It’s Good for Students To Struggle

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When students raise the white flag and give up, don’t rescue them.

Quit being the rescuer of your students. When they struggle, hold back and let them struggle.  They need to build grit.  No, I’m not saying that you should just let your students fail and not care about their struggle; I’m suggesting that you step back and let them grapple with the rigor that is expected of them from the learning standards of today. Our students have the potential to be their best and to be problem solvers.  We need to give them the space and opportunities to do so, even if it means it’s hard.

You’ve probably been there: You present a student with an assignment, or task, or problem to solve. They start to work on it and then turn to your for help.  You try different scaffolding supports and the student still says, “I don’t get it.”  In your desire to move forward, you provide the students with obvious hints or directions, or perhaps you show them how to complete the assignment or task, or you solve the problem for them.  To that I say, “STOP IT!!”

When we come to a student’s rescue, we can lower the cognitive demand. Today’s standards for learning include increased rigor.  Our attempt to rescue can actually do more harm than good.

The Common Core and other state standards demand more from our students. They are expected to demonstrate a high degree of precision and skill.  They also need to think critically and to be able to solve problems.  This is rigorous work.  For students to be more successful, especially when they are not characteristically high achieving, they need to have practice with rigorous lessons and activities.  This doesn’t mean giving students more work.  It means that tasks are to be designed to foster a deep understanding and build cognitive demand.

But how do we do that? Let me offer you some suggestions:

  • Design tasks with multiple steps that build cognitive demand.
  • Consider more questions with a Depth of Knowledge level of 3 and 4. (Depth of Knowledge also referred to as D.O.K., is the complexity or depth of understanding required to answer or explain an assessment related item. The concept of depth of knowledge was developed through research by Norman L. Webb in the late 1990’s.)
  • Use Project Based Learning
  • Allow students to try new approaches
  • Allow students to communicate their metacognition (thinking)
  • Have students multiple access points followed by analyzing the info
  • Expect students to use academic language
  • Expect students to support their thinking with evidence.
  • Challenge students to think critically and creatively to solve problems.
  • Allow for multiple solutions or correct responses and visuals
  • Allow students to create models where students represent their findings
  • Design problems that cause students to make sense of them

Once you have a rigorous task, step back and guide. Launch the problem by helping students to make sense of the task without giving too much information.  (Take a look at my video about unpacking learning targets and success criteria where I use some of these strategies to maintain cognitive demand:  Discuss key contextual features of the task.  Explore key ideas.  Develop common language to describe key features of the task.  Maintain cognitive demand.  These steps can be done by chunking out the question or directions. Ask your students clarifying questions to determine their schema.  Level the playing field for all students by asking questions about the scenario presented in the problem.  Highlight particular language and ideas by asking students to restate what others have said. Don’t suggest a solution pathway and don’t directly define vocabulary.  Once you feel that your students have an understanding of what is being asked of them, move into the exploration of the problem.  Allow students to begin to work.

Allow students to grapple with the task.

This is when teachers usually jump in a give hints or suggestions for solutions when they see or hear students struggling. DON’T!  Instead, engage students in more student talk. Coach them toward figuring out a new path for solution.  As students work, monitor their understanding by using open ended and coaching questions.  Pay attention to what students say. You don’t want to scaffold too much, nor do you want to give away too much of the struggle. You might say:

  • Tell me what you do know/get.
  • I heard ______. Let’s look at this.
  • What could this look/sound like?
  • What does this mean?
  • What are you picturing?
  • What does that mean to you?
  • What does this make you think of?
  • Give me an example of that.
  • What have you tried?
  • You’ve tried ____. Is it working for you?
  • What might you do differently?
  • Tell me more about that.
  • What do you know about the problem/task?
  • How is that the same/different?
  • So, you’re saying ______. Try that. I’ll be back to see how it worked. (Then be sure to come back and check.)
  • Does anyone have a different way of solving/explaining this?
  • Do you agree/disagree?
  • Are you willing to try another idea?
  • Would you share with us how you came to that idea/solution?
  • Where else might you find helpful information?
  • What seems to be getting in your way?
  • Why is that so?
  • What might you try next?

These are just a beginning to the things that you might say in order to facilitate further learning and to coach students toward finding answers. Your own style and verbage will create authenticity.  Whatever you say, be aware of your words and whether or not they are guiding or rescuing.  I believe that you will find your students engaging in more of your lessons, asking more of the right kind of questions, communicating about their work, and looking more closely at their solution and approach to problems.  They will struggle more. But they will also learn skills and strategies that they can take with them outside of school when there is no teacher there to help.  They can become more independent and not rely on rescue.