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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue A ::: March 1999

"I Can't Learn This!" An MI Route Around Resistance

by Wendy Quiñones and Betsy Cornwell
When students have trouble learning skills that seem within their reach, academics is probably not the problem. MI may be a useful tool with these students.

In a language arts class, Sue has just spent a half-hour or so working on homophones, modeling the letters for there, their, and they're in Play-Doh and arranging them according to their different usages. Sue seemed to enjoy the exercise, and to gain a clear understanding of which word to use where. But later, making corrections to a letter she's writing to the housing authority in her town, she struggles. "There," the teacher says. "You know this; we just finished working on it. Is this the right word here?" Sue throws down her pencil and refuses to think further about the problem. She says angrily, "I can't do this. I never can do things like this. I'm just too stupid."

Diane is determined to earn her adult diploma this year and has only the geography unit to complete. Punctual, enthusiastic, and diligent in most things, she is late for appointments to work on geography at the library, is sullen and unresponsive during the lessons at her home, and procrastinates in doing the work. The deadline for graduation passes with the unit still incomplete. Diane grouses in her learning log, "I asked why I would ever need geography for my life. She [the teacher] won't answer me about geography. She is up to spring something on me that I don't know about yet."

Most adult basic education teachers have stories like these: students refusing to attempt or to master tasks well within their reach, or students unwilling to learn subjects required for achieving their stated learning goals. These students say they want to learn, but our methods, which work well with others, don't seem to work for them. What's the problem? In our research, we found that combining a new understanding of the source of this resistance with the use of multiple intelligence (MI) inspired lessons provided a wealth of exciting avenues for skirting this resistance so that students can approach their goals.

Refusal to Learn

Let us be clear about the phenomenon we are discussing here. The student who fails to learn - whose intellectual abilities are not up to her ambitions - is not our topic. Rather, we are seeking to understand the student who, while cooperative in many other ways, is in at least one area actively, willfully, consciously refusing to learn. These are students who, according to Herbert Kohl (1994), are actively engaged in "not-learning." Such not-learning is no easy feat, says Kohl: "It can require actively refusing to pay attention, acting dumb, scrambling one's thoughts, and overriding curiosity" (p. 4). It is a result of conflicting goals: the resistance generated by conflicts between students' desire to learn and "the larger context of the choices they make as they create lives and identities for themselves" (p. 10). The attempt to get an education may raise for an adult many "unavoidable challenges to her or his personal and family loyalties, integrity, and identity" (p. 6). The student who is unready to resolve those challenges and conflicts may well find not-learning the most available defense.

Sue, for example, is the single mom of a toddler. Her son's father does not support the family economically, but he is actively involved with both Sue and the child. Sue is nearly illiterate despite her diploma from a vocational high school. Through Wendy's 20-hour-a-week program and additional work with a tutor, her reading ability is improving markedly. The child's father, however, insists that the teachers are lying when they say this, and that Sue can't be a good mother unless she's home full-time with her child. Will Sue's refusal to give up education and her increasing skills drive her child's father away? Sue grew up as the child of a single mom, and she is determined to maintain her son's ties with his father. She also wants very much to improve her reading and go to college. These goals are in conflict. She honors her learning goal by attending an education program; perhaps her not-learning is an attempt to placate her son's father and thus honor her family goal.

Diane, sharing her cluttered house trailer with her husband and four children in rural Maine, is working toward her alternative diploma. Diane has indicated her suspicion and contempt for "smart people" who know everything, especially how to find things in books. Going to the library, looking in atlases, even acknowledging that she owns a complete and current encyclopedia, may simply place her too close to that category of "smart people" she scorns.

Identities Threatened

In other words, what to us seem like simple learning activities in pursuit of stated goals are, for Sue and Diane, threats to other, perhaps unstated, goals and to familiar identities. It is critical for teachers to realize that the not-learning student is, as Richard Everhart (1983) writes, acting as an agent "with the ability to interpret the meaning of social situations and to take action based on those meanings" (p. 20). Our not-learning student is interpreting what we are asking her to do from a system of goals, beliefs, and values not only different from ours but also perhaps even in conflict with others she has stated. She is not failing to learn; she is actively not-learning as a way of avoiding this conflict among goals. The more we insist on her learning, the more she is likely to feel that her goals - and her unspoken, perhaps unacknowledged conflicts - are being dismissed, and that we are simply another of those impersonal forces that attempt to control her life.

Not-learning in such circumstances allows the student to be loyal to whatever goal she is unready to alter or relinquish. This positive action of not-learning provides her a satisfaction far different from the feelings produced by failure to learn. According to Kohl, failure can produce "a loss of self-confidence accompanied by a sense of inferiority and inadequacy" (p.6). Not-learning, by contrast, "tends to strengthen the will, clarify one's definition of self, reinforce self-discipline" (p. 6). A teacher's insistence over a student's resistance can indeed be perceived as an oppressive condition, one that must be resisted. As Kohl indicates, that resistance - that act of loyalty to her own goals - can provide the student with intense satisfaction. As novelist Alice Walker writes, "Resistance is the secret of joy" (1993, p. 279).

What's a teacher to do? We are, after all, not therapists. Many of the factors that influence our students' decisions about learning are simply beyond the scope of schools and teachers. It's not for us to insist that Sue get rid of her son's verbally abusive father, or to force Diane to accept an identity she despises. Directly confronting students with these conflicts before they are ready to acknowledge and resolve them is likely to produce only more and more passionate not-learning. Pressing on toward the goal as we try to ignore the resisting behavior can have the same result. We must acknowledge and respect the fact that Sue and Diane do have reasons for not-learning. These reasons may or may not appear valid to us, but they are valid to the not-learning student even when neither she nor we can precisely identify them. Identification isn't important. Respect is. We can acknowledge and move around the conflict to concentrate instead on the learning goals we share with the student, harnessing her interests and strengths to move toward her goal.

MI Connection

This is where MI comes in. As teachers, we know that students learn in different ways. The theory of multiple intelligences allows us to systematically provide and validate ways both of learning and of demonstrating learning that are not commonly used in the classroom. Traditional education uses primarily linguistic and mathematical intelligences; MI adds to these musical, bodily/kinesthetic, naturalistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and spatial. Giving students opportunities to learn and to express their knowledge through these additional intelligences may provide a way to learn without threatening whatever the not-learning student is trying to protect. Once we are able to temporarily leave the realm of traditional school activities, some not-learning students feel more free to explore. Give Sue, for example, lessons that allow her to learn through Play-Doh, markers, and craft materials (spatial and bodily/kinesthetic intelligences), or by producing a skit (interpersonal, bodily/kinesthetic, perhaps musical intelligences), and she can participate in and even design successful learning activities. Translate the same material to paper-and-pencil tasks, and all of her energy goes into not-learning. Sue's interpretation of learning seems to dictate that competency with paper and pencil - linguistic intelligence - threatens her goal of retaining a relationship with her son's father while competency with Play-Doh, markers, crafts, and skits - spatial, interpersonal, bodily/kinesthetic - does not.

Similarly, while Diane refused to go to the library to "find things in books," she happily, and on her own, cut items out of newspapers and magazines, eventually organizing them into folders labeled with the subjects that interested her: Princess Diana, the Unabomber, JonBenet Ramsey, and Terry Nichols, among others. With this clue to Diane's strong interpersonal intelligence, Betsy organized geography lessons around people and current events. Diane's extensive learning logs reveal a turning point with an assignment that involved using colored dots to mark the travels of Princess Diana on a map. In her log, Diane noted, "Today I learned how to find places on the world map On places that current events happened that was of interest to me Learning to use a map can be fun and interesting to do. Being able to travel to different places without having to get on the plane myself. Because I can do it from my kitchen table in my home." After completing that assignment, Diane began to create elaborate collages using magazine pictures to illustrate the customs, costumes, topography and animal life of several different countries. After beginning the collages, Diane also insisted on completing the worksheets she had refused to do the year before.

Those worksheets involved using atlases and encyclopedias to find facts and figures about seven different countries. This assignment relied almost totally on linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences: the two "school intelligences." Diane initially responded to the worksheets by insisting that the assignment was beyond her capabilities. Several months later, when the focus was shifted to the people who lived in and traveled through those countries, and she was allowed to express her knowledge using pictures and newspaper clippings, Diane met and then exceeded the expectations of the course. Charting the travels of Princess Diana was actually a more complex task than what was asked for in the worksheets. In addition to using a world map and atlas, Diane had to consult a biography and newspaper clippings to determine which places the Princess had visited. To complete her collages and collections, Diane had to master all the research techniques demanded in the original worksheets. Once she mastered those techniques, she insisted on completing the worksheets even after Betsy informed her that she'd already done enough to satisfy her course requirements. We believe that the opportunity to view the subject through interpersonal (studying people instead of countries) and spatial (pictures and collages) intelligences created a safety zone in which Diane could express her knowledge without the need to confront her complex feelings surrounding school and "smart people."

Lesson Learned

The lesson we can learn from both of these women is that the actual task, understanding homophones or researching information about different countries, was by no means beyond their abilities. What they needed was a way to demonstrate their knowledge without threatening their sense of personal integrity.

Sue and Diane were both working in intensive learning environments where students and teachers have a great deal more personal contact than is possible in many adult learning centers. Our knowledge of our students' personal lives certainly helped us understand them better, but we don't believe that level of understanding was necessary to help them find ways to learn. We believe, however, that two things are crucial for teachers facing not-learning students. First, we must acknowledge that not-learning serves a vital function in the lives and identities of our students. By honoring our students' stated and unstated goals, even when they conflict with our own, we are expressing confidence in our adult learners' abilities to incorporate education into their own world views. Second, we must be willing and flexible enough to expand the number and variety of learning strategies we offer to our students so they may find their own paths to growth.

While our experience with MI makes us extremely hopeful that we can duplicate Diane's success with other students, we don't expect unalloyed success. What teacher can expect that? We do hope that MI can become one more tool available to teachers who wish to expand the options by which adult students can become successful learners.


Everhart, R. (1983). Reading, Writing, and Resistance. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Kohl, H. (1994). "I Won't Learn From You" and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment. New York: The New Press.

Walker, A. (1993.) Possessing the Secret of Joy. New York: Pocket Books.

About the Authors

Wendy Quiñones was teaching in a year-long transitional education program for low-income women in Gloucester, MA, when she conducted this research. A former journalist, she has worked in adult basic education for about 10 years. She is now teaching GED, and doing teacher training and mentoring teachers who pilot the use of the Adult Multiple Intelligences Sourcebook.

Betsy Cornwell is a teaching coordinator for the Northern Oxford County EvenStart family literacy project in western Maine. She travels to students' homes in this rural area to work with them on high school diploma, GED, or ESOL needs. She also manages the program of 20 families and six traveling teachers who provide early childhood, adult education, and parenting instruction.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL