The Story of a Successful Learner

Yesterday (or several days ago) I wrote about success as the element of learning that trumps lazy. By success, I mean learning that accomplishes a meaningful goal, as opposed to one that achieves an external and often symbolic outcome. This morning, I thought of a classic example.

After my first year of teaching, I traded in my aging Fiat station wagon for a brand new 1977 Toyota Corolla.  It cost $2,700 and was a wonderful car; drivetrain, chassis, body and four wheels – basic transportation that I kept tuned myself.  It cranked every time and never failed to get me to work or to Arizona or wherever I was going.  Until four years later.

The starter motor would turn, but the engine simply would not engage.  However, if I left it alone for about a half hour, it would start right up.  This didn’t happen every time I used the car, but each time it did, the pattern was the same.  I took it to a number of auto repair establishments, but, as is always the case, it would start flawlessly.  

I remember as if it was today, a rather short stocky fellow, slipping his Exxon cap off as he leaned under the hood and with grease- and tobacco-stained fingers, flipped open a plastic box that was mounted to the wheel well.  Seated into a circuit board were several microchips.  He said, “That’s your problem.  I don’t know what that is, but that’s your problem.”

The car cranked right up and I drove back home.  It was the next day that I was telling this story to a teacher friend, outside our rooms, during class change.  Several students were lingering close by, including a young man we’ll call Bobby.

I can picture him today; a good looking kid, tall, straight as an arrow, curly back hair and day-old stubble (before it was cool), and the broadening chest and shoulders that come to some boys as early as 15.  ..and he was still in the 7th grade. 

From the other side of the radiator he said something that I didn’t understand.  My teacher friend asked him to repeat and he said almost clearly, “h’it’s yer cule mista Warlick.”  

After engaging him in something similar to a conversation, I got that my coil was the problem.  An ignition coil is “an induction coil in an automobile’s ignition system which transforms the battery’s low voltage to the thousands of volts needed to create an electric spark in the spark plugs to ignite the fuel.1

This was better advice I’d gotten from any of the trained and experienced auto mechanics I’d consulted, so that afternoon I stopped off at Advance Auto, bought an ignition coil for a Corolla, installed it myself, and the car ran without fail until I sold it a couple of years and 95 thousand miles later for $2,300.

I’d never taught Bobby, but I knew that the teachers liked him, one of those guys they didn’t mind holding back year after year.  I told the story to another friend, whom I respected deeply, a woman who’d taught Bobby for all of these years, and she said,

“Don’t worry about Bobby.  His Dad owns a trucking company that hauls trees to the pulp wood plant.  He’s a millionaire, though you’d never know if you saw him.  Bobby’s going to go work for his Dad when he turns 16 and he’ll inherit the business.  He’s not dumb, he’s just lazy, and he always will be when it comes to learning.”

I don’t know what happened to Bobby.  I do know that pulp wood played out in the region, and Bobby’s business either folded, or he found some way to repurpose his assets into another line of business.

What I do know is that Bobby was not a lazy learner.  That he was able to diagnose the problem with my car, just from the telling of my story, convinces me that he engaged in deep and powerful learning experiences that taught him not only fundamentals, but how to apply those fundamentals for solving real problems.  

They were learning experiences that were qualified by


not by a SCORE.

Ignition coil. (2013, March 15). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:16, May 17, 2013, from

17 thoughts on “The Story of a Successful Learner”

  1. Your story touched my heart. It is because of the Bobbys of the world that teachers need to incorporate alternative assessments into their curriculum. Not all students score well. Those who do not should not be punished. Success is not always measured by a score. My own son is like Bobby. I am quite certain he will not graduate on time, if at all. He is fully capable of being in the Honors classes, but he is simply lazy and refuses to complete the classwork or cooperate with the teachers. He would rather draw or work on something with his hands. His teachers rarely offer him alternative assessments and try to force him in their idea of the perfect student score. It will not work with him. He will be success one day, but it will be on his terms, like Bobby.

    1. @Ann Marie Hyatt,

      I facilitate learning in a setting in which I have realized the importance of differentiating instruction for student success. Students can appreciate the value of learning when an educator can appreciate a diversity in learning styles.

  2. David,
    I truly enjoyed reading your blog. It was not just stuffed with facts and resources, but with a story I believe many individuals (especially) teachers can relate to.
    When a student is under performing, it is easy to assume that they just don’t understand the information or they weren’t paying attention to the lecture. However, when it comes down to it, teachers need to take the time to discover their student’s gift, talents, and underlining skills. If teachers were able to link prior knowledge to new knowledge or tap into each of their students learning styles, I think they would be more surprised at what their students are capable of performing.
    While giving a lesson about more and less to my kindergarten class, I was extremely frustrated when I found (let’s call him) Aaron having a completely different conversation with his peers in the back of the classroom. While this may seem like a typical kindergartener thing to do, it is definitely not the case in my rigorous classroom. Instead of giving a simple worksheet to Aaron, I decided to give him an activity where he was able to use Legos (his favorite). I was surprised to see Aaron construct a useful tool which contained more than 30 Legos but less than 50. When teachers take the time to incorporate activities that their “sleepy” students are interested in, both the teacher and student will be able to experiences success.

  3. This story is a typical example of how teachers underestimate students’ ability without thinking about what type of instructions help them to click. Probably Bobby was the type of learner who needs to be taught by listening. That’s why it is important for educators to find out about students’ learning styles, interests,intelligence and background so that instructions will be prepared for them accordingly.There are a number of students out there like Bobby whom teachers have failed because of misguided conclusions and beliefs about students and learning.It is not always about a test score.Students have a lot to offer and if educators don’t encourage this self fulfilling prophesy, they will be able to see how much the students are capable of achieving. There are some students who will attain 100 percent score on a Math test and cannot explain how area can be applied to the building of a house or fence. Is this the type of learner that we want to nurture in the classroom? Bobby may have turned out to be one of the most brilliant students in the school if he was not overlooked because of a test score.

    1. @Melanie Bynoe,

      After reading your response my heart sunk a little. I would hate to assume that I have “failed” students because I developed misguided conclusions in regards to their learning styles. That is why it is so important that teaches utilize numerous strategies to help their students succeed. Also, teachers need to dedicate themselves to be life-long learners to improve on their instruction to motivate student learning. Do you believe that if a teacher is driven to help a student succeed, utilizes multiple strategies/learning styles, and continues on their educational path, a student will still lack motivation in school?

      1. @Darshell, I have to be realistic in saying that there are students that teachers are unable to reach, no matter what they do. However, these are usually students who have had traumatic experiences in their life or other problems which prevents them from accepting support with respect to learning.
        Nevertheless, the evidence in the story shows that Bobby was a sharp student who was enthusiastic about learning, in the way he responded to Mr Warlick’s dilemma. The situation also demonstrates that Bobby is a student that learns by listening to instructions. It also indicates that Bobby has an interest in cars.
        That’s why elements like students’ interests and learning styles are important for teachers to note in order to get them engaged in learning.

  4. Oh My Goodness this is what I have been preaching since I have been in education. You said a mouth full. You stated, “What I do know is that Bobby was not a lazy learner. That he was able to diagnose the problem with my car, just from the telling of my story, convinces me that he engaged in deep and powerful learning experiences that taught him not only fundamentals, but how to apply those fundamentals for solving real problems.
    They were learning experiences that were qualified by SUCCESS,not by a SCORE.”
    I have a nephew just the same, never really did the best in Reading in school and was retained twice and by grace he graduated. But now he’s a licensed apprentice as an electrician. Now, you tell me how a person that teachers gave up on can now put wires together to make electricity, put up light fixtures and wire brand new colleges being built. This is why teaching using differientiated instruction is so important. You must find what works for each individual child, you can not teach hollistically all the time.

    1. @Denise,
      A truly effective teacher will be able to determine the deifference between a lazy student and a ddifferentiated learner. It is so important for teachers to realize our students are just as diverst as we are. We have to learn to mine that diversity.

  5. As a construction teacher for the last twenty years, I have had several similar stories to that of Bobby’s. The most vivid was a young man named Jason. Jason struggled continually in his academic classes but had a real gift for design and construction. As a sophomore in high school, he took the foreman’s role when we were asked to design and build several paragon falcon bird houses for our city. The wildlife federation was not only excited about there completion and design but asked if they could take Jason with them when they installed these houses in many of the tallest buildings in our community. Jason was ecstatic at this offer and was thrilled to share his experience with the rest of the class upon his return. I am not sure where he is now but his skills were outstanding and I hope his is enjoying some success in his area of expertise.

  6. In my last reply all that was achieved was giving another example of what David Warlick experienced with Bobby. The more important issue here is to understand that students involved in practical courses learn when there is a tangible product to touch and see. Their experiences can be enlightening and their products vivid.

    1. @Lonny, I appreciate students that are different. I believe that I am an effective educator because I understand that some students are learners like “Bobby.” My goal as a teacher is to tailor make my instruction for each student. The problem is the over crowded classrooms and lack of community involvement.

  7. In my last comment I discussed about the importance of teachers focusing on how students learn to help them to achieve success. Research has indicated that this is a significant element to student achievement. This may not be the only answer because teaching and learning encompasses so many factors but Mr. Warlick’s situation indicates that this is an important aspect to students’ learning and should not be overlooked.

    1. @Melanie Bynoe, Yes focsing on how students learn is what teaching is all about. About 50% of my students are on different levels. There are some on similar levels and are grouped together. I then create lessons for each group so the students are successful on their level.

  8. Children possess wonderfully innate capabilities for contributing insightful thoughts to meaningful conversation. Your story is a testament to the value of engaging and authentic lessons in a classroom. It also serves as a reminder of the contribution each child can offer to society when affirmed of their worth and value within a learning community.

  9. David,

    I very much enjoyed your post about the “lazy” student. I think that at some point we’ve all had that student that we knew had potential but never seemed to live up to it. It’s especially difficult to see and witness when you know they’re capable of so much more than they’re putting forth. I wonder how we “reach the unreachable” so they are as invested in their own education as we are theirs?

  10. This blog hits very close to home. It seems that when we really think about our students and what they do well, there are so many things that they do well other than academics. We have to find what they do well in order to have them succeed at school. We also must make sure that our students are our number one priority…no matter what we have going on.

  11. I think that Bobby’s story should be a screening tool for teaching applicants… those that “get it”, get the job.

    Thanks for sharing. The story is shares wonderful insight.

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