternatives

Introducing our students to out-of-school opportunities (for example, independent study, internships, and online course options) that might be more appropriate ways for them to pursue learning.

Aspirations

Asking our students what it is that they love to do outside of school and finding ways to incorporate these passions into their school curriculum.

Approachable Educators

Becoming partners with our students in the learning process, where both parties are willing to listen to other points of view.

Green Dot Divide

By the time that academically-capable students who do poorly on purpose have reached middle or high school, they’ve had educational experiences that run the gamut from awesome to awful.

Only by engaging these seemingly disengaged students in the nuts and bolts of their own learning experiences will we ever reach the goal that both they and we strive for: student success and fulfillment of one’s personal learning agenda that’s based on two integral human needs, dignity and respect.

James R. Delisle, Ph.D., has been an educator in grades two through graduate school for more than 40 years, working primarily with gifted students. The author of 20 books, Jim’s latest is Doing Poorly on Purpose: Strategies to Reverse Underachievement and Respect Student Dignity, co-published by ASCD and Free Spirit Publishing in 2018.

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