Don’t Steal The Struggle

I came across an interesting article from thecornerstoneforteachers.com entitled: “8 Ways Teachers Can Talk Less And Get Kids Talking More.”  It discusses various tips and techniques teachers can use in order to talk less in their classrooms, hopefully freeing up time for students to do more talking and reflecting.

The first tip is particularly striking.  It’s titled: “Don’t steal the struggle” and encourages teachers to take a step back while kids are thinking and working through tough material.  The article confirms that “[i]t can be uncomfortable to watch kids struggle to figure out an answer, but they need time and silence to work through it,” and I completely agree.  It can be stressful for a teacher to let these things happen in the classroom, when we as teachers are usually so quick to correct, to assess, and to move the lesson along in our allotted 40ish minutes.  However, when teachers take a step back, and let the students work through the struggle, truly impactful learning can take place.

In my math classes, I expect students to struggle, to make mistakes and to spend time trying different strategies in order to effectively solve problems.  To me, it’s OK if students don’t get the correct answer quickly, because it provides an opportunity for students to learn from their own mistakes.  Rather than automatically give the right answer to struggling students, I ask questions such as: “How did you come up with that answer?” or “Can you prove what you just said to be true?  How?” or “Why was your strategy effective or not effective in solving the problem?”  Asking questions such as these to kids struggling in class and/or kids who simply answer “I don’t know” is a technique I have adapted called “No Opt Out” from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion.  It pushes students to “not opt out” by encouraging students to keep going, to embrace the struggle, and to gain confidence in being OK with making mistakes, ultimately fixing their mistakes and improving skills.  In my classroom, I push students to not only work through their mistakes, but to learn how to also become more resourceful.  This can be done by encouraging students to look through their class notes, to take a quick search online, or to ask a friend for help.  Furthermore, students communicate with each other in my classroom, offering suggestions for how they can each change in order to solve a problem more efficiently and effectively.

The ultimate goal of emphasizing this self-assessment and resourcefulness is two-fold.  Firstly, students should be able to think through a problem on their own so that when they are faced with struggling with a tough problem on an assessment, they will be able to work their way through that problem on their own, without any help.  They should be able to come up with different options and strategies to solve the problem, and also be able to assess their own work when “double-checking” their answers so that they may find and self-correct mistakes.  Secondly, this concept of being resourceful without a teacher helping the student through a problem will hopefully transfer into kids’ adult lives, when they will ultimately be faced with various problems they have to solve, without being given the answers.

If one of the main goals of math class is for kids to learn how to solve problems, then let’s take this idea of solving problems to the next level.  As teachers, let’s “talk less” in order to help our students exercise self-starting and self-assessing techniques.  By “not stealing the struggle,” we can help prepare the next generation of leaders, innovators and problem solvers to tackle problems head-on, and work through the struggle on their own.

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