My answer to: How do I teach a really stupid student?

How do I teach a really stupid student?

Enna Morgan
Enna Morgan, International English/ ESL Instructor and Education Counsellor for 8 years.

Thanks for the A2A, Michael

Before answering I would like to, (1) define the terms we are using and also to set the preambles of our assumptions on this topic (2) answer from the perspective of why others would have an allergic response to my response.

First, to define the term, ‘stupid:’

Definition of stupid

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the lexeme stupid means,

  1. 1a : slow of mind : obtuseb : given to unintelligent decisions or acts : acting in an unintelligent or careless mannerc : lacking intelligence or reason : brutish
  2. 2 : dulled in feeling or sensation : torpid still stupid from the sedative
  3. 3 : marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting : senseless a stupid decision
  4. 4a : lacking interest or point a stupid eventb : vexatious, exasperating the stupid car won’t start

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as:




1. having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense.

synonyms:unintelligent, ignorant, dense, foolish, dull-witted, slow, simpleminded, vacuous, vapid, idiotic, imbecilic, imbecile, obtuse, doltish; Moreinformalthick, dim, dimwitted, slow-witted, dumb, dopey, dozy, moronic, cretinous, pea-brained, halfwitted, soft in the head, brain-dead, boneheaded, thickheaded, wooden-headed, muttonheaded, daft “they’re rather stupid”foolish, silly, unintelligent, idiotic, scatterbrained, nonsensical, senseless, harebrained, unthinking, ill-advised, ill-considered, unwise, injudicious; inane, absurd, ludicrous, ridiculous, laughable, risible, fatuous, asinine, mad, insane, lunatic; informal: crazy, dopey, cracked, half-baked, dimwitted, cockeyed, lamebrained, nutty, batty, cuckoo, loony, loopy

Good, now that we have that established, we can move on!

So using that definition, I would like to get a handle on the question and apply it appropriately.

I am going to assume that you are asking this question because like me, and many other teachers, you have encountered students who exhibit the traits mentioned above in the definitions and you are perplexed as to how to ‘get through’ to them.

Just a short two years ago, I would have concurred with the view that there is no ‘stupid’ person, and that all students can be taught. But the truth to this will depend on many factors, several of them being:

  1. the class size
  2. the interest and motivation of the student
  3. the subject being taught
  4. the interest and motivation of the teacher
  5. the general campus milieu
  6. the politics of the school system

This is not an exhausive list, but a fair amount of consideration. The fact is that if you have truly taught for many years, in various countries, with a diverisity of social, economic, and demographic factors attending, then you will understand that there are indeed some students who will fall squarely under that definition of ‘stupid.’

For example, I would go into a classroom twice weekly for 16 weeks, and you use the same word, explain and demonstrate the meaning of the word, and have the students use it (verbally and physically) in a sentence and also practise speaking it and writing it in their note books. The term is also used many times during the semester, and incorporated in games to help concretise its meaning and usage.

Then at the end of the semester, during review, I select particular students and ask them to explain the meaning of the word (while I have it prominently displayed on a PPT), and having spoken about it for the last 20 minutes. When called upon, a select few of them would stand up and look at me as if I had just asked them to reconcile the territorial dispute between Iran and Iraq.


So what term would you like to give to that?

Now we can embellish it, by using certain words, such as ‘special;’ we can circumambulate it; and we can even pointedly avoid it, but continuing to push through in the face of that those types of results would indeed be an exercise in futility, and would serve only to traumatise the student.

Further, it would entail deluding myself that I have some sort of magical powers that would make the student suddenly acquire interest in the subject. And since delusion has never been my forte, nor have I won accolades for it, I will carry on with teaching those students who display interest and aptitude.

I will get to the point then and proceed to answer how one can teach ‘a really stupid student.’

You can’t!

As a teacher, I see my main purpose as being: to lead students to their own thoughts.

I am therefore there to:





instruct (deliberately last in the list)

I am never there to traumatise

And trying to tamp knowledge into a student’s brain against their will, is neither my purpose nor my job. In order for the lesson to be successful therefore, these two parts must work in tandem – the teacher must have the desire, interest, and accompanying knowledge and skills, and the student must have the desire and aptitude to learn.

Without those two essentials, there is nothing happening, except a general conversion of oxygen to carbon dioxide…..and that is not my job either.

So if you have students with desire, but no aptitude, you will have an arduous road ahead, but nonetheless, it can be a rewarding one, albeit challenging. But if you have students with no desire and no aptitude……I feel for you!

On the other hand, if you have a student with aptitude (almost all students, with a few rare exceptions) and latent or no desire, then your task becomes one of figuring out where their interest lies, and capture them through those access points.

For example, many of my male students have a keen interest in sports, and little interest in learning English. I therefore integrate sports news, games, and exercises into the lesson. Do I engage them? You betcha!

Some of the girls have their interest in little else than eating, sleeping, and boys, so what do I do? I pair them up with boys during the lesson, I use the boys to demonstrate certain aspects of the lessson, and I also engage them all in some ‘domestic’ and ‘reality’ topics.

Do they speak? Volumes!

I currently teach oral English, my job is to get the students to speak, my emphasis then is more on the act of speaking than on the topic of conversation. So I do not really care what they speak about, as long as they speak to the top of their intelligence, and with the vocabulary I provide.

Using this method, and with a daily diet of new vocabulary, the result after 15 weeks of laboratory (I see my classroom as a language lab, and not a lecture-style class), is startling….and commendable!

Commenting on answers from other respondents, and addressing the issue of why readers may have an allergic reaction to my post.

I typically do not read answers before writing my own response, but I did in this case because I knew that there would be the typical response, ‘there is no stupid student’ combined with the effort to shift the blame onto the teacher, and make them feel guilty for even thinking of the word ‘stupid’.

If we are being ascetically honest with ourself and we acknowledge every thought we have, we will find that at some point(s) in our teaching career, we will encounter a student (or students), who will cause us to entertain thoughts and terms such as ‘stupid.’ Now, the key here is that as a teacher we would not act upon those thoughts, we may even decide to not give them voice, validity, or latitude. But, there is no denying that they do come to mind.

To become better teachers and humans, we must first acknowledge those thoughts and then seek to find ways to either work through them, thus finding ways to access the student (which we are being paid to do), or understand the limit of our engagement and influence. But pursuing the line of thought that informs us that ‘there is no stupid student,’ I feel could be a set-up for disaster at both ends, the teacher as well as the student.

On the flip side of this desire to disown this ‘ugly’ labelling, there lies a peculiar phenomenon that I have witnessed more often than I would care to admit.

As parents, it is interesting that if our child does something simple as crash the car (yes, crashing the car is simple, it is simply a material issue), or clumsily drop the pie, we quickly call them dumb, stupid, and a colourful string of assorted, ‘endearing’ terms!

Yet these same parents, as teachers in a classroom, will cherry-pick their words to avoid blurting out these terms, and will become febrile at the mere mention of these terms within the classroom.

Hmmm! Why exactly is that!?

(No caption needed……)

Is it because we are being paid, or is it because we are suddenly under a behavioral (moral) microscope?

So, does our behaviour and chosen language adapt to our environment? It certainly does!

Sigmund Freud purported that we have a tripartite ‘self,’ or psyche; The id, the ego, and the superego. The id, being who we really are, intrinsically; the ego, being the rational person we have become in mediating ourself against the ethics and morals of society; and the superego, being the ideal self – that which we aspire to being, and which we would like society to regard us.

Accordingly then, the responses to this question posited, will vary significantly, as they will come from these three different approaches.

I am curious to further explore this phenomenon though, when did the perception of the same child/ student shift, causing us to view the person as a student and no longer as a (our) child?

And did the student automatically become ‘intelligent’ or less stupid when they walked into a collegiate environment? Or did the teacher/ parent become more cognisant, conscientious, rational, and less critical when he/ she walked into an academic milieu?

Or is the difference in our behaviour stemming from the fact that we are being paid in one environment, and not in the other?

In other words, is the word ‘stupid’ context-bound? And……

Is morality retailed?

……Things that make you go, “Hmmm!”