The Struggle is Real

 

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:

  1. orienting students to a focus on learning over knowing
  2. engaging in challenging tasks that help the brain make new connections and, thus, become smarter
  3. seeing how a “work hard and get smart” approach allows them to overcome many challenges
  4. learning that is easy isn’t usually a good use of their time
  5. developing a sense of academic pride and self-confidence in tackling and resolving challenging problems
  6. seeing the value in embracing mistakes instead of avoiding and covering up mistakes as a necessary part of learning
  7. 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 studentsimage 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Utilize small, incremental goals throughout the learning process to help students see their progress and understand that success can occur throughout the struggle.
  5. When students succeed, praise their efforts and strategies as opposed to their intelligence.
  6. Design classroom activities that involve cooperative–rather than competitive or individualistic–work.
  7. 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 imageinstructional 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?

 

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Take the Wheel!

In cycling, there is a phrase known as “taking the wheel”.  The phrase refers to taking thecycling lead in a pack that is drafting.  The leader creates an aerodynamic “bubble” that allows others to take advantage of the slip stream and conserve energy.  In fact, the work of the leader and the pack that follows allows the entire group to ride faster and conserve energy!

As leaders, there are things we can learn from this cycling analogy in our own work with educators on our campuses or in our districts.  We are always trying to develop our team and encourage them to achieve goals and improve the work of the team members, individually and collectively.  Knowing the most effective actions a leader can take in steering the process of collaborative improvement is critical.  Let’s take a look at some of the principles of “taking the wheel” that can help us as leaders:

  1. If you’re the stronger rider, take the wheel!

In cycling if you’re a strong rider you are expected to take the lead for the group and help pull everyone else towards the goal. follow-my-lead

As a leader on your campus or in your district, you’re staff is expecting you to take the lead and help to pull them towards the goal and to encourage them to push on even when they are tired and ready to stop.  Leaders aren’t afraid of challenging headwinds and they refuse to allow excuses to rise up and prevent the team from charging towards the intended goals.

  1. Be a mindful leader!

The leader who takes the wheel is allowing the riders who follow to recover by riding in aerodynamic slipstream that forms behind the leader.  The bubble can actually extend to 7 or 8 riders behind the leader.  This can prove helpful for the pack in keeping them fresh cycling-2and together but the leader has to remember to watch the pace of the ride and the terrain ahead.  If riders aren’t prepared they can easily be dropped from the pack and might not be able to catch up to the pack once left behind.

As a leader on your campus or in your district, you too need to be a mindful leader.  You have to monitor if or when your followers need a rest and when the pace of work needs to be adjusted.  You have to be watching the terrain ahead and prepare your followers for what is coming.  The goal for the leader is to not “drop” anyone along the way.  The best leaders help their team set attainable goals with clear markers along the way.  They know that progress can be its on motivator and they ensure that the whole team experiences that progress.

  1. Know when to lead and know when to follow!

In cycling, if you tend to follow too often and are reluctant to do any work in leading out you’ll be labeled lazy and considered a “follower”.  In cycling terminology, a competent rider never wants to be labeled a follower.  On the flip side, jumping out to the lead too often or for too long can lead some to be seen as the hero for sacrificing themselves for the good of the team.  They can also be seen as a sort of donkey with no brains for failing to use their efforts more wisely.

As a leader on your campus or in your district, it’s imperative that you undergatens-leaders-followersstand your team and your organization well enough so you can lead when you need to but follow when necessary as well.  Understanding that giving others on the team who have better or different skill sets than others a chance to lead is important if the team is going to improve and getter better at what they do.  As a leader, if you’re always out front you will get burned out and your effectiveness will diminish as other team members crave a chance to lead or grow tired of looking at the same back side.  By developing other leaders who can take the wheel for your team, you develop capacity in your team and relieve yourself from being the only one who breaks new ground.

  1. Equipment can make all the difference!

I can remember when I started riding as part of my training for a spring triathlon.  I used my hybrid “get around” bike and it often times seemed like I was pedaling a bike with cement tires.  Once I finally invested in a true road bike, not only did my times improve but riding was actually enjoyable!

As a leader on your campus or in your district, do you have the right equipment?  Do your plan-prepare-performteam members have the right equipment?  If your organization is going to meet the goals set before them, they will be more likely to
do so if they have access to the right kind of data along with coaching in how to use the data and time in which to do the work it takes to improve instruction.  How about professional development?  Equipment makes a difference but the skill and competence of the rider has to improve to get the most out of the equipment.  It works the same way with our teachers.  Leaders have to develop the skills, talents, and understandings of their staff in order to maximize the benefits of having the right tools.

Chunk & Chew: Giving Learners Processing Time

How brain friendly is your classroom?  In the race to cover material and teach concepts/skills, do your students have time during their “learning” to actually process the things being taught?  In almost any lesson there is new or essential information presented to students.  Some times students are able to acquire this information without much difficulty while other times, it can be quite the challenge and even interfere with mastery of the essential learning goal.

In Robert Marzano’s seminal book, The Art and Science of Teaching, he shares one strategy that can prove to be very effective for students when trying to help them acquire new information or essential concepts/skills.  Instead of forcing large amounts of new information on students at one time or during an extended amount of time, he recommends “chunking” the information.  Chunking is the process of taking essential information and breaking it into small, digestible bits that allow students to understand the information more deeply while also making connections and building context for deeper understanding.

Spence Rogers adds to this idea by allowing for processing time as well and calls it the “10-2 Rule“.  For every ten minutes of instruction, students should be given two minutes to process or interact with the information.  I like to think of this in t10-2erms of pouring a bottle of soda into a glass.  At one point the glass will be filled and there will still be soda left in the bottle to be poured (more information).  You can either keep
pouring it and spill the soda all over the counter OR you can take the time to drink some from the glass which will allow you to pour more soda into the glass.  Our students, all learners really, are like that glass.  They must be given the time to process the information we are sending their way.  For younger students, this time can be even shorter than 10 minutes.  Another good rule of thumb to use is no more than one minute per year of age before taking a break for processing.  So if you’re teaching an 8 year old (2nd grade), you should be stopping every eight minutes or so to give them a couple minutes to process the information, concept, or skill.

I tend to use the term “chunk and chew” when I refer to this processing time within instruction.  There are lots of ways in which teachers can chewimplement a processing time within their lessons.  It doesn’t have to just be a stop, turn and talk, then back to the lesson process.  A few other examples of effective processing strategies include:

 

  • Think-Pair-Share:  Teacher teaches.  Teacher asks asks a question or gives a problem.  Teacher asks partners to think about it on their own.  Partners take turns sharing their thoughts.
  • Mix-Pair-Share:  Teacher teaches.  Group mixes around the room (music playing in background helps).  Teacher tells students to pair up with nearest student.  Teacher gives them a topic to discuss.  Mix again and repeat.
  • Round Robin:  Team numbers off (1-4).  Teacher assigns a task, question, or problem.  Teammates answers question in turn order.  Teacher leads a whole group discussion to verify and clarify.
  • Four Corners:  Teacher has the room divided into four areas/regions/corners with a theme or answer choice (stongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree).  Teacher gives a prompt and students move to the corner that aligns with their their thoughts/understanding.  Students form groups of two or three in their corner and discuss their ideas further.  Students can then report out their ideas to the whole class.  (A spinoff or extension of this could be to let the students choose a new corner after hearing from all of the groups to see if they have changed their mind.)

These are just a few simple and fairly common strategies teachers can use with their students to give them processing time.  Some of them even have the added advantage of being kinesthetic and tapping into multiple learning styles which is also an important consideration in helping students master new information, concepts, and skills.

I hope you’ll give this notion of “chunk and chew” a try in your classroom and if you have other strategies or ideas, please share them as comments to the blog so others can learn as well!