Learning; The Struggle is REAL… Important!

I spend a lot of time thinking about teaching and learning.  While I understand that these are two very complex processes, my brain is always trying to simplify them, so that I can make sense of them. Every so often I read or hear something that helps me view teaching and learning from a slightly different perspective.  Yesterday I listened to Josh Flores’ Podcast on SoundCloud with Ayn Grubb: http://elaokteachers.com/ayngrubb/ which is definitely worth a listen when you have time.

During the Podcast Ann said something that I have thought a lot about before but haven’t really attached any action to my thoughts… Ayn mentions,

“The struggle is where the learning happens.”

I think most educators, if asked, would agree with this statement, but I wonder how often our practices support this premise? I am also reminded of another bit of wisdom that has bounced around in the back of my head for awhile, but I can’t remember exactly where I gleaned it from – although I am quite sure this bit of wisdom didn’t originate with me:

“Never steal a student’s struggle!”

Reflecting on my own teaching and experiences in education I can think of several ways that I have been guilty of stealing a students struggle:

  • Lessons that focus on only “What?” questions. For example, What is a noun? What is plot? What is the formula for slope? What is (fill in any content related to your subject area?)
  • Providing the answers to all the What ?’s for kids and then asking them to give the same answers back to me.
  • Telling kids how to attack a problem without giving them a chance to figure it out themselves.
  • Over-teaching to the point where students are too dependent on teacher for help or validation. The students who constantly asks “Am I doing it right?” and can’t move on until the teacher signs off.
  • Providing too many supports for kids once they have an understanding of the content.
  • Asking questions than providing the answer to those questions myself.
  • Limiting wait-time.
  • Not asking kids to explain how they arrived at their answer or solution.

I am quite sure there were other things that I have done that has stolen a kid’s struggle, but I think the point is clear that although our intentions are always positive, even the best teachers can, on occasion, remove the challenge from a lesson.

So how can you tell when students aren’t struggling enough? Here are some signs that you may want to look out for in your classroom:

  • Kids already know all the answers to the questions you are asking. If they already know everything it is probably time to beef up the complexity.
  • Boredom.  If kids look bored, or say they are bored, they probably do not feel challenged.
  • A large amount of students are asking to go to the restroom at specific points during a lesson.  When kids feel like their time is being wasted on stuff that they already know, they want to escape.
  • Classrooms where students seem more worried about following specific teacher directions, rather than the actual learning.  When students are over dependent on teachers, they aren’t struggling with content they are focused on compliance rather than learning.

Think back to some  of the professional development that you attended that you may have considered to be a waste of time? Why did you think that?  I would wager we have all been in sessions where we sat and listened to information we already knew. So what do we do?  We get on our phones or computers and complete other tasks during these sessions because we aren’t actively struggling with any of the content.

Even in PD sessions where we aren’t familiar with the content, and the presenter simply spoon feeds us all the content by telling us exactly all the information we need to know in a nice Power Point – we still probably feel a little bored and disengaged.

Think about any effective PD experiences you have had. What did you do?  My guess is that at some point during the experience you though about difficult ideas.You probably read and discussed complex articles on topics that were important to you.  You might have even solved a problem, or created a product using what you learned. In all likelihood at some point during that experience you struggled; you had to think deeply and purposefully about the content.

“Okay, I get it. Kids need to struggle.  That’s kind of a no-brainer. But what are some things I can do to make sure it happens?MjAxNC1kNjlmZDg1MDQ1ZDRlNWZj

Ayn Grubb discusses in the podcast with Josh four simple steps she tries to incorporate in every lesson that ensures every kid struggles. (The explanations are my own interpretations)

  1. Grapple with a problem – Design lessons around real problems and questions
  2. Interact with the text – Read with a purpose and a pencil in hand to annotate and jot down thinking.
  3. Collaborate  – Process any learning gleaned from text with peers
  4. Write – Produce something in writing appropriate to specific discipline (not always formal essay.

If every kid does all of this every day, I think it is safe to say they will have ample opportunities to struggle which are also ample opportunities to learn.

I would love to start a dialogue to answer this exact question.  Please respond with ideas of your own and what this looks like in your discipline. Here are some other general ideas:

  • Ask “why?” often.
  • Encourage meta-cognition (thinking about your thinking) by asking “How did you come up with that?” often.
  • Expect  and inspect that every student to thinks about the answer to every question you ask. I write about this here.
  • With your PLC, plan “struggle points” into your lesson. You may even be able to differentiate “struggle points” that meet kids where they are in the learning.
  • Use classroom policies that emphasize learning over compliance.
  • Design tests and assignments that include difficult questions (higher DOK) and preferably open response.  These difficult questions will help YOU better identify gaps in knowledge and the exact misconceptions students may be having.

I know there are more really great ways to let the kids keep and even own their struggle, I would love to hear more thoughts and ideas of how other teachers do this.

I will close with a sports metaphor.

I coach soccer.  Sometimes I catch myself talking to kids during practice too much.  I talk for 10 minutes on how to beat an opponent when dribbling by altering speed and/or changing direction.  I can talk all day long about it – and even if kids are listening – many probably won’t be able to do this well by just listening to me.  They have to actually do it…

They start by doing it on a cone, then gradually in situations where the difficulty increases.  I can increase difficulty by increasing amount of traffic, limiting touches or which foot they can use, I can add passive defenders or real defenders, but I won’t know if a kid really gets it until he is in a game situation and independently decides to use the skills and uses them correctly.  If a player only practices against a cone – chances are they won’t be able to transfer that knowledge into a game. In order for that transfer to happen, that player would require to be put in situations of increasing difficulty with less guidance from me.  I can’t tell him during a game that it’s time to change speed or direction – he has to make that decision on his own to be successful.

So, in the classroom how can we design lessons that will help students be able to transfer all of the knowledge/skills they learn into meaningful and authentic situations?  They have to experience struggle in order to do it.