One in 10 children is incapable of learning at school, two education researchers have found.
And in poorer schools, that figure can rise to one in four.
But the researchers have a possible solution to the problem - restarting the brain so children regain the learning instinct.
Dr John Kirkland and Dr David Bimler, of Massey University's College of Education, say the secret to reducing classroom failure may not be the traditional push for the "three Rs" but rather triggering instincts such as exploration and curiosity.
Dr Kirkland said a difficult home life could stifle development, leaving children in a "cognitive cul-de-sac" - unable to take the initiative, afraid to ask questions and unable to process information in the usual way.
"Where there is a lot of stress on a family or there has been neglect or they have been misguided in some way, they don't have the resources to do any thinking at all, because everything is focused on personal survival and getting to the next day."
Such "stalled children" did not have the necessary foundation for further learning, making the traditional curriculum almost impossible to teach.
Dr Kirkland and Dr Bimler's research is aimed at finding ways to spark that development in nine to 12-year-olds, to see whether children can revert to a normal learning path.
"A lot of things you do are automatic once you learn it the first time, and your future learning builds on that," Dr Kirkland said. "So if we can push the right buttons to restart those brains it will help."
There was a need for a commitment to finding a new approach "rather than pushing reading, writing and arithmetic on students, based on assumptions of their cognitive skill levels".
"When you have poor achievement at the level of at least 10 per cent, then society suffers."
The system the two researchers are developing uses mainly visual tools, including memory games, pattern recognition and identification games.
"Most middle-class students start off knowing their colours, how to count to 10 [and] how to read because they've had hundreds of hours on somebody's knee getting started on those things very early," Dr Kirkland said.
"But if you don't have those opportunities, there is a whole part of you that is not able to be switched on and you will be unable to proceed with learning.
"So we are trying to reach back into the numbed minds of those adolescents and respark that learning."
Dr Kirkland said it was a new approach to an age-old problem which had to be tackled.
"Other people have been down this road before and we are just building on that.
"But hundreds of people think they know what the problems are and yet so many things have been tried and failed. This might be another fizzer as well."
Pre-adolescence was a critical stage because once a person went through puberty it was harder to change him or her.
The research was still at a preliminary phase, but some teachers were informally using the techniques.