Identifying highly able students who are also underachievers is a crucial and challenging task.
In general terms, underachievement is widely recognised as a discrepancy between potential and performance (Reis & McCoach, 2000).
One possible cause for underachievement also happens to be the most popular fallback position for attempting to explain or to justify a lack of motivation and/or performance: boredom.
Boredom is a legitimate reason for underperformance to be sure. There is no doubt that how content is delivered in a classroom is as important as the content itself. In fact, content modification alone (or in isolation) does not constitute good, sustainable differentiated practice. The most effective and lasting accomodations and/or modifications consider an array of factors over time:
Content The knowledge, skills and understandings we want children to learn
Process How students come to understand or make sense of the content
Product How students demonstrate what they have come to know, understand and are able to do
after an extended period of learning
Learning The physical and emotional context in which learning takes place
Assessment Methods and tools to determine what a student knows or can do
Not all of these elements are equally weighted in every single learning engagement or assessable moment. Furthermore, managing these elements through effective lesson plan and design is a significant challenge when it comes to satisfying the needs of 1 or 2 students in a classroom environment (let alone 22). While the goal for the educator is to personalise learning as much as possible for every student in the class, the mastery of these skill sets is a life long pursuit.
However, while the teacher is certainly committed to providing a dynamic learning journey for every student, it is erroneous to think that a student's 'boredom' or lack of engagement is the sole reponsibility of the teacher alone.
Boredom is an attribute of attitude; attitude is an attribute of the individual; an individual's attitude is influenced by a multitude of factors that reach beyond the classroom walls and school grounds. If an individual is inclined to be bored because of personal pride, perceptions, pre-dispositions or inflated self-importance, then they probably will be regardless of the efforts that others make to engage them in a productive relationship or experience. This is true of adults, let alone children.
It is also somewhat convenient for someone to raise the boredom factor if they are unable or unwilling to demonstrate mastery over certain skill sets or concepts; in a classroom environment, it is difficult for teachers to evaluate that which has not been demonstrated, making it rather difficult to extend or to enrich a student to a level that is perceived to be within their instructional range.
Furthermore, while a student may be very passionate and engaged about the study of dinosaurs, for example, not everything in a school curriculum can be geared around dinosaurs or the study of Palentology. To say that a student excels in that which he/she is interested in is usually true and should be honoured. The challenge, however, is to pique student interest in that which may intially appear routine, but which has significant personal implications towards building new skills to access greater knowledge and conceptual understandings. So, while it is certainly in the teacher's interest to pique student engagement because it is their classroom, it is also in the student's interest to assist in this endeavour because it is ultimately their future.
There are numerous other reasons, however, that parents and teachers would do very well to consider when it comes to the subject of underachievement. Some of these are:
· low self-efficacy toward academic learning
· forced-choice dilemma
· undiagnosed specific learning needs
· diagnosed specific learning needs
· dysfunctional perfectionism
· dominant visual spatial learners
A useful way to understand better the behaviours, feelings and needs of the highly able student is to examine the profiles presented by Betts and Neihart (1988). These are particularly useful for understanding highly able underachievers.