Case Study: Drowning in the Stream

Erin’s mom phoned me at the start of Term Two: “Erin’s failing Geography. She just can’t understand it – can you help?”

Can’t understand Geography? Surely any applied science at high school level is quite easy to grasp. So I dug a little deeper: “Erin really likes her teacher, but she just can’t understand the subject. Her other subjects are fine; except for History. She battles with her History essays in exams. But she’s failing Geography and we’re worried she won’t pass the year.” A few more questions revealed that Erin was in the C class of a prominent government school for girls, that has a history of sporting and academic prestige. She was streamed into the C class as she was apparently ADD. She had been on Ritalin when she was younger and was now, at age 16, on Concerta. Apparently Erin was a conscientious student who cared about her marks. I set up an appointment for Erin.

In our first session I quickly figured out 10 things that Erin is:

  1. 16
  2. Tall, blonde, thin, sporty – typical Durban “surfer girl”
  3. Open and friendly
  4. Inappropriately stuck in the C class  (my opinion) – but she likes her friends in that class (her opinion)
  5. Animated interested and interesting communicator – meets your eye when she speaks to you
  6. Intelligent, inquisitive, thoughtful
  7. EQ beyond her years – sensitive, compassionate, empathic
  8. Wants to be a special ed teacher
  9. Has all the potential to be hugely successful
  10. A really cool person to know

I also figured out ten things that Erin is NOT:

  1. Dumb
  2. Unfocused
  3. Incapable
  4. At risk
  5. Lazy
  6. Hyperactive
  7. Destined to fail
  8. Bad at geography
  9. A loser
  10. A “bad kid”

The A and B class students were given a workshop on Leadership in the morning and a talk on Universities and Careers in the afternoon …

I’ll get back to the Geography issue in a moment, but first I’d like to share an anecdote that Erin shared with me in one of our first few sessions. She told me how the school had held a special Leadership Day for the Grade Eleven’s. The A and B class students were given a workshop on Leadership in the morning and a talk on Universities and Careers in the afternoon. The C and D class students were given a talk on Drugs in the morning and AIDS and Pregnancy Prevention in the afternoon.

I’ll just let that sink in …

Nope, they didn’t get the other talks on another day …

Yup. I know.

So did Erin. She though it was appalling, but having been in the C class for four years, she was used to applying her loving, gentle personality and sense of humour to laugh it off. It wasn’t funny, though. It was disgusting and damaging and outrageously irresponsible of the school.

Imagine the effect that years of that kind of academic profiling and subtle (and not so subtle) indoctrination has? Imagine trying to achieve one’s academic and career goals after years of, “You’re just the C class, you’re not as good as the A class,” conditioning? Of course students in the A and B classes of streamed schools excel. They’re constantly programmed to do so. They’re being conditioned, daily, to be high achievers. What about the others? What about the ones who have a bum year in Grade 8, for some reason; family tragedy, immaturity, illness, too much time playing computer games, whatever? The students who develop later and realise they have goals and dreams and wish to improve? The severely ADD and ADHD students whose medication becomes regulated and effective enough for them to reach their potential fully? The students who have different intelligences than just verbal, visual and mathematical? The students who learn differently, but are just as capable of academic excellence? The Erins?

I taught Erin to reprogramme her brain …

It was very easy and extremely rewarding working with Erin. The first “habit” we had to undo was her knee-jerk “I don’t know” response to questions. Given a bit more time to think and a little direction, it turned out that she did know; virtually 100% of the time, too! I taught Erin to reprogramme her brain to replace her, “I don’t know,” response in tests and exams to, “I remember this – let me think a moment,” and to trust her immediate instinctive responses; which were absolutely correct most of the time.

 … not all students in the C and D class are “struggling” or unable to comprehend the big picture.

I also quickly discovered that Erin’s teacher – clearly a brilliant Geographer – was teaching the C and D classes differently to the A and B classes. Erin’s class were just getting “the basics”. They were being taught nuggets of information; just enough to get them to pass, without overwhelming them. This is not an unacceptable nor unusual teaching practice for preparing struggling learners for exams. However, not all students in the C and D class are “struggling” or unable to comprehend the big picture. Erin is someone who needs to understand the big concept or system, first, before being able to break it down into smaller details to memorise. Climatology was a complete mystery to her when she first came to me, but now she finds it quite easy. I began with explaining how our atmosphere is composed; the angle and rotation of the earth in relation to the sun and the science behind the movement of heat and air. She got it. From there she was able to figure out the global temperature and circulation systems, applying her brilliant logic and understanding of the system as a whole. Learning the names of the cells, cyclones and the terminology for synoptic charts was easy for her, once she understood WHY and HOW they happened. She had been simply  unable to learn, remember and apply lists of terminology and diagrams that had no relevance or meaning to her. Her holistic way of learning is going to result in excellent grades at University!

Erin is now in her Grade 12 year and I’m delighted to say that she is still  a private student of mine. Her overall final Geography and History marks for Grade 11 were both in the 70’s – quite an improvement from failing in Term 1. She is capable of distinctions in those subjects, if she chooses to apply herself that extra bit more this year. C class? Yeah, right …

Bev Cooke-Tonnesen, “The Learning Coach”, is based in Durban, South Africa. She offers one-to-one and group coaching; face to face or via Skype. Contact her on Facebook The Learning Coach







4 thoughts on “Case Study: Drowning in the Stream”

  1. Great article Bev. So many teachers would get annoyed by my questions, but I need to understand the big picture. Sometimes I was asking questions that were further down the syllabus and the teacher didn’t want to jump ahead, but most often they had a preconceived idea of me and assumed me to just be disruptive. I’ve realised that we ADDers are assimilators and take in everything, whether we know what to do with it at the time or not. I’ll often take A and B, jump over C to D, round to H, back to G, then E to arrive at F before many people even get there linearly.


    1. Thank-you. I have never encountered a student with ADD or ADHD who has had the deliberate intention of being “disruptive”. They simply have a different way of learning and assimilating; one which traditional classrooms seldom provide appropriately for. Your need to understand the big picture and ability to assimilate a lot of information in a non-linear fashion, is precisely the reason that many people with ADD/HD end up being hugely successful in their chosen careers … if they don’t get their self confidence and belief in themselves totally eradicated by a system that’s designed for another time and a limited number of intelligences.


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