We just finished up a week of watching my parent’s dog, Lily. She is a really sweet dog and very easy to take care of, but there was something interesting that we discovered during her stay. She did not know how to push a door open with her nose so it is wide enough for her to fit through. Our dog, Bella, does it all the time. If our bedroom door is only slightly ajar Bella will simply push it open with her nose and walk right in. Lily on the other hand will stand on the other side of the door, look at us through the opening and cry until we open it wider for her.
As I sat there listening to my husband motivating Lily to come through the door on her own, it became evident to me that she did not realize she had the ability to just push the door. Lily is a rescue dog so we have no idea what her upbringing was. Yet, somewhere along the way she never learned this skill. It amazed me, even though everything in her environment was prompting her to push open the door and cross the threshold, she didn’t budge. Whatever she understood to be true about her abilities was a much stronger force.
I found this so intriguing and it made me think of my own children and students in regards to the influence we have as parents and educators. We play a huge role in supporting how children perceive themselves, including their abilities. We may not verbally say that we think a child is incapable of something. Instead, we demonstrate through our actions, and in the opportunities for learning that we present to that child.
This is often very evident in education where the focus is on what children can and cannot do. I would argue that the word “cannot” be eliminated from education lingo as a whole. There is a finality with this word that has the potential to be quite powerful. If someone tells you that you cannot do something or does not provide you with the opportunity to learn it, how likely are you to continue trying to do it? However, if someone suggests you give it a try and supports you during the learning process you’ll be much more likely to continue trying.
What harm comes in providing ample opportunity for all students to learn regardless of their ability at that moment? I can remember a student I had many years ago that did not speak. His parents told me that doctors said he would never speak but they did not believe it. They held out hope that one day he would talk and asked if I would the same. Of course I would!
As his teacher I made sure he was surrounded by language all the time, through consistently talking with him and labeling things in his environment. I will never forget the day when he was in 5th grade and he looked at me and said “Cookie”. He loved cookies! I about fell out of my chair. I looked at him and said, “Did you just say cookie?” He looked at me again, smiled and said “Cookie” clear as day. I felt the tears well up in my eyes because it was evident that in that moment he realized that he had the ability to communicate.
From then on it was as if something sparked inside of him and his vocabulary grew daily. This child was in 5th grade when he started to speak, ten years old! If his parents had listened to the doctors and we had not provided him ample opportunities to learn to talk would it have happened? I can’t answer that but what I do know is that we didn’t give up on him. We didn’t say, “He cannot talk” we just said “at this time he isn’t able to talk”. There is a huge difference in those two statements.
As parents and educators we can provide abundant opportunities for students to discover what they are able to do. We do not want the product of our work to be children that are convinced or are not sure if they can open a door; instead we want students that aren’t sure but are willing to try because “cannot” is never associated with their ability to do something.