One year while I was saying my final goodbyes toward the end of a final class period of the school year, I scandalized my students quite effectively. It had been one of the most enjoyable classes that I’d ever worked with and I told them so. That part didn’t scandalize them. What did was my justification for why I enjoyed them so much.
” All year long, you all struggled well. You struggled together.”
They looked surprised. Some looked indignant, as though I was being sarcastic with my original statement. But that was sincere praise and it is some of the highest praise that I will give to a math student. What I meant was that they had been a resilient group who understood the learning process with its ups and down. They accepted that it wasn’t going to always be easy and worked through it. Sometimes they struggled and they struggled well.
We need to encourage the ability to struggle well.
There is a logical conflict that exists in education. We want kids to succeed (meaning get good grades… meaning get a lot of answers correct… meaning be able to do what a teacher asks at least 85% of the time.) We also want rigor. (Meaning things that are difficult… meaning tasks that students are NOT able to do… at least, not at first.)
Between the initial rigorous task and the final grade-gathering answer there should be a fairly substantial amount of time. Now, what exists in that time between the introduction of the rigorous task and the submission of the final answer depends largely on the nature of the instructor, the nature of the task, and the nature of the student.
What should happen is that during that time the students are learning how to struggle well.
But, depending on the nature of the instructor, the task, and the student, struggling well is not an inevitability.
I know the anxiety of watching the students struggle. The students struggle because they don’t know what to do. It’s the instructor’s job to make sure they know what to do, right? If they don’t know what to do, there is a temptation to believe that I am not doing my job well.
Additionally, some tasks are more conducive to struggling well than others. The task needs to be engaging. The task needs to inspire collaboration. The task needs to have several steps. It helps for the task needs to have an answer with enough uncertainty that testing and reasoning about the answer is necessary.
Many students don’t want to struggle. They want to know answers… now. They want their work to be easy and are willing to object when it isn’t. Beyond that, though, most students have to learn how to struggle well (which is a little bit of a bizarre statement to some). They need to learn how to be patient, how to ask questions, how to test their own thought-processes, how to explain their thoughts to others and listen to other explanations, how to be creative and how to participate in creative processes with others. These aren’t innate qualities in many young people, but if young people can learn these skills, the possibility for intense, meaningful and lasting math understanding is real.
So, because of the incredible upside, I hope our students receive rigorous tasks. I hope they need to be patient. I hope they need to collaborate. I hope they need to reason about their answers with others. I hope they learn to be comfortable being a little uncomfortable. I hope they recognize learning as a process.
I hope they are learning to struggle well.