I Can’t Do This


When students tell you they can’t do something, what are they really saying? What’s behind the expression of defeat? John Mark suggests three possibilities and how to respond:

  1. The student may be expressing a belief about people in general: “Some people can, I cannot.”
  2. The student may be dealing with a unhealthy reliance on the teacher.
  3. The student may be expressing a fear of failure: “I can’t do this to the standard I hold for myself.”

I’m finished with class. The students are starting to work on their problems.

Billy again. You know Billy. Billy says, “I don’t know how to do this problem.”

It’s today’s problem. There are examples on the board. Billy doesn’t know how to do the problem.

So I try to do the right thing. I say, “OK, let’s look at this. Let’s see how this problem is connected to things you already know how to do. It’s just an extension of things you already know.”

So I’m trying to do this. And finally, in exasperation, Billy says, “Can you just tell me how to do it? I’m never going to understand why.”

If you’ve taught for any length of time, you’ve had a Billy in your class. In my experience, the Billies of my classroom have been saying things beyond “I can’t do this” in three ways. So the first thing that Billy might be saying is this.

It’s a belief about people in general and a belief about himself. The belief is this. Some people can. I cannot. Notice Billy does not say, “This is impossible.” Billy says, “This is impossible for me.”


I would suggest a character trait we might develop in Billy is the trait of tenacity. Tenacity is the ability to keep working. Even when it’s hard, even when it’s not fun, even when you’re experiencing failure. Tenacity is the ability to keep going beyond the frustration.

Thomas Edison is an illustration of a tenacious person. His famous quote is that “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.” I will point out that everything truly valuable in life is worth working for. In fact, everything truly valuable in life, you have to work for. I think it was Thomas Paine who said that “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods.”

When we worked hard for something, the reward for that work is often, is always, I would say, deeper and longer lasting than the cheap participation trophies that we often give or get for less than stellar effort. Tenacity is a habit of mind. It’s a habit of life that allows us to keep going when it’s hard.

Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck is a researcher who has made the case that our brains are malleable. She calls them plastic. They can change in their function. So we often think of our students and we think of ourselves as having a certain level of capacity. And then what we need to do as teachers is we need to get our students up close to their capacity. That’s a very common approach.

And that’s what Carol Dwett calls a fixed mindset that the student has a limited capacity. Whatever that capacity is, it may be higher, it may be lower, but there is a set capacity. Now let’s just pause for a moment to recognize. We know that that capacity can be lowered if students experience abuse. The capacity to learn is reduced if they experience loss or some other kind of stress, the capacity to learn is reduced. Right? So we all know that it can go down.

What Carol Dweck says is it can go up as well, depending on your mindset. So she calls this a “fixed mindset” where you believe that every student has some capacity individually and that that’s fixed.

Carol Dweck argues for what’s called a “growth mindset,” in which not only are we trying to grow our students in their achievement, we’re also trying to grow their capacity.

I find it helpful to think about responding to Billy in this way. When Billy says, “I cannot” I say, “You cannot yet.”

One of the things that Carol Dweck highlights as a teacher feedback mechanism that is correlated with a growth mindset in students is that we praise effort, not ability.

So if Billy has been going through school being told, “You’re good at things. You have capacity.” Then when Billy comes up against something that’s hard, guess what he’s going to believe about himself. “Teacher doesn’t actually know I’m a fake. I’ve faked it up till now. Teacher doesn’t know that I’m actually not that good. I’ve been faking it.” So Billy starts to believe of himself that he can’t do it.

If instead of saying, “You’re good at this, Billy, you’re good at math.” Instead you say, “Billy, I really like how hard you’re working in math, and that’s paying off for you.” Then when Billy comes up against something hard, it’s not an obstacle to be avoided. It’s an obstacle to be overcome.

The second thing that Billy may have is what Fred Jones calls “learned helplessness” or a teacher dependence and unhealthy teacher dependence. Certain students, if you would let them, they would have you beside their desk the entire day looking over their shoulder, watching everything they do. Right? That’s something that they need to be weaned off of children who have had a hard time with school have had more messages of failure than other students.

So here’s what can happen. Billy calls me over to his desk. I look at his math work, and I say, “OK, you did steps one, two, and three right, but here’s where you made a mistake.” Notice that little word “but.” That undoes everything that I have just said positive about what Billy did. We’re focusing on what Billy did wrong. For some students, that’s invisible. For Billy, that’s not. Because, for Billy, he has had these messages of failure, these negative messages, probably quite a lot.

So I need to be careful in my feedback to a student who wants me by their side every step of the way.

Praise, Prompt, and Leave

An approach that I’ve tried, and it works—it’s called “praise, prompt, and leave.” You focus on what the student did right.

“Look, you did the first three steps correctly,” and then you don’t use the word “but” or anything like that. Instead, you say, “The next thing to do is,” and only give them the next thing.

So here’s the temptation. There’s eleven steps along the way. They’ve done the first four. We look at step five, and we say, “OK, here’s the next thing to do. And then I know I’m going to have to come back and tell him step six. So I may as well tell him right now. And step seven, and eight, and nine, and now he’s in cognitive overload.

Praise, prompt, and leave says, “No, just do the very next thing.” And if Billy has to call you back over for step six, praise, prompt, and leave again.

Learning Disabilities

I’m going to do a quick aside here, though, and point out too that not all of our students just need to work harder. There are students who have learning disabilities that actually do make things much more challenging for them than they are, even for us. If you talk to somebody who, for example, has dyslexia and whose teachers did not understand them and who got spankings for not working hard enough, it’ll kind of scare you. It isn’t always the case that students need to work harder. However, even students with learning disabilities can grow their abilities with tenacity.

Don’t Apologize for Hard Work

I have stopped apologizing to my students for asking them to do hard things. I’ve stopped apologizing for hard work. In fact, in their senior year, students get to decide what math course they do, and I always try to get at least some of them to take calculus. And they ask, “Why should I take calculus?” And I say, “Because it’s hard. Because you’re going to work your tail off and it’s going to be great.”

We do need to have meaningful practice of this habit of tenacity in our classrooms, and I don’t know what that looks like in every grade level. But if we can have meaningful practice of tenacious habits, our students will grow beyond their current limitations.

The Fear of Failure

There’s a third possible reason why the student says, I can’t do this, and that is the student may be afraid that they will fail at this task. “I can’t do this” may mean rather than “I can’t do this at all” “I can’t do this to the standard that I hold for myself.” Billy may be afraid of failure.

A fear of failure can debilitate even the most gifted of students. And for a student like that, it’s not actually tenacity that they need. I’ve had students top of the class. They study for 3 hours for a test. They could ace the test without studying, but they still study for 3 hours. Why? Because they don’t want to fail.

I had a student one time who got a 99% on a test and came back to me after the test. After I gave the test back, she came back to me. She said, “Mr. Kuhns, you didn’t add up the extra credit, right? I actually had 100%.” And she was right. I had missed an extra credit question, and she did have 100%. Straight 100s all the way through.

And I told her later, I said, “You know, I was disappointed. I wanted you to get a 99%.”

She said, “What? Why?”

She said… I told her, “Because I wanted you to see that getting a 99% is not the end of the world.”

Most of us can only dream of that kind of even like having that a possibility. Right? But she thanked me for that years later. She said, “You know, that was a turning point for me because I thought that my teachers wanted me to be perfect, and I realized they didn’t.”

Carefulness Instead of Perfectionism

If we’re holding for our students this standard of “You always have to do your very best,” guess what? We don’t live up to that standard ourselves. I would say here that a fear of failure comes out of a misapplication of another habit, another virtue, intellectual virtue, and that is the virtue of carefulness.

We believe in carefulness. We believe in students doing well, being careful in their work, being neat and thorough and doing all the steps, all these things. That’s good.

Carefulness is that consistent habit of being patient and diligent in the pursuit of truth. It is not excessive fastidiousness. So carefulness misapplied takes us to perfectionism.

So the difference between a perfectionist and a craftsman. I actually put this quote on my desk as a reminder to myself, because I can be a bit of a perfectionist. The difference between a perfectionist and a craftsman. Both the perfectionist and the craftsman can see the flaws in their work, but the perfectionist is debilitated by it. The craftsman can keep going.

We want our students to become craftspeople in their work. We don’t want them to become perfectionists.

Now our students do rise and shrink according to our expectations for them. But one of the things that I want to do in my classroom is I want to create an atmosphere in which it’s okay to fail. But it’s not okay just to fail. Here’s what I mean. Failure is a key to success if and only if you’re learning from your mistakes. Every time you fail, you need to learn from that mistake. But if I can create a culture in my classroom where it’s safe, where students can fail.

The thing that makes me most angry at a student is if they’re mocking another one for failing. You do not do that in my classroom. If the classroom isn’t safe for somebody to fail to ask the dumb question, if they’re not safe to do that, they’re going to be afraid. And that fear. Remember what I said about our ability to learn? Fear reduces that as well.


Second Corinthians 4:7. He says, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” It’s an important aside that I’m just going to let go. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed, always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus sake so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”

Hopping down to verse 16, he says, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our outer self is suffering, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Classrooms filled with tenacious teachers and students are classrooms where learning can flourish if we see difficulty as an opportunity to grow rather than as a thing to be avoided. Both student and teacher can lean in when the going gets tough. When that happens, I propose we will produce adults who are better equipped to serve Christ in his Kingdom.

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