I work with teachers every single day. I work with veteran teachers, new-to-the-profession teachers, highly skilled teachers, and teachers who are still learning the craft. Teachers most often feel confident about teaching the content they are required to teach. They tend to struggle more with classroom management/organization, classroom discipline, and providing for the multiple needs of their students on a routine basis. Another area of challenge for many teachers is allowing students to struggle.
Teachers by nature want to see students succeed; so much so that all too often teachers don’t allow students to struggle long enough to build deep understanding. Whether one calls it “productive failure” (a concept coined by Dr. Manu Kapur) or “growth mindset” (Carol Dweck) or something I like to refer to as “effort creates ability”, giving student time to struggle is a challenging instructional concept for many teachers.
Allowing students to struggle is different from intervening with struggling students. We know students will come to us with learning gaps. In education, we tend to think of struggling as something we need to eliminate or remove from the equation of learning for a student. In fact, if you do a Google search on “helping students struggle” you will find pages and pages of links to help the “struggling student”. We know we have students who struggle to learn and reducing the learning gaps that cause that kind of struggle is necessary. However, the purpose of this article is to help educators think about how they can build “struggle” into the learning process in order to help all students build knowledge, competency, and confidence in their academic pursuits.
Letting students struggle has some very important, and lasting, effects on students. Students who are given time to struggle with content, concepts, and critical thinking benefit by:
- orienting students to a focus on learning over knowing
- engaging in challenging tasks that help the brain make new connections and, thus, become smarter
- seeing how a “work hard and get smart” approach allows them to overcome many challenges
- learning that is easy isn’t usually a good use of their time
- developing a sense of academic pride and self-confidence in tackling and resolving challenging problems
- seeing the value in embracing mistakes instead of avoiding and covering up mistakes as a necessary part of learning
- gaining motivation and interest in the learning process as they seek solutions to mistakes and unknowns
Allowing students to struggle in the learning process promotes the process of students working hard at reasoning through challenging problems in order to gain new knowledge and understanding. The process of struggling will oftentimes include failure as students try out new thinking and apply prior learning to novel experiences. Students need to engage in difficult experiences where solutions and answers don’t come easily. They need to experience failure and frustration as part of the problem solving and learning process.
How can teachers help students embrace “the struggle”? What are some ways in which teachers can foster, in students, the appreciation of struggling to find answers and make learning connections? A few easy strategies include:
- Design the questions you will use as the teacher in a way that requires students to think more deeply about the problem or make connections to other content or concepts.
- Have students articulate their thinking process to their current point of struggle or even ask them “what would you do if you knew what to do?” Sometimes thinking from the endpoint to the point of struggle allows students to see new options.
- Utilize classroom routines that promote and develop struggle while providing a structured process to move students towards a solution. As the teacher, see how you can teach a concept/skill without explicitly telling students what they need to do.
- Utilize small, incremental goals throughout the learning process to help students see their progress and understand that success can occur throughout the struggle.
- When students succeed, praise their efforts and strategies as opposed to their intelligence.
- Design classroom activities that involve cooperative–rather than competitive or individualistic–work.
- Include student choice and voice in the learning process. When students can choose their topics of interest and evidence of learning, they are more likely to persevere during challenging learning experiences.
Helping students understand that struggling is part of the learning process is an essential consideration for all educators. Students need to understand that learning can sometimes be very difficult and answers don’t always present themselves easily or clearly. When we rely on the typical process of “I do – We do – You do” for our instructional delivery, we may inadvertently shortcut deeper learning available to our students. Implementing the strategies mentioned above can help your students understand more deeply, persevere more consistently, and grow more fully. How will you help your students struggle this year?